Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Album Art: Suburban Abstract

Somehow abstract art became popular among the American suburban culture of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. For proof, watch any episode of Mad Men, one of the best ways to see – not really know – what the world might have been like for East Coast Americans of a certain age at certain point in history. (Left: Olga Albizu’s “Red”)

While that show is little more than a tiresome soap opera that only occasionally shows how American culture was evolving through the fascinating specter of the advertising industry, its set designs are often spectacular show pieces of period architecture and design that make the show well worth watching for viewers who can stomach pure style over an anemic lack of substance.

And the accents (posters, framed works, art on the walls) are often beautifully abstract, just as I remember it as a kid growing up in the middle-class suburbs of the East Coast during the 1960s.

But this wasn’t the stuff of the post-war abstractionists like Duchamp, Mondrian, Pollock or Rothko. Probably few suburbanites could afford this sort of thing (even then) if they even knew or cared about such art. Instead, there was a blurring of many of these famed styles to create a certain homogenized blend of colors that abstractly suggested generalized feelings and moods. It was easy listening music for your walls.

You didn’t go to galleries to find this stuff. It was available in furniture stores. Or your interior decorator suggested that a certain piece would go divinely with the divan. You also didn’t buy art like this for the artist. In fact, you probably didn’t even know who the artist was. You probably didn’t care. Did this splash of color on the wall make things look better once you and your friends have a few martinis? Perfect.

Despite my mocking ridicule, I have always loved this sort of art. Unfortunately it’s devolved into a lot of the crap you see today in doctor’s offices (silver washes and pink swishes) and the even less likable stuff you can pick up at any Bed, Bath and Beyond.

But like a lot of the easy-listening music I love from this period of time, roughly from 1960 to 1967, I miss this suburban abstract art and the mood it gave to any sort of room. Such artistry also adorned some of the most popular jazz album covers of the day.

Used as a means to attract the suburban shopper (who probably didn’t give two hoots about most music and cared even less for “jazz”), these covers were designed to “look” as good in your living room as they would sound.

Inspired, no doubt, by the success of the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s 1959-63 Time series, which mostly featured abstract covers by some of the art’s biggest names (S. Neil Fujita on Time Out, Joan Miró on Time Further Out, Franz Kline on Countdown - Time in Outer Space and Sam Francis on Time Changes), the covers appeared sophisticated and arty, yet still accessible and became de rigueur for jazz that tried to position itself as, well, sophisticated and arty, yet still accessible.

The music, like the covers, is undeniably pretty. But remarkably, the bulk of this music is superbly timeless; having stood the test of time with a notable strength that most faddish music has not. It’s as strong and meaningful today as it was when it first appeared.

The same is true of the covers too.

Three artists in particular produced some of the strongest work in this field: Mel Cheren, Olga Albizu and William Shuler. Their work appeared during a brief span of time in jazz between when album covers were either one-color artist photos or four-color cheesecake shots and when jazz went all “hippie relevant” with psychedelic design and flowery typography.

A sampling of this work is seen below. Curiously, though, only one of these artists was a painter by trade. It won’t be difficult to determine which one made painting – and this particular style – their life’s work.

But it’s disappointing and a wee bit surprising that this form of art isn’t more widely known, more popularly received or more enduringly attractive to more people. While there have been a few (a very few) CD covers that parody or honor this sort of artistic presentation, there is very little regard – even among some of the hipper and more knowledgeable designers working today – for what I lovingly refer to as the suburban abstract album cover.

Mel Cheren

Considered the Godfather of Disco, Mel Cheren (1932-2007) started as a production executive at ABC Paramount, where he helmed popular productions by many including the Mamas and the Papas. He also painted a few beautiful covers for the Impulse label in the mid ‘60s. Cheren went on to invent the 12-inch single, mastermind dance remixes and pioneer instrumental b-sides while at Scepter Records, before launching the highly successful disco label West End Records, notable for Karen Young’s “Hot Shot” and some of the most sampled disco in musical history. He also launched Greenwich Village’s famed club, the Paradise Garage, featuring famed DJ Larry Levan, before becoming a gay-rights advocate, activist, philanthropist and hotelier. Cheren continued painting up until he died, adorning the walls of his Chelsea bed and breakfast with his evocative work.

Fire Music - Archie Shepp (Impulse, 1965)

Latin Shadows - Shirley Scott (Impulse, 1965) - This has long been one of my favorite album covers. I even carried a small picture of it in my wallet for many years. It contains the perfect passion for the album it adorns.

East Broadway Run Down - Sonny Rollins (Impulse, 1967)

Urban Blues - John Lee Hooker (Bluesway, 1967)

Olga Albizu

The art of Puerto Rican born Olga Albizu (1925-2005) is heavily influenced by other abstractionists but is absolutely unique in its truly dynamic ability to “take the surrounding reality and translate it into chromatic energy and rhythms.” This made her the ideal portraitist for many of Verve’s inspired, influential and successful fusions of jazz and the Brazilian-born bossa nova. She studied in Puerto Rico, New York City, California, Paris and Florence, but settled in New York in 1953, where she contributed to quite a number of notable records during the 1960s. Her work is attractively lively and thoroughly distinctive and, despite many showings and awards during her lifetime, deserves to be far better known among the general public than it is today. (As an aside, I think Ms. Albizu designed many more classical album covers I’d like to know more about.)

Blackwood: Symphony No. 1/Haieff: Symphony No. 2 - Boston Symphony/Munch (RCA, 1959)

Jazz Samba - Stan Getz/Charlie Byrd (Verve, 1962): This album is credited with starting the historic bossa nova movement in American popular music. It also bears one of the most evocative and elegant covers to grace such a debut: warm and passionate, stylish and sophisticated.

Gloomy Sunday and Other Bright Moments - The Bob Brookmeyer Orchestra (Verve, 1962)

Big Band Bossa Nova - Stan Getz – Arranged and Conducted by Gary McFarland (Verve, 1962): Another long-time favorite, again highlighting the orchestrations of Gary McFarland.

Jazz Samba Encore! - Stan Getz & Luiz Bonfa (Verve, 1963): Another beauty.

Trio 64 - Bill Evans (Verve, 1964)

Getz/Gilberto - Stan Getz/Joao Gilberto featuring Antonio Carlos Jobim (Verve, 1964): Grammy-award winning jazz album, with a beautiful Grammy-nominated cover.

Getz/Gilberto #2 - Stan Getz/Joao Gilberto featuring Antonio Carlos Jobim (Verve, 1965)

Insight - The Rod Levitt Orchestra (RCA, 1965)

William Shuler

According to a 1959 Billboard article, Bill Shuler was comptroller at the Audio Fidelity label when one of his paintings won first prize at an exhibition at the Burr Galleries in New York. The Audio Fidelity label was founded in 1954 by Sidney Frey (1920-68) and became famed for producing the first American stereophonic long-playing (“LP”) record in 1957. Frey was also responsible for bringing many Brazil’s greatest musicians to New York for a historic concert at Carnegie Hall in 1962, the first time Americans heard this new sound live, creating a worldwide musical sensation. The label went on to catalog not only many of the bossa nova greats but also many of jazz’s greatest players and surprising hitmakers The Dukes of Dixieland. Bill Shuler, whose cover paintings are often credited to only “Shuler” probably stayed with the label until Frey sold it in 1966. Unfortunately, much of the music Audio Fidelity produced has gone into the black hole of “public domain” and is issued without much regard to its original packaging, presentation or many of its proper credits, including Mr. Shuler’s. As far as Shuler’s paintings, I know only of the two abstractly conceived covers presented here. Please let me know if you have information about any other such album cover – or more about Mr. Shuler.

Just Jazz! - Bill Evans/Wayne Shorter/Freddy (sic) Hubbard/Curtis Fuller/Ron Carter – Arranged and Conducted by Benny Golson (Audio Fidelity, 1965): Read more about this here.

Jazz Tempo – Latin Accents - Sonny Simmons/Prince Lasha/Clifford Jordan/The Bossa Tres (Audio Fidelity, 1965): Long a secret pleasure in my record collection, I initially picked this album because of the names and the glorious cover. It was also a dollar. I have loved listening to this album over the years (the parts without the well-known American horn players are available on the great Ubiquity CD Bossa Três). And I love looking at it just as much.


marilyn said...

Hey Doug
Wonderful article that didn't
ignore the music. Keep up the great
work I follow you daily. 401k

Kip said...

Terrific article--I came across it while trying to find the artist whose work is featured on the cover of Brubeck's "Time In." You list the artists for the other four "Time Series" albums, so any idea about this one.
Thanks for your help,

Douglas Payne said...

Hi Kip - The artist on "Time In" was not credited on the original LP or the reissued CD. That seems a little unusual given the quality of artistry on the other Brubeck Time albums. But it may have just been one of the in-house graphic designers at Columbia doing something quick and easy to get another Brubeck album out. Either way, I really do like it myself and can understand why you would want to know who is responsible. Take care, Doug

Douglas Payne said...

In a very nice message I received from William Shuler's son, Danny, here is a little background on the artist that is worth sharing about William Shuler:

He was born 1926 and grew up in the cotton mill village of New Holland, in NE Georgia. He moved to New York in the early 50s and worked in various capacities for Sid Frey, for whom he had great respect. And, he developed several album covers for Audio Fidelity in the sixties.

He left the company after it was sold and continued to participate in art shows and to teach art classes in the New York area until his death in 1988.

He also did the flamboyant artwork for Caliente Brass with the Ralph Robles Octet. I think Herman Gimbell owned Audio Fidelity at that time.

Dave F said...

Doug,great blog! Just referenced this entry on the Facebook page for The Retro Cocktail Hour, Darrell Brogdon's excellent weekly show dedicated to space age bachelor pad music, crime jazz, etc. Would love to get you in on the conversation over there! If you're not already familiar, his show is at (out of Lawrence, KS public station KPR)

Laura said...

I just stumbled across this terrific blog post. Thank you.

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