Cover Stories with Paul Morris, Vol. 1

October 8th, 2013

 Morris

Paul Morris

_____

Album covers: to those who grew up in the vinyl era, the images printed on the sleeves of LPs were closely linked in our imaginations with the music they represented. The iconic covers of the ’60s – Sgt. Pepper, The Band at Big Pink, Cheap Thrills drawn by R. Crumb – put an enduring visual stamp on the pop culture of the time.

      This art form has a relatively short history – only in the ’40s were 78 rpm album covers routinely decorated with art. But in its first two decades, the field of album cover design quickly matured, producing mini-posters that tried to entice music buyers with hand-drawn designs of striking beauty and originality.

      I am a collector of these early album covers and those that followed in the early LP era. In this corner of Jerry Jazz Musician I will have a chance to share my enthusiasm for the artists who created album covers in the ’40s and ’50s.

      By profession I am a graphic designer, and I have gravitated toward the covers of the leading designers of the time, such as Alex Steinweiss, Eric Nitsche, and Jim Flora. Besides good design, though, I have a taste for the odd, and as any vinyl shopper knows, the ’50s produced a lavish amount of visual camp and shlock. I will share my examples of dated and strange fashions, styles, and slogans.

      If you came to visit me, I would play for you something from my collection of jazz LPs and CDs, but while we were listening I would beg you to have a look at the latest additions to my album cover collection. In a given week in the abundant used-record stores in Portland I might have found a half-dozen fine designs from the ’40s and as many bizarre commercial efforts from the cheesy ’50s.

      We album art collectors look for items in various “categories” that interest us. One person might collect covers showing someone smoking; another person might want every cover of recordings of Dvorak’s New World Symphony. I am keenly interested in certain designers, including Steinweiss and Kurt John Witt. I also hunt for pictures of teenage dance parties, San Francisco, and records on the floor. More to come on categories.

      For this first installment I have some covers by Alex Steinweiss (1917-2011), known as the father of the record album cover, and for many years in charge of Columbia Records’ art department.

_____

      The Benny Goodman Sextet cover from 1945 is an example of Steinweiss’s early style, when the illustrator’s pen and brush were his main tools. He relied on flat fields of color and objects that symbolized or referred to the music. Here the instruments of the sextet and surrounded by café tables bearing bold letters. The striking Basie illustration shows clearly how these covers were printed with spot colors rather than four-color process colors. It was printed with three inks: black, blue, and red. The light pole is a recurring element in his drawings.

      These were albums of 78 rpm 10-inch records. Four to six records, one song per side, in paper sleeves, were bound together in heavy cardboard covers. The linen cloth covering the spine was dyed to complement the cover art. Long-playing 33-rpm and 45-rpm records didn’t arrive until the late ’40s.

paul-goodman-small

paul-basie-small

______

      The Xavier Cugat and Showboat covers use a similar color palette. The anthropomorphic conga drum is paired with large stencil type that the designer seems to think had a south-of-the-border feel. In Showboat, I like how the small figures are arrayed across the green field next to the riverboat. I can’t help thinking of a prison yard when I see this cover, but that’s probably just me. The wood frame was a look that Steinweiss tried out and didn’t repeat.

paul-cougat-small

paul-showboat-small

_____

      Later in the ’40s Steinweiss created more intricate illustrations. In the Pastoral Symphony don’t miss the peasants dancing beneath the lower tree and the crack of lightning at the top. These refer to program elements in the symphony. The gravity-challenged trees are Steinweiss’s own idea. In the Tchaikovsky cover, the shape of the scroll on the neck of the violin, a favorite motif, is central. Here it encloses a drawing of a Russian cathedral and urban scene. The typeface, Bodoni Poster, was a mainstay.

paul-walter-small

paul-stern-small

______

      I like the feeling of mystery this illustration evokes. It’s one of several pieces that seem influenced by de Chirico and the surrealist artists of the ’30s. I don’t know what the “Desert Song” is about, but those five riders are armed! The background is a photograph of sand dunes that is faded and screened.

paul-morgan-small

_____

      Steinweiss knew classical music and left the jazz to other designers for the most part. Here he achieves a delicate effect with the interplay of heart shapes and butterfly wings. The singer’s name is handwritten in a script that became a hallmark of Steinweiss covers. Later called the Steinweiss Scrawl, it originated as a practical solution to the limited range of type available to him at the original Columbia art studio in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

paul-stevens-small

_____

      And as a hint of covers to come, I’ll skip forward ten years for a glimpse of the later Steinweiss, after he departed Columbia and freelanced for Decca and others. Just the colors tell us we’re not in the ’40s anymore. This photographed collage displays just one of the stylistic faces he adopted later in his career. Representation is left behind in this evocation of Stravinsky and Bartók. During these years he signed his Decca work “Piedra Blanca” to differentiate the new work from his well-known Columbia styles. The name is the Italian equivalent to Steinweiss-white stone.

paul-stravinsky-small

*

      On the next edition I’ll be sharing scans of covers from Columbia, the greatest record label, measured by achievement in graphic design. Steinweiss set a high standard at Columbia, and his successors upheld it.

Share this:

6 comments on “Cover Stories with Paul Morris, Vol. 1”

  1. Great article. It’d be nice to get the wonderful album covers even larger on the screen, like a double-click opens to full screen. Keep on collectin’ Paul!

  2. Paul, I did not even known there were collectors like you of record sleeves; I compliment
    you on your fab. interest and collection. I liked Goodman and Stravinsky/Bartok the best.

    More, please.

    Best

    Girish

Comment on this article:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

In this Issue

photo courtesy John Bolger Collection
Philip Clark, author of Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time, discusses the enigmatic and extraordinary pianist, composer, and band leader, whose most notable achievements came during a time of major societal and cultural change, and often in the face of critics who at times found his music too technical and bombastic.

Spring Poetry Collection

A Collection of Jazz Poetry – Spring, 2020 Edition There are many good and often powerful poems within this collection, one that has the potential for changing the shape of a reader’s universe during an impossibly trying time, particularly if the reader has a love of music. 33 poets from all over the globe contribute 47 poems. Expect to read of love, loss, memoir, worship, freedom, heartbreak and hope – all collected here, in the heart of this unsettling spring. (Featuring the art of Martel Chapman)

Interview

Ornette Coleman 1966/photo courtesy Mosaic Images
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Ornette Coleman: The Territory And The Adventure author Maria Golia discusses her compelling and rewarding book about the artist whose philosophy and the astounding, adventurous music he created served to continually challenge the skeptical status quo, and made him a guiding light of the artistic avant-garde throughout a career spanning seven decades.

Poetry

Mood Indigo by Matthew Hinds
An invitation was extended recently for poets to submit work that reflects this time of COVID, Black Lives Matter, and a heated political season. The first volume of this poetry is now published.

Features

Red Meditation by James Brewer
Creative artists and citizens of note respond to the question, "During this time of social distancing and isolation at home, what are examples of the music you are listening to, the books you are reading, and/or the television or films you are viewing?”

Interview

A now timely 2002 interview with Tim Madigan, author of The Burning: Massacre, Destruction, and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. My hope when I produced this interview was that it would shed some light on this little-known brutal massacre, and help understand the pain and anger so entrenched in the American story. Eighteen years later, that remains my hope. .

Poetry

"Sister" by Warren Goodson
"Shit's About To Go Down" -- a poem by Aurora M. Lewis

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Dave Brubeck: A Life in Time – the author Philip Clark writes about the origins of the book, and his interest in shining a light on how Brubeck, “thoughtful and sensitive as he was, had been changed as a musician and as a man by the troubled times through which he lived and during which he produced such optimistic, life-enhancing art.”

Interview

NBC Radio-photo by Ray Lee Jackson / Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, acclaimed biographer James Kaplan (Frank: The Voice and Sinatra: The Chairman) talks about his book, Irving Berlin: New York Genius, and Berlin's unparalleled musical career and business success, his intense sense of family and patriotism during a complex and evolving time, and the artist's permanent cultural significance.

Book Excerpt

In the introduction to Maria Golia’s Ornette Coleman: The Territory and the Adventure – excerpted here in its entirety – the author takes the reader through the four phases of the brilliant musician’s career her book focuses on.

Art

Art by Charles Ingham
Charles Ingham’s “Jazz Narratives” connect time, place, and subject in a way that ultimately allows the viewer a unique way of experiencing jazz history. Volume 8 of the narratives are “The Entrance of Bessie Smith into San Diego”, “Lionel Hampton Is Coming to Dinner at Dr. Gordon’s House”, and “Lionel Hampton: Central Avenue Breakdown”

Interview

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection
Richard Crawford’s Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music is a rich, detailed and rewarding musical biography that describes Gershwin's work throughout every stage of his career. In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview, Crawford discusses his book and the man he has described as a “fresh voice of the Jazz Age” who “challenged Americans to rethink their assumptions about composition and performance, nationalism, cultural hierarchy, and the racial divide.”

Jazz History Quiz #139

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
This bassist played with (among others) Charlie Parker, Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, Nat “King” Cole (pictured), Dexter Gordon, James Taylor and Rickie Lee Jones, and was one of the earliest modern jazz tuba soloists. He also turned down offers to join both Duke Ellington’s Orchestra and the Louis Armstrong All-Stars. Who is he?

Interview

photo unattributed/ Public domain
In a Jerry Jazz Musician interview with The Letters of Cole Porter co-author Dominic McHugh, he explains that “several of the big biographical tropes that we associate with Porter are either modified or contested by the letters,” and that “when you put together these letters, and add our quite extensive commentary between the letters, it creates a different picture of him.” Mr. McHugh discusses his book, and what the letters reveal about the life – in-and-out of music – of Cole Porter.

Short Fiction

photo Creative Commons CC0
Short Fiction Contest-winning story #53 — “Market & Fifth, San Francisco, 1986,” by Paul Perilli

Photography

photo by Veryl Oakland
In this edition of photographs and stories from Veryl Oakland’s book Jazz in Available Light, Frank Morgan, Michel Petrucciani/Charles Lloyd, and Emily Remler are featured

Interview

photo by Fred Price
Bob Hecht and Grover Sales host a previously unpublished 1985 interview with the late, great jazz saxophonist Lee Konitz, who talks about Miles, Kenton, Ornette, Tristano, and the art of improvisation...

Interview

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
Con Chapman, author of Rabbit's Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges discusses the great Ellington saxophonist

Humor

photo by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
"Louis Armstrong on the Moon," by Dig Wayne

Pressed for All Time

A&M Records/photo by Carol Friedman
In this edition, producer John Snyder recalls Sun Ra, and his 1990 Purple Night recording session

Interview

photo by Bouna Ndaiye
Interview with Gerald Horne, author of Jazz and Justice: Racism and the Political Economy of the Music

Great Encounters

photo of Sidney Bechet by William Gottlieb/Library of Congress
In this edition of "Great Encounters," Con Chapman, author of Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges, writes about Hodges’ early musical training, and the first meeting he had with Sidney Bechet, the influential and legendary reed player who Hodges called “tops in my book.”

Poetry

The winter collection of poetry offers readers a look at the culture of jazz music through the imaginative writings of its 32 contributors. Within these 41 poems, writers express their deep connection to the music – and those who play it – in their own inventive and often philosophical language that communicates much, but especially love, sentiment, struggle, loss, and joy.

“What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?”

"What are 4 or 5 of your all-time favorite Blue Note albums?"
Dianne Reeves, Nate Chinen, Gary Giddins, Michael Cuscuna, Eliane Elias and Ashley Kahn are among the 12 writers, musicians, and music executives who list and write about their favorite Blue Note albums

In the Previous Issue

Interviews with three outstanding, acclaimed writers and scholars who discuss their books on Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter, and their subjects’ lives in and out of music. These interviews – which each include photos and several full-length songs – provide readers easy access to an entertaining and enlightening learning experience about these three giants of American popular music.

In an Earlier Issue

photo by Carol Friedman
“The Jazz Photography Issue” features an interview with today’s most eminent jazz portrait photographer Carol Friedman, news from Michael Cuscuna about newly released Francis Wolff photos, as well as archived interviews with William Gottlieb, Herman Leonard, Lee Tanner, a piece on Milt Hinton, a new edition of photos from Veryl Oakland, and much more…

Contributing writers

Site Archive