The Coloring of Jazz: Race and Record Cover Design in American Jazz, 1950 to 1970



The thread of race runs throughout the business, culture, and aesthetics of jazz. Just as jazz has been called a typically American music, it shares the typically American problem of racial tensions that accompany its more positive aspects of freedom and diversity.This isn’t to say that all interactions between black and white jazz figures were negative; if anything, jazz helped foster relationships between groups that might not have collaborated otherwise.

However, the fact remains that the time period in question—from1950 to 1970—was a difficult and critical juncture for race relations in the United States.1 Although jazz-inspired artwork has been explored by several authors, the more commercial aspect of jazz visual art—album cover design—is a largely unexplored topic. This medium became an essential aspect of jazz culture with the invention of the LP in the early 1950s. For the next twenty-plus years—until the proliferation of cassette tapes and other alternative media—album covers provided a visual identity for both the music and the musician.

For the most part, race was not a subject for album cover illustration; abstract designs and neutral photography lent an air of racial ambiguity for much of the 1950s and ‘60s. In the late 1960s and ‘70s, however, the Civil Rights and Black Power movements stimulated changes in both the sound and image of jazz. Some record labels upheld the status quo; the message of the music didn’t always correspond to the covers, particularly when the tone of the music was one of black rebellion. But a few labels began to draw on black culture for their album cover designs, emphasizing African motifs, African-American hairstyles, and other symbols of black pride. I will argue that this more visible “blackness” of jazz and jazz musicians probably had more to do with the increasing commodification of black culture than an increase in African-American participation in the field. Very few black graphic designers were involved with album cover design—even in musical genres that have been traditionally linked to black culture and roots. The motivation and means of expression for African-American artists and musicians developed parallel to each other, but came together infrequently in album cover design. Although black artists and musicians shared a common tension between the expression of their racial identity and the desire to be appreciated as a skilled individual, they rarely collaborated in the commercial art world. An album cover like the one for Jelly Roll Morton’s Back o’Town Blues (Figure 1), which uses a painting by African-American artist Jacob Lawrence, is the exception rather than the rule. This disparity can be accounted for in the power structure of the jazz industry as well as the relationship between black artists and the world of commercial art.

2006 Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Design Issues: Volume 23, Number 1 Winter 2007


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