Reid Miles & Francis Wolff: The Masters of Jazz Album Covers
April is Jazz Appreciation Month and, to celebrate, we’re shining a spotlight on one of America’s premier labels – Blue Note Records. Formed in 1939 by two German immigrants; business-minded Alfred Lion and photographer Francis Wolff, Blue Note first started recording in New York City. The duo captured the sounds of some of America’s finest jazz throughout the 20th century, and today the label still produces world-class hits. However, for everything Blue Note Records has done for the sound of jazz, their biggest contribution to the scene could be a defining aesthetic. Blue Note’s iconic album art truly encapsulated jazz, using new techniques and style to create a look that, for many fans, came to define the genre.
From 1939, the cover art was arranged by Francis Wolff. Blessed with a talent for candid photography, Francis documented all aspects of the Blue Note recording sessions, from the performance itself to the downtime afterwards. Images were then selected and paired with conventional text to create the covers. This was the standard for album art until American-born graphic designer Reid Miles joined the operation in the mid-1950s. With a fresh and exciting take on album imagery, Reid produced over 500 covers during his time at Blue Note. But what made his work so appealing?
Reid’s work was radical, energetic and emotional. Starting with Francis Wolff’s photography, Reid selected the most expressive images that he felt reflected the music itself. The photos were cropped, edited and arranged, then eye-catching typography was superimposed on top. Using unconventional fonts in bright colours and placing them strategically within the photographs, Reid’s style was unique. Being so starkly different from the other covers on record store shelves gave Blue Note releases a commercial edge. During the 50’s Reid even collaborated with iconic American artist Andy Warhol, resulting in one of jazz’s most renowned covers; Johnny Griffin’s “The Congregation”.
As Reid developed his style, typography became the focus of the album covers, including just a small cropped image or even omitting photos completely in favour of more avant-garde graphic design. Blue Note albums became even more colourful, with varied designs and more expressive custom text. Reid eventually left Blue Note records when Alfred Lion retired, moving to Los Angeles to create advertisements for soft drink company Coca-Cola.
When talking about jazz music it’s impossible not to mention Blue Note Records. Not only are they responsible for some of the most historic records to ever be produced, their thoughtful, rebellious approach to cover art shaped the look of the jazz movement. Reid Miles’ album covers not only captured the spirit of jazz, these album covers are jazz. If you’re looking to discover more look no further than the RHA Jazz Appreciation Month playlist below: