I am a bit of a music geek and jazz is one of my favourite genres. What I did not know was how much I would come to like jazz album covers as much as I like the music.
I stumbled upon a video by Vox, The Greatest Album Covers of Jazz. It spoke about the impact created by American jazz record label Blue Note through both music and graphic design. The video regarded Blue Note as an entity that single-handedly shaped the ‘jazz look’—the visual identity of jazz—by the 1960s. To me, their album covers look spectacular even by today’s standards.
Vox’s video made me pay more attention to the album covers of the music I listen to. Most of the time, they reveal content: hip-hop album covers translate the music’s activism-driven narratives, declamatory verses, and protests through gritty visuals, such as a black-and-white American flag (‘Stankonia’ by OutKast) and prison bars (‘It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back’ by Public Enemy). This phenomenon is not only genre-based. For instance, Ariana Grande’s ‘Sweetener’ album cover uses a photo of her upside down to reflect the tumultuous year that she has had. An intimate painting of Lorde with bluish tints for her ‘Melodrama’ album cover takes inspiration from the songs that talk about nighttime attitudes and the before-and-after of city parties, according to the artist who painted it.
Other album covers do not necessarily have a deep message or a grand plan. Cover artist for Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ Thor Stormgerson connects the album cover to the band’s live shows that were “famous for their lighting, ambition and madness… …hence the prism, the triangle, and the pyramids. It all connects, somehow, somewhere,” he said. For Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’, now under MoMA’s collection, guitarist and frontman Kurt Cobain had the idea of a baby being born underwater, while the fishing hook with the dollar bill was added to the photograph later on as an element of morbidity.
If content affects the album cover, the visual identity of jazz that Blue Note formed comes as no surprise. Graphic designer/art director Reid Miles for Blue Note was able to reflect the music well in his work. He graphically represented syncopation and spontaneous improvisation—playfulness and spontaneity—of jazz.
Returning to the first image in this article, with a group Blue Note album covers lined up, this playfulness and spontaneity is shown most often through the typography. The pictures used on these covers are taken by Francis Wolff, a record executive cum photographer who often took photos during recording sessions that resulted in candid, intimate photographs.
Overall, there is a visual balance between clutter and organization in these jazz album covers.
The visual identity of jazz uses playful typography, expressive colours, intimate photos, and textures. This is a testament that design and music create synergy to reach a point of harmony—music influencing visual arts and vice versa.
Vox’s video provided a seemingly straightforward ‘recipe’ to create the Blue Note jazz look. Furthermore, Blue Note album covers by Wolff and Miles are now free on the internet. This made my hand itch—I knew the ingredients, I knew the methods (I think), I wanted to cook something up. And so, on a slow day at work, I resolved to scratch that itch.
I was confident that following the recipe would yield me good results, but they would not be interesting results, because recipes don’t lead to discovery—experimenting with them does. In this context, I decided to experiment with the main ingredient and replace it with hip-hop, a genre that is considerably different. This is because Kendrick Lamar’s incredibly popular song ‘HUMBLE’ kept getting stuck in my head.
Here is my journey in pictures:
After approximately 1.5 hours of playing around with Photoshop, I would say the experimentation is a relative success. It counts as a discovery, and I had a lot of fun in the process. I decided to post my work on Reddit to know if what I made looked convincingly jazzy.
Surprisingly, Reddit seems to approve of the jazz Kendrick Lamar’s album. I got substantial and constructive feedback about the design, which I am extremely thankful for. I also got comments about how “Quadruple 4×12 Marshall cabs isn’t very jazzy”. They’re probably right. It was the graphic design’s subreddit’s top Hot post for around 10 hours, with 143 comments and 1.8k upvotes as of 20 June 2019. I even got my first award—a Silver. Some random stranger on the internet who is a premium Reddit user just spent US$0.40 to give jazz Kendrick a Silver award. People liked it. It became a huge pat-on-the-back moment for me.
Several months have passed since the conception of this album cover, and I definitely have changed my mind on a few minor things in the album. But now that I have tried applying jazz’s visual language to a rapper, there seems to be a whole new world for me to explore. Making electronic music look like opera or emo rock look like ‘80s disco does not feel as daunting and as impossible as it was before this little exercise.
Maybe I’ll turn Taylor Swift into a crooner next! Stay tuned.
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- Campbell, O. (2019). The Designer of Nirvana’s Nevermind Cover on Shooting Babies and Working with Kurt Cobain | The Work Behind The Work. [online] Milanote. Available at: https://www.milanote.com/the-work/the-designer-of-nirvanas-nevermind-album-cover [Accessed 29 Aug. 2019].
- Gray, A. (2019). These 2018 Hip-Hop Album Covers Prove Cover Art Isn’t A Thing Of The Past. [online] Wbur.org. Available at: https://www.wbur.org/artery/2018/12/31/hip-hop-album-cover-art-isnt-thing-of-the-past [Accessed 29 Aug. 2019].
- Barker, E. (2019). The Inside Stories Behind 18 Timeless Hip-Hop Album Covers – NME. [online] NME. Available at: https://www.nme.com/photos/the-inside-stories-behind-18-timeless-hip-hop-album-covers-1429469 [Accessed 29 Aug. 2019].
- (2019). Pink Floyd’s album sleeves explained – NME. [online] Available at: https://www.nme.com/photos/pink-floyd-s-album-sleeves-explained-1406656 [Accessed 29 Aug. 2019].
- Eckardt, S. (2019). The Story Behind Lorde’s New Album Cover, From the Artist Who Created It. [online] W Magazine. Available at: https://www.wmagazine.com/story/lorde-melodrama-album-cover-sam-mckinniss-artist-interview [Accessed 29 Aug. 2019].
- Vox (2019). Screen capture of The greatest album covers of jazz. [image] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNgA7dDs90E [Accessed 29 Aug. 2019].
- ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and ‘Nevermind’ album covers. (2019). [image] Available at: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/readers-poll-the-best-album-covers-of-all-time-10324/3-nirvana-nevermind-256621/ [Accessed 29 Aug. 2019].
- ‘Hub Tones’. (2019). [image] Available at: https://londonjazzcollector.wordpress.com/2012/06/13/freddie-hubbard-hub-tones-1962/ [Accessed 29 Aug. 2019].
- ‘Lee Way’. (2019). [image] Available at: http://trumpetesetrombones.blogspot.com/2010/07/lee-morgan-lee-way-1960.html [Accessed 29 Aug. 2019].
- ‘DAMN.’. (2019). [image] Available at: https://www.nme.com/blogs/kendrick-lamars-damn-album-cover-miserable-relatable-meme-now-2049153 [Accessed 29 Aug. 2019].
- Kendrick Lamar for GQ. (2019). [image] Available at: https://www.gq.com/story/kendrick-lamar-men-of-the-year-rapper [Accessed 29 Aug. 2019].
- Progress pictures – personal documentation