For those who grew up in the LP era, the jazz album cover had special meaning. Back when record stores dotted the urban and suburban landscape, you could spend hours flipping through the cardboard squares admiring the cover artwork before flipping them over to read the liner notes. The cover was always the big thrill, the juicer that led to the purchase. One of the earliest pioneers of the art-marketing genre was Alex Steinweiss, who died on July 17 at age 94. I spoke with fabled producer George Avakian and legendary album-cover designer Paul Bacon yesterday about Steinweiss. More with them in a moment. [All album covers by Alex Steinweiss, who is pictured above]
Starting in the late 1930s and early '40s, multiple 78-rpms were slipped into volumes that looked like photo albums and sold as a single package. Originally, the album was a classical concept born out of necessity, since symphonies and operas could not be captured in full on one shellac 78-rpm disc. Before the 33 1/3-rpm LP was introduced by Columbia in 1948, which also was a classical invention, jazz was rarely given the album treatment. The pre-1948 market's consumers simply weren't wealthy enough to afford the cost. But Columbia's marketers eventually decided that jazz was special enough that "the story of jazz" volumes could be marketed to classical consumers.
From 1940 onward, the job of the jazz album was twofold: It had to graphically stimulate curiosity by the consumer. Then it had to cause the consumer to spend more than they had planned when they entered the store. If a cover was successful, consumers felt that what they were about to buy was an exciting find and that the purchase would make them hipper and more knowledgeable than their friends.
Steinweiss understood the delight factor and competitive nature of the jazz consumer early on. Though by today's standards his jazz covers may seem static or stiff, they were a major break in their day from the types of literal art used to sell records. In Steinweiss' hands, an album cover became propaganda, a call to arms that idolized the artist like a folk mural. He understood that jazz had a mystique, an aura that only jazz fans understood, and that to connect with the consumer's heart and wallet, the strings of that mystique had to be plucked just right.
Yesterday, I spoke briefly with George Avakian, 92, who produced his first jazz album for Decca in 1940 and joined Columbia in 1948 as director of the label's new pop LP division (go here to read my interview):
"I arrived at Columbia after Alex did, of course. I worked with him and remember Alex as a cheerful, happy guy—full of jokes and always pleasant to be around. Alex also was a highly innovative person. He was the first art director I ever worked with and still remains the very best.
"The power of Alex's work was in its simplicity. He was very direct. You didn’t have to wonder what he was driving at in his covers. His graphics weren't complicated. Many of the covers he did were somewhat abstract, but they got the message across. [Columbia Records President] Ted Wallerstein understood what Alex was doing and encouraged him. Alex was a real pioneer of the album cover concept and what those covers had to do for the artists and the label. Many of his covers were for classical albums, but they always entertained you without compromising the music's elite status."
Graphic designer Paul Bacon, 87, was an album-cover pioneer in the LP age. His covers for Blue Note and Riverside modernized the feel, bringing them in step with the new school of jazz artists emerging in the late 1940s and '50s (go here to read my interview):
"Believe it or not, I never actually met Alex. I know it sounds like all of the album cover designers back then lived in the same apartment but we didn't [laughs]. Alex was one of my graphic heroes and inspirations. I first became aware of him when I was hanging around with my loose gang of jazz fans in Newark, N.J. When we pooled our coins, we could afford those 78-rpm albums that Columbia issued with Steinweiss covers. It was my first contact with superior graphic art.
"When I saw Alex's Louis Armstrong and Earl 'Fatha' Hines album, I wanted to do that, too. His covers weren’t reverential, which was a big break from the style popular back then.
"Alex's covers were always terrifically well deisgned. They were organic. He used one image, one device that worked, and he integrated album titles beautifully. Each cover was like a poster. The concepts were well thought out, and they always had a clever gimmick. They appeared as though he had conceived of the device first and them made everything else fit into it.
"From the consumer's perspective, his covers were always very satisfying. You could spot one from 10 feet away. They had this feeling. I don’t remember ever finding fault with a Steinweiss cover. What he did always struck me as being right on.
"The other guys designing covers at the time were good and, periodically, better than good. Part of Alex's grace was that his covers didn't say "Louis Armstrong" or Earl 'Fatha' Hines. It was 'Louis and Earl.' The covers accepted that the market was hip and would know who the musicians were. Most jazz fans I knew never called Armstrong 'Satchmo.' He was 'Louis,' and Alex got this.
"Ultimately, a jazz cover had to motivate the person with a wallet to want to hear what was on the inside of the cover. The goal was to say something pictorially about the musician in a way that was highly entertaining to the eye. You had to make a clever connection with the consumer and treat the consumer as a smart insider.
"I've always found that buyers respond to clever and enjoy being amused and in on the secret. With recognition comes gratification. Alex understood all of this. His covers were like a wink."
JazzWax pages: There's a terrific book, Alex Steinweiss: The Inventor of the Modern Album Cover, by Steven Heller and Kevin Reagan. Go here.
Want to see what the book looks like inside? Go here and click on the book image on the right when you land at the site. You'll be able to turn the pages with your cursor.