Thursday, 25 July 2024 00:33

Wearing their politics on their sleeves: Civil Rights and the art of the jazz album cover

Published in Music

The cultural struggle takes many forms, says Phil Brett, and shows us the aesthetically beautiful and politically challenging art to be found on the sleeves of albums made by black jazz musicians..

A journalist from the New Yorker, who was writing a piece on Duke Ellington, heard a white New York cop say to the great band leader, “If you’d been a white man, Duke, you’d have been a great musician.” Such racism wouldn’t have surprised Ellington because he, like other black musicians, experienced it daily – the segregated travel, clubs, seating and even the toilets. Arbitrary stops on the road and general harassment would have been the norm. Of course as well-known musicians they would have ‘enjoyed’ small level of protection which black non-musicians would not have. For them, assault and murder would have been far from unusual. Perhaps, it shows the level of racism in American society that the cop talking to Ellington, was an enthusiastic fan of his!

It would be wrong, however, to see black jazz musicians merely as passive victims, because in a multitude of ways, they made their voice heard in the struggle. After all, Martin Luther King, addressing the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival said that “jazz speaks for life”. Nina Simone’s Mississippi Goddam, Charlie Parker’s Now’s the Time or John Coltrane’s Alabama certainly spoke up for life - defiantly, angrily and passionately.


But the struggle for a better society can take different forms. The civil rights movement included a cultural struggle, which affected not just the music but what it came packaged in – the album covers. Look at these and what do you see?

s ellalouis AllCDCovers miles davis milestones 2001 retail cd front

Your answer will depend on a whole range of factors. John Berger wrote, “The way we see things is affected by what we know or believe.” So take the album cover on the left: if you do not know who they are (there is nothing on the front sleeve to identify them) then they are a black woman and black man sitting on chairs smiling at the camera.

However, the chances are that even if you don’t like jazz, you will recognise Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. That in turn will affect how you see it, including feelings towards their music. But put this album in context: it was released in 1956, less than 12 months after Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat for a white man. What might the reaction have been when seeing it on its release? They look like anyone’s relatives. Their humanity shines through. But of course, knowing who they are adds a twist because they possess such fame that their names are not required on the cover to identify them, and the photographer chosen to take the picture was Phil Stern, the lead photographer for Vogue. They have status. It is an image of positive affirmation, something to rejoice in.

Likewise with the other album cover. You might just see a man wearing a rather cool green shirt. It is indeed a fine shirt. But look at Miles Davis (Milestones, 1958) looking at you. In his autobiography, he wrote that whether on stage or on his record covers, he wanted to break from the image of jazz musician grinning purely for the enjoyment of a white audience because he felt it was demeaning – too much of a throwback to minstrels – so he just looks straight at you.

 our music BackatChickenShack

This same focus is true of Ornette Coleman Quartet, on their This is our Music (1961). In the context of a period of history when black people were expected to get off the pavement and walk in the gutter to allow space for a white person, these photographs suggest that these men wouldn’t in a million years consider doing so.
Jimmy Smith on the cover of Back at the Chicken Shack (1963) is also wearing a pretty damn cool shirt, and trousers with a razor sharp crease. You may say, and so what? Photographed by Francis Wolff and with an album design by Reid Miles (one of a series of iconic albums for the Blue Note label) Smith oozes style, wit and sophistication. Yet this was at a time when politicians and the Ku Klux Klan (often being both one and the same) were violently denying that black people could have any such attributes.

The working class have often used clothes as a form of rebellion, for example Teddy Boys, Mods and Punk Rockers. Here they are a contrast with the location. Smith's urban elan is juxtaposed with a chicken coop, with its echoes of the Deep South. The composition though makes it clear that he is no farm slave, not with that style and that look. The shot is taken from slightly below Smith, so he is looking down on us, the viewer. Here is someone who has pride, someone who is his own master. He is in control. So for the black audience, these were images of self-respect, dignity and independence. For the white audience they were a challenge – do you think these people are not your equals?

weinsist Mohawk

However, affirmation and positive images can only go so far. The civil rights movement was also about direct action, with many in the movement demanding a greater militancy. And so does some of the album covers of the period. Max Roach’s 1960 album We Insist recreates a scene at a lunch counter, the focus of that year’s battleground, with the sit-ins in white-only establishments. The title and image are totally unambiguous. Look at the size of the title – in block letters and with an exclamation mark. It's a demand, not a request. The stridency of the cover perfectly matches the mood of the album which was one of the first jazz albums to directly attack racism. Tracks tackled subjects such as slavery, the Sharpeville Massacre, pride in African nationalism and opposition to the racist Jim Crow laws.

A band which was very much involved in the movement was The New York Art Quartet, a free jazz ensemble who would cause some controversy in their brief existence when they included the incendiary black beat poet LeRoi Jones in some of their performances. On their 1965 album Mohawk, Dutch artist Marte Roling’s witty illustration is similarly direct. In it she features a placard reading ‘Freedom now’ in the cut-away brain. Politics, it suggests, was on everyone’s minds.

archieshepp attica blues impulselp MonkUnderground

Archie Shepp’s Attica Blues (1972) is a reference to the Attica prison riots which occurred when the prisoners rose up demanding better conditions, following the shooting of Black Panther George Jackson in San Quentin jail (one track on the album is called Blues for George Jackson). The sleeve shows Archie Shepp working at a piano, his sax slung across it like it was a rifle. He is flanked by books and images of black heroes, including a poster with the iconic image of the African American Olympic athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 games, giving the Black Power salute on the medal rostrum. The composition of the photograph evokes militancy: a great cover and a great album.

A trussed up Nazi, hand-grenades on the table and a sub-machine gun slung across his back is not quite the scene you’d usually expect from an album by a jazz pianist. But then, this is Thelonious Monk. His 1968 album sleeve for Underground won a Grammy for its design (photography by Norman Griner and supervised by Columbia Records art director, John Berg) but proved to be controversial with some folks. Maybe it was because this was the same year Martin Luther King was been assassinated, sparking riots across major cities in the States. Although the picture is ostensibly a tableau of the French Resistance, people saw allusions closer to home. It wasn’t a great leap of imagination to see the title as being a reference to the nineteenth century abolitionist network – the Underground Railway. Or conflating the resistance to the Nazis with that of resistance to the racist US state. Or perhaps that at the time of the Black Panthers, a picture of a black man carrying a gun was pretty damn frightening to the establishment.

Nina Simone High Priestess of Soul   MilesDavisBitches

The civil rights campaign spawned a greater interest in black history. The Black Arts Movement promoted African-American art and demanded a higher profile for black artists, authors and musicians and black history in general. High Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone’s 1967 album has her as Cleopatra. It, like Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, is an example of how Afro-centrism was influencing 1960s sleeve designs. So whilst fifty years on it may seem a touch cheesy to have Simone as the Egyptian Queen there was however a greater significance beyond wearing fancy dress. (And let’s face it; it is a whole lot less cheesy that the girl from Hampstead, Liz Taylor, who four years earlier had dressed up as Cleopatra). The image here had a clear message – black people, including women, should not be written out of history. Cleopatra, whatever Hollywood might say (and in light of the recent Oscars, it still obviously has issues with race) was a strong black queen, something African-American women could draw strength from.

Both these albums’ designs were overseen by John Berg. The gatefold sleeve has a painting by Abdul Mati Klarwein, with the black African figures in the centre, reflecting the fact that humanity first came from that continent. The double album was one of the first LPs which would be labelled jazz-rock and was a successful attempt to go beyond jazz’s confines and reach the larger rock audience. The artist also provided covers for artists as diverse as Santana and The Last Poets.

Born into a Jewish family in Hamburg in 1932, Klarwein’s mother was an opera singer and his father an architect with the Bauhaus Movement. They fled Germany in 1934 and settled in Palestine. He went on to study with Fernand Leger in Paris and became friendly with Salvador Dali. You can see the surrealism and use of symbolism in his work which derive from these associations. Tellingly, he later added the Muslim name Abdul, which means servant in Arabic, as a statement of his belief that Judaism and Islam needed to understand and respect each other.

OrnetteColemanFreeJazz album mingus ah um

Not everything was figurative though. Elsewhere on this website, Christine Lindey has written how the Russian Revolution gave artists a sense of freedom to explore their art. The civil rights and anti-war movements may have been a less intense class struggle than the Bolshevik Revolution, but they likewise gave space to new artistic and cultural expressions. One grew out of New York, Abstract Expressionism. So it is apt that this 1961 album Free Jazz by Ornette Coleman came in a gatefold sleeve, with a cut-out showing Jackson Pollock’s 1954 drip painting, White Light. Free jazz and modern art – now that’s taking no prisoners! Both art forms were about tearing down conventions and both are here. Berger says of Pollock that his genius was to create a paintings where “continuous surface patterns which are perfectly unified without the use of any obvious motif”. It's a statement which could serve as a good description of Coleman’s music. It gives a sense of freedom in the art, a feeling that Coleman was attempting to achieve with his music, and something which people on the streets, in the schools and in the diners were fighting for.

The sleeve to Mingus Ah Um (1959) is by a Japanese American, Neil Fujita, who was also responsible for another 1950s classic – Dave Brubeck's Time Out. Previous to being a graphic designer he had enlisted in the U.S. Army whilst still having relations in Japan. Which as well as making family gatherings a little tense, might also have given him a sense of being outside the American mainstream. Fujita was also responsible for the paperback cover designs of two books which in different ways would question American values and become immensely popular – Catch 22 and The Godfather.

This marvellous album harks back to the big band sound whilst incorporating the new post-bop. It captures the mood between the certainty of the 1940s and the clear-cut cause of fighting fascism, with the questioning of the 1960s. Who were they fighting now? That sense of in-betweeness is what one gets from looking at the lovely cover, which owes a debt to Miro and Picasso. Look at it at different times and you’ll see something different each time, something which either cannot be articulated or can be so in different ways. Perhaps that grappling for meaning is why Mingus, a highly articulate man, chose an almost nonsensical title. Not that all the album is hidden in codes. There is one track which is very direct – Fables of Faubus. It was written as an explicit protest against Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus, who in 1957 sent the National Guard to prevent the integration of nine African-American children into Little Rock Central High School.

There was however a tension in the design for jazz albums which mirrored that of the music itself – what style should they take? A no-nonsense direct approach which confronted the issues head on? But that might alienate audiences, and we should remember that the vast majority of record design teams were white. Or should they play safe with images of the musicians which would make greater commercial sense, and could still make a point with subtlety? The problem was that with the National Guard on the streets, subtlety did not seem an appropriate response. There was nothing subtle about water hoses or police batons. Christine Lindey ends her piece by saying: “the dilemma of creating innovatory art which is accessible to the masses has yet to be resolved”, and this statement is surely true of both album design and jazz music itself.

In jazz music, the cutting edge was seen as free jazz, but as the years rolled on it started to lose its black audience. Eldridge Cleaver in Soul on Ice wrote: “It is the jazz issuing from the friction and harmony of the American Negro with his environment that captured the beat and tempo of our times”. But the fact was that by the mid-sixties many black Americans were moving to a different beat, a soul or funk one. For them the avant-garde of jazz was too abstract, too removed from their daily experiences.

Jazz continues, as does the fight for civil rights, and with the Black Lives Matter campaign for example. As does, even in these digital times, album cover design. However, the albums created by the cross-fertilisation of jazz and civil rights are great examples of music as cultural struggle, with sleeves to match.