Day 105: Jazz Doesn’t Always Look Pretty

originally published April 14, 2012

Having slipped off my raincoat and eased into my velvet-lined smoking jacket, I was clearly in the right mood for writing about jazz today. Luckily Ms. Wiki’s random needle gently lowered into the smooth grooves of a jazz album, almost as though she’d anticipated my wardrobe selection. I chanced upon When Lightn’ Strikes by Canadian country-jazz fusionist (and that really is not as awful as it probably sounds) Lenny Breau.

But as much as I’d like to spend today’s article detailing the seven-string guitar prowess of Mr. Breau, or to discuss his mysterious (and still unsolved) strangulation in a Los Angeles swimming pool, I find I’m more taken by the astonishingly mediocre choice for the album cover, which is weak even by 1984 standards.

The visual interpretation of Mr. Breau’s title is truly striking. They give us a guitar, so we know there’s guitar being played on the album. In case there’s any confusion, they write ‘Jazz’ in letters almost as large as the title or the artist’s name. Then they utilize three elements to really spice up the picture: super-imposed lightning and fire to provide some sort of justification for the title; a shiny black tile surface, because the mid 80s were all about shiny black tiles; and some kind of meat substance underneath the guitar’s neck. No idea what that’s doing there.

At this point, I no longer care about what Mr. Breau has to say on his album. Now I just want to see what other visual abominations the jazz world has flung at us. An album cover is the artist’s most valuable advertisement, the one which the record-buying customer holds in his/her hands in that precious moment when it’s either flip or pluck from the shelf.

So how does one explain this choice?

Herbie Mann played a jazz flute that would make Ron Burgundy blush with envy. Also – and it is clearly very important that we know this – he had a lot of chest hair. The album itself is an instrumental fusion of mellow funk-rock with some heady flute and a big ol’ slice o’ Mann on the sleeve.

For seasonal jazz, nothing beats Christmas. Unless you’re lucky enough to stumble across an old copy of Philly Joe Jones’ Halloween classic, Blues For Dracula.

Jones was a fantastic drummer, best known for his tenure with the Miles Davis Quintet. In 1958 he put out this, his first album as leader of his own sextet.

The title track, which you are welcome to listen to here, is a fine example of his work, and features some talented players like Nat Adderley on the cornet and Johnny Griffin on sax. It also features a nearly three-minute introductory spoken-word section, featuring Jones doing his best Bela Lugosi impression. Listening to that while looking at the oddly blue tint to Jones’ skin on the cover probably inspired a fair bit of regret among the jazz-buying public in ’58. The rest of the track is great though, so hopefully that quelled any outrage.

This is an album by bebopper Jack Sheldon. I like Jack Sheldon. I’ve never heard his music, but he played on Tom Waits’ brilliant Foreign Affairs album, and more importantly he was the voice behind “I’m Just A Bill,” possibly the single most important 1970s-era educational cartoon song. He also contributed his voice for the parodies to that song on both The Simpsons and Family Guy, so he’s got a sense of humor. That said, from the look on both his face and the face of the lady listening to him on this record sleeve, he may have had a flatulence problem when he played.

I’m not entirely sure who would be the target demographic for this album:

This looks like music to nap to, and listening to a sample of it, I can’t imagine what else this album could inspire. Dick McGarvin liked his electric piano and that most soothing and gentle latin rhythm that transforms jazz into music to shag to. Is it my imagination, or does the cat have less hair on its chest than Herbie Mann?

Okay, this one hurts a little.

In case you can’t quite read it, the writing next to gun-toting fedora-Miles says “You’re under arrest you have the right to make one phone call or remain silent so you better shut up.” I think the most painful part of this is the look of “is this what it’s come to?” in Davis’ eyes. It’s like he’s pleading with the 80s to please stop.

The album features two covers of pop songs, Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” I wish I hadn’t, but I looked up the latter on Youtube, and within 45 seconds I was trying to light my computer speakers on fire. After experimenting with bebop, west coast, free-form and electronic jazz, Miles felt that mellow rock was the way of jazz’s future.

In happier news, this one actually sounds really nice. George Benson is one of jazz’s most respected guitarists over the last 50 years. (interesting trivia: if you say the word “jazz’s” out loud, it sounds kind of funny.) So where went the concept here? Great title, but probably not the best idea to reenact it literally on the cover.

This looks like a promo shot for a sitcom. Three brothers who also run a kitchen supply store, maybe in one of those eccentric Vermont towns like the one in Newhart. The one on the right is the womanizer, the one beside him is the uptight middle child, and George Benson is the sane oldest brother, just trying to keep the business afloat amid weekly doses of wackiness. The white guy runs the dry cleaning place next door to them in the strip mall.

It’s getting late, and it’s time to put on some classic lounge music and dim the lights. Perhaps you’re familiar with the smooth grooves of Martin Denny’s 1961 gem, Romantica?

No? Perhaps you’ve seen it with this cover:

There is so much to soak in. I think the first question I have is, why that particular shirt?

This has been an education. If you can’t get enough, I must recommend the outstanding blog of “Crap Jazz Covers” that provided some of the inspiration for this article. It pleases me that the Internet is preserving these gems of the weird.

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