When Erroll Garner's Concert by the Sea was released in August 1956, the 12-inch Columbia LP featured a striking cover. Photographed from above, the image captured a young white model wearing tight-fitting dark slacks, light-blue sneakers, a cream shirt and an open red jacket. Her head was thrown back slightly to the side, while her arms were raised above her head in a wide "V" and her legs were crossed as if midway through a dance of joy. Behind the model, the California surf churned excitedly on the rocks. Land and sea are given equal space, leaving the exalted model almost an afterthought.
The iconic photo—credited to Art Kane (above) and Bruce Steinberg—was presumably taken along the coast near Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., not far from the Sunset School, where the Garner concert was held. Of course, the image could have been taken in Maine for all we know. Art Kane, who photographed A Great Day in Harlem as well as many other poignant and exciting images and portraits over five decades, died in 1995.
But as vivid as the original cover was, it always carried a bit of a stigma. Garner was a household jazz name by 1956, thanks largely to the success of Misty, and he was easily among the most remarkable and entertaining jazz pianists of his day. Yet, in a move that can only be explained as Columbia's bid to market the album as a pop offering to white audiences who might not be aware Garner was black, the label went with an easy-listening look rather than Garner himself. Garner's manager, Martha Glaser, was rightfully offended by the move, given how Columbia was showcasing Dave Brubeck at the time on his album covers. As a side note, Other Voices (above) was recorded two years after Concert by the Sea but was given a bigger marketing push, entering Billboard's pop album chart first.
Now, 60 years later, Sony is attempting to right Columbia's wrong. For its upcoming three-CD release of the Complete Concert by the Sea due Sept. 18, the label has replaced the original cover with a new one. The photograph, also shot from above, now features a black female model wearing dark slacks and shoes and a crimson shirt, her hands also raised in a "V," with the ocean behind her. With this homage, Sony appears to be apologizing. And by using Columbia's original 1950s logo in the upper right-hand corner of the new cover, Sony is telling us that this is how the original cover should have looked.
Personally, I love the new cover concept. It's incredibly bold and clever, and catches you by surprise. Sony also has every right to change the original cover without complaint, since this isn't a re-issue but the first-time release of the entire Garner concert. What's more, the message is provocative and clear: Why not a black model paying tribute to Garner by mimicking the album's original design?
Why not, indeed. Where I do have a quibble or two, however, is with the execution. From an aesthetic standpoint, Art Kane's cover had grace, movement and drama. White or black, the model featured was in ecstasy, telegraphing that the music inside was happy—ocean-view kind of happy—and was sure to raise your spirits.
By contrast, the new cover mysteriously seems to lack all of the original's elegance. For one, the model looks like a tourist who scrambled down a cliff and asked her friend above to snap a picture of her. There's no body movement or joy-dance statement here. It's as if the photographer never saw the original and was simply ordered to photograph a model in front of a large body of water with her arms over her head. For another, the seascape is flat, lifeless and seemingly choked with algae or seaweed—a far cry from the original, which featured the restless, rhythmic surf as a backdrop. If ever there was photographic evidence of global warming, this is it.
Sony's model-swap is a compelling statement that reminds us of the deplorable segregationist marketing policies that existed back in the 1950s at major record labels, especially with the rise of do-not-offend national record clubs. It's just a shame the label overlooked virtually everything about the original that made it artistically special.
JazzWax note: If you missed my essay on the music on the new Complete Concert by the Sea in this past weekend's Wall Street Journal, go here. As I note, the new three-CD set is extraordinary and, for the first time, listeners get to hear the entire concert, from start to finish, just as the audience heard it that day. You'll find the Complete Concert by the Sea here.
JazzWax clip: Here is the previously unreleased and remastered Garner concert opener—Night and Day...