"Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." - Charles Mackay
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Thinking Miles Ahead: The Art of Reid Miles
By Monica Racic

For a long time music and the visual arts were married. But the last ten years have been rocky, especially when music split for a rather extended rendezvous with the Internet (having flings with mp3s and other digital files). And while music moved on to new types of media, it left design with the kids: vinyl, cassette, and CD.

Album art just doesn’t have the same place in our culture as it used to have. Even as recent as the early 90s, album art had a decent amount of living space on the square CD cover. Although, the 5-inches offered up by the CD cover shrinks in comparison to the 12-inches of the vinyl LP sleeve that gave designers a much larger canvas on which to experiment and showcase their talents.

Leading the forefront of that indelible connection between sight and sound packaging was Reid Miles, a graphic designer for Blue Note Records. Miles was born in Chicago in 1927, making him only twelve years old when Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff founded Blue Note Records. A music label that would focus on the American institution of Jazz, Blue Note Records took its name from the blue notes commonly used in jazz music to emphasize emotion (achieved by shifting a note to a lower pitch—making it sound ‘blue’). Predominately featuring Jazz artists of the Bebop, Hard Bop, and Avant Garde type, Blue Note Records represented some of the biggest names in Jazz including Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Fats Navarro, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.

Twenty-nine years after its founding, Reid Miles joined the Blue Note team. In the time Miles spent working for Blue Note records, starting in 1956 and leaving in the late sixties, he created almost 500 pieces of album art. His work demonstrated graphic design’s ability to articulate a visual companion to the abstract. As a result of the visual potency of Miles’ work, Blue Note Records became known for especially unique cover art.

Much like the personal styles that blare out from the records of each jazz musician that Miles’ art represents, Miles’ own visual style resonates on the page. Working within the modernist format, Miles employed geometric designs while still keeping the arrangements fresh and distinctive for each jazz artist. Francis Wolff, one of the founders of Blue Note Records and coincidentally a professional photographer, would provide many of the photographs that Miles used in his designs. Formally, Miles’ work is often made up of tinted black and white photos, as in his cover design for Hank Mobley’s album “Soul Station.” Many of his designs follow this limited color palette (black, white, and a third color—usually blue or red). Also, evident in this piece is the balance Miles creates between type and image. His arrangement of type, which was almost always sans serif, is reminiscent of the Swiss principles of design that were prominent at the time in artists such as Josef Muller-Brockmann. On some covers, the type even becomes the image, as with the album “Trompeta Toccata.” Miles frequently found a creative way to display type, as in the album cover for Lee Morgan’s “The Rumproller” (1965), which is a smeared rendering of the title.

Miles often used blocks of color, as on the album cover for Tina Brooks’ “True Blue” and on Sonny Clark’s album “Trio” (in which the rectangles of color seem to illustrate overlapping piano keys). Similarly, black rectangles seem to illustrate a piano on the cover of Freddie Hubbard’s album “Hub-tones” (1962). Although formally simple, Miles’ pieces such as “Trio” and “Hub-Tones” are an effective representation of the layered rhythms found in jazz and the concoction of musical styles that naturally occurs when artists collaborate in a ‘freestyle’ nature.

Knowing how to make the photography work for his designs, Miles would often crop each photographs in an interesting way to visually encapsulate the flair of the jazz sound. Particularly engaging is the album cover for Sonny Clark’s “Cool Struttin’.” The scene is activated when Miles crops the legs of a woman in mid-step, giving the impression that this woman has some ‘panache’ in her walk and that the music you’re about to listen to has an equally energized soul in its rhythm.

Miles understood the dynamic between the music realm and the visual world—knowing when to let the image speak for itself and when and how to use text to enhance it. Each cover gives a sense of the soulful and cool essence of jazz. For conveying such accurate visuals to accompany the abstractedness of the music, it is ironic that Miles, it has been said, did not particularly like jazz. Regardless of his musical tastes, Miles foresaw the impact and evolutionary importance the album cover would have on not only the music industry, but also on the overall experience of listening to music.

Although album art today is no longer tangible, music design is still prominent. Like any good divorcée design has re-invented itself to go back out on the market, this time having a delicious affair with the Adobe creative suite. And perhaps there will be some sort of reconciliation.

As seen in the work Reid Miles did for Blue Note records, for a long time music and album art had an impenetrable relationship. It makes one wonder whether that sensory bond is withering away in the digital age. I hope not.

Written by d/visible contributor Monica Racic

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