From the 1950s to the Vietnamese era, artist Reid Miles invented and perfected the distinct visual style of Blue Note Records. Miles’ assemblage of experimental typography, dynamic layouts, abstract clip art, and moody photographs was a highlight in graphic design history. A rarely talked about element of Blue Note’s cover art is its subversion of sexually charged business strategies and narratives tied to traditional female iconography.
The most dramatic example is the cover of vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s 1967 LP Events. The white and black letters are overshadowed by a translucent wall of bright pink fog. Coming out of the gaudy mass is a woman in a sleeveless dress. Her long hair is pulled back as she looks thoughtfully with an expression that suggests a sideways confrontation. Her image barely contains any detail as pink dominates everything else in this image. The presence of the model is similar to the placement of Events closer “The omen”. Most of the tracks on this album retain a familiar post-bop groove; “The Omen” is a grand finale and a great interruption. The often rhythmless piece is a drop of trill melodies produced by Hutcherson’s light speed mallets, and the marimbas, splashing triangles, cymbals, and sinewy brushes of percussionist Joe Chambers. Pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Bob Cranshaw fill the sonorous blanks with angular plunks that never eclipse Hutcherson or Chambers.
“The Omen” emerges alone from a solid sound backdrop of traditional jazz. By the late 1960s, structured jazz compositions had become easy to listen to; the proto-prog rock greatness of fusion and the atonal flurry of free jazz were all that separated the genre from the square endorsed by country clubs. More than a supermodel lost in a psychedelic haze, the woman on the cover of Events is an avatar of the state of late 1960s jazz and the oblique possibilities of its bizarre new evolution.
Pioneering pianist / composer Horace Silver has never gone too far into the avant-garde fringe. Silver’s flagship releases in the 50s / 60s Blue Note were classic examples of hard bop jazz. His 1962 LP Tokyo blues is lush but predictable even if the origins of the set are offset. Many of these compositions were written during a Japanese tour. There, the artist immersed himself in the various currents of folk and classical music in the country. Japanese ideas have inspired many Tokyo blues‘main melodies.
Eclipsing Far Eastern motifs, Silver’s pragmatic approach is at the heart of everything that happens on the album cover and in the grooves. the cover shows him sitting in a green space bathed in sunlight. A piece of Far Eastern style architecture fills the background. His facial expression reflects the jovial atmosphere associated with his concerts. Silver is dressed in a contemporary formal outfit and flanked by two young Asian women. The girls smile while wearing traditional Japanese clothes in bright colors. Apart from the faces and hands, their bodies are completely hidden. This image was not meant to arouse or move and these women were not part of Silver’s group.
Jazz, rock, and pop records released from the 1950s to the 1980s often used nude or scantily clad women as eye-catching design elements. Sexy covers have sold big, sometimes millions of records no matter how naughty or aggressive the pictures were. The cover of Tokyo blues is the polar opposite of blatant sexploitation. Silver’s two sweet-mannered cover buddies only add an element of mystery to the record. They are neither exotic nor erotic. Coupled with the music’s subtle Asian folk roots, their presence adds a layer of curious contextual trim to Silver’s work.
New York artist Lou Donaldson is another successful person with Blue Note in the 1950s and 1960s. The alto saxophonist’s friendly dance breath energized some of the earliest known soul-jazz and jazz-funk recordings. Like his label mates / frequent collaborators Lonnie Smith and Jimmy Smith, Donaldson’s music remains influential in the fields of jam band music, neo-soul, psychedelic funk and sample-based hip-hop. The artist’s groundbreaking track was the cut title from his 1967 LP Alligator Bogaloo.
The trippy cover of this album cannot be closely compared to music, but it indirectly complements Donaldson’s work: two different photos of a model taken from two different angles appear, one superimposed on top of each other. The model is a female casually posing while wearing heavy foundation and heavy eye makeup. She wears a long-sleeved one-piece hooded dress with psychedelic patterns in orange, pink and yellow. Her head is covered with a black winter hat which is partially hidden by the hood of the dress. Above this image is a transparent close-up of the same woman’s face. His expression resembles that of the Hutcherson model Events– thoughtful, intense, hypnotic. Unlike this cover girl, this model looks straight ahead. There is no seduction in the expression, but it perhaps asks a question or raises an important point. This montage evokes imaginative scenes from the flashy disco-tech mod milieu that gave Donaldson major pop success. It reminds listeners that this music was once a key component in exciting social adventures, city nights dancing and partying amid Fun City’s weird daytime utopia.