01 August 2008

Friday Album Cover: Blue Note Special

John Coltrane
Blue Train
This week, let us examine one of Blue Note Records' most widely-employed album-cover motifs. For simplicity's sake, I will refer to the motif as the "Blue Note Special." The ingredients for the Blue Note Special are quite simple: One black-and-white photograph, tinting, and text. In-house graphic designer Reid Miles often utilized the photography of Blue Note co-founder Francis Wolff, who was often in the studio during recording sessions with his camera in hand. Wolff's collection is full of candid shots of musicians playing and thinking, like the shot used above on the cover to John Coltrane's Blue Train. Miles often employed these shots in his cover art, often giving the photo a tint (with blue being one of the most frequent choices) and using a sans-serif font for the album credits.

As mentioned earlier, blue is one of the most common hues added to Blue Note albums. This has a dual effect. Not only does it present a nice branding synergy with the label name, but it adds a certain amount of feeling to the photos. Blue is often associated with jazz, both because it has roots in the blues and because the mood created by blue light often matches the feeling of jazz. Even now, Blue Note continues to use this theme on its album art (see Greg Osby's 2000 album The Invisible Hand, below). However, Miles was not afraid to adjust the Blue Note Special for variety, whether it meant using different colors on the hue, adding some white space to juxtapose the photo, or using a tinted photo against geometric figures. All these treatments share one common characteristic, they place the musician in the forefront of the album, and display the musician as an artist at work or in contemplation, lending credibility to jazz as an art form. Being such a useful template, it is no surprise that the Blue Note Special became one of the defining archetypes in jazz album art.

Greg Osby
The Invisible Hand

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