Most of us who participate in jazz, either as musicians or as listeners, owe in some way a debt of gratitude to Norman Granz, the impresario who is perhaps best remembered for spear-heading the Jazz at the Philharmonic series and founding five important record labels: Clef, Norgran, Down Home, Pablo, and Verve. Albums like Bird with Strings, Bird & Diz, the Ella Fitzgerald Songbook series, Lady Sings the Blues, and a vast slew of other classics might never have reached the public without him.
Granz was not only remarkably attuned to musical values, but understood the importance of matching great music to great contemporary art. His hiring of David Stone Martin, an artist with a rare understanding of jazz, was a stroke of brilliance. Stone Martin's album covers are deservedly revered in their own right, and some of his finest works depicted the clarinet and jazz clarinetists.
In 1954, Granz convinced a reluctant Artie Shaw to release four albums worth of his last Gramercy 5 sessions on the Clef label. The albums are extremely rare these days: they went almost entirely unnoticed and fell immediately out of print, with rights reverting back to Shaw, who didn't share them with the world again for several decades. Unfortunately, the Clef releases didn't present Shaw's work particularly well sonically--choosing to emphasize Shaw the soloist, the audio mix brings his clarinet so far to the foreground that the rest of the band sounds muddied and less relevant: mere accompaniment. This fault was corrected on Shaw's subsequent releases of the material, but if the final Gramercy 5 had any chance of success, conceptually, in the 1950s, the Clef versions did little to help. Moreover, Granz, whose heart was certainly in the right place, nevertheless shot the project in the foot with his liner notes, defensively suggesting that Artie was a real jazz musician (as though that needed proof), and that he didn't lose sight of the melody in the recordings (as though that mattered). The sum total of the Clef recordings, between the vinyl and the back covers, amounted to naught but stoked disappointment for Shaw, leaving only one overwhelming saving grace: the covers by David Stone Martin, which happen to be some of the greatest artworks inspired by jazz clarinet.
These album covers are now extremely rare. Unlike the more famous bop covers for Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, which have been issued and reissued regularly, the Shaw Gramercy 5 covers immediately fell into obscurity. I have three of the covers, along with my three favorite Stone Martin Buddy DeFranco covers, on the wall of my studio (the bottom three in the pictures below).
The pictures tell stories, too: how many jazz clarinetists will recognize the scene of a bed, with an open case--practicing in the bedroom or a hotel room before a gig? Then there is the cover of DeFranco's Closed Session: Buddy stares at the "fine instruments", his head turned away from the tenor sax (rejecting the double?), casually looking while his own horn is safely tucked under his shoulder, the case melding into his torso. Perhaps the masterpiece of them all is the final Gramercy 5 release, with the stabbed heart, like a guitar, the clarinet, and the profile of the beautiful woman--is she dancing to the music or is she leaving him? The poignancy of the abstraction works like a triad, but one so subtle we can't tell whether it's major or minor--in reality it's a graceful, extended chord.
Great album art is rare. Some labels have opted for a sensible and safer approach than Norman Granz's labels did: black and white photos of the musicians themselves is usually a smart way to go, and labels like Blue Note have produced some of the most iconic jazz photos utilizing that method. Rolling the dice on contemporary art styles and graphic design is considerably more dangerous. Having said this, we can be grateful for the many risks Granz took, and for the masterful work of David Stone Martin.
For jazz clarinetists, the work is inspiring: these covers are a testament to the complexity, beauty, and value of the music we have dedicated so much of our lives to.