Jazz Album Covers by David Stone Martin

Café Society was a unique establishment. Opened in 1938 at the heart of Greenwich Village in Sheridan Square, it was the first racially integrated club in New York City, known as “The Wrong Place for the Right People”. Reflecting the progressive social ideals of its founder Barney Josephson, the club was a stage for many of that period’s best black musicians to perform in front of black and white audiences. In 1939 Billie Holiday debuted the song Strange Fruit at that club, one of the most chilling songs in music history to bring forth the topic of racial injustice. If you engaged in a mixed race relationship during those segregated times, demonstrating it in public was a risky business. Café Society was your safe haven, as was the case for two of that period’s artists, pianist Mary Lou Williams and illustrator David Stone Martin. Romance aside, that relationship between the black musician and the white artist sparked one of the most celebrated runs of jazz albums cover art. In this review we spotlight the work of David Stone Martin in the 1940s and 1950s, showcasing a few of his vast catalog of 400 album covers from that period.

By the time he met Mary Lou Williams, David Stone Martin had over ten years of experience in the field of illustration and graphic design. After studying at his hometown’s Chicago Art Institute, he started his professional career in the midst of the Great Depression. Work was abundant in agencies that sprinkled as a result of Roosevelt’s New Deal, and in the 1930s he had positions as supervisor at the Federal Artists Project and art director for the Tennessee Valley Authority. After the US entered World War II, he served as art director for the United States Office of War Information. In that position he collaborated with Ben Shahn, an artist with a strong social conscience who depicted scenes of injustice and oppression during the Great Depression. The two designed various posters to support the war effort and Shahn greatly influenced the younger artist with his use of bold lines and black ink spots.

David Stone Martin at Café Society

Returning home from the war, it was Martin’s love of jazz that drew him to spots like Café Society. His studio was not far from the club, and he became a frequent patron, enjoying the music and the lively bohemian audience. One performer who recently started a steady run at the club was a newcomer to New York City after many years on the road with Andy Kirk’s swing orchestra. Her unique boogie-woogie piano style was infectious and David Stone Martin was smitten. They became an item and he installed a piano in his studio where she can play while he was drawing. Mary Lou Williams was at the top of her game during that period, playing solo piano and with a band, composing and releasing albums on the Asch Records label. She was also responsible for launching Martin’s career as an album covers artist by introducing him to Moses Asch. The founder of Asch Records started his label in the early 1940s with a focus on folk music and blues, and in 1944 added jazz to the label’s repertoire. Asch was an avid collector of art and one of the earliest label heads who cared about the presentation aspect of the music, including sleeve notes and lyrics. He was looking to add artistic value to the look of the label’s albums and wasted no time hiring Martin as art director.

David Stone Martin quickly returned the favor to the object of his affection and designed an album cover for Mary Lou Williams and her trio, housing three shellac 78 rpm records.

Marry Lou Williams Trio, 1944

In 1946 Moses Asch started a new label named Disc with a focus on jazz music and Martin continued to work with that label until it went bankrupt in 1948. One of the albums he designed for the label was another by Mary Lou Williams. Martin uses interesting hand shapes and color to convey sound, and places the Café Society crowd in the background.

Mary Lou Williams Piano Solos, 1946

In an interview for American Artist Magazine in 1950 Martin talked about his favorite illustration medium: “I have tried practically every drawing tool, but one of my favorites is the crow quill pen point. I use it like a brush, freely, but deliberately. At times allowing it to produce the thin whisper of a line that it is so well fitted to do; then, when I need emphasis, apply pressure, the nibs spread to their maximum and a line of about one eighth of an inch appears. The crow quill was never meant to withstand this sort of treatment – they usually live a very short life in my hand.”

Here are a couple of my favorite covers Martin drew for Disc. Notice the use of bold black lines and emphasis on solid black objects such as hats and hands in these drawings. These motifs will repeat in many variations throughout his career.

In 1945 David Stone Martin established a working relationship with the man for whom he would design hundreds of album covers in the span of the next 15 years. A year earlier Norman Granz, later to be known as “the most successful impresario in the history of jazz”, organized the first in what would become a four-decade-long series of concerts labeled Jazz at the Philharmonic. The concert was staged at the Philharmonic Auditorium in Los Angeles and included some of the best jazz musicians of the day, including Illinois Jacquet, Nat King Cole, Les Paul and many others. After a few more similar events, Granz decided to take the caravan of musicians on a tour, insisting on performances in front of non-segregated audiences. Looking to distribute the recordings through a proper label, he found a kindred spirit with Moses Asch and leased the recordings to his labels. It was only natural for the art director of Asch to work on these records, and thus started a wonderful series of album covers for Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP).

Jazz at the Philharmonic vol 1

That line drawing of the bent trumpet player became the logo of JATP and appeared on every promotional material associated with it, from tour programs to posters and newspaper ads.

JATP Concert Program 1948

By the end of the 1950s JATP toured the US 18 times and visited Europe 8 more times, with some of the jazz world’s biggest names, including Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich, and the list goes on and on. Many of the series albums have been released on Clef Records, a Norman Granz label, adorned by David Stone Martin’s illustrations. Here are a couple more. Notice again the bold lines drawing attention to specific details, and also Martin’s signature, usually found at the bottom of the cover art.

David Stone Martin was not only illustrating jazz. He truly loved the art form and went to listen to the musicians playing at different venues. His drawings captured the essence of these musicians and he often displayed them playing their instruments. Examples abound, and here are a couple. This is Django Reinhardt:

Django Reinhardt ‎– The Great Artistry of Django Reinhardt, 1953

And Illinois Jacquet. Notice the line scribbles around the saxophone:

Illinois Jacquet and His Orchestra ‎– Groovin’ With Jacquet, 1954

Martin also loved to include portraits of musicians in various poses that capture their personality. Here is Oscar Peterson, the red color focusing the attention on him, with the Carnegie Hall in the background:

Oscar Peterson ‎– Oscar Peterson at Carnegie, 1952

Bob Brookmeyer with his trombone:

Bob Brookmeyer ‎– Plays Bob Brookmeyer and Some Others, 1955

Portraits did not have to be explicit. Martin loved to illustrate his subjects with only a hint to their identity. Jazz fans would easily recognize the trait of their idols by these drawings. Here is Lionel Hampton, a fantastic drawing with only his hand and mallets, expressing his virtuosity with his instrument:

The Lionel Hampton Quartet, 1953

And “Pres”, Lester Young. Only a saxophone and a hat, but you can’t be mistaken about who wears this pork pie hat:

Lester Young ‎– The President, Lester Young, 1954

Sometimes Martin would opt to only draw the musical instruments related to the musicians playing on the albums. Here is a drum set on a cover of Baby Dodds drum solos album, reflecting the old style setup of a drum set with a wood block and cymbal holders coming out of the bass drum:

Baby Dodds – Drum Solos, 1946

And a series of saxophones on Benny Carter’s Cosmopolite. Again, attention to the details of the musical instrument with the mouth piece separated from the instrument.

Benny Carter ‎– Cosmopolite, 1956

Martin’s drawings were featured on lavish packages that Norman Granz introduced to the market in the 1950s. Granz recorded many sessions with some of the biggest names in jazz, giving them complete freedom in selection of material and arrangements. He released those recording on a six-LP package called The Jazz Scene. Each package was signed and numbered, and only 5,000 copies were printed. It sold for $25, a fantastic price at the time for recorded music. David Stone Martin provided a number of drawings for the booklet that accompanied the music.

The Jazz Scene, 1950

In 1953 Granz upped the ante and released a package with four LPs called The Astaire Story. The phenomenal dancer was featured singing the American Songbook with a backing jazz combo led by Oscar Peterson. The package included photographs by Gjon Mili and a collection of drawings by David Stone Martin on cotton rag paper. The high art package was released in a numbered limited edition and sold for the tune of $50, an astronomical price equal to over $500 as of the writing of this article.

The Astaire Story, 1953

The samples of David Stone Martin’s drawings thus far should have given you a good idea of his unique artistic style, but Martin used additional techniques to enhance the visual experience of the album covers. One of them was including abstract shapes and random spots of color, as in this Woody Herman album:

Woody Herman (And the Herd) ‎– At Carnegie Hall, 1946

Martin said this about the varied methods he utilized to enrich his style of drawing: “Although the design elements and orientation of my pictures are almost always similar, the technical methods and treatments are eclectic and sometimes vary greatly from picture to picture. I’ve never regarded this as a fault because I have always felt that drawing methods are calligraphic tools or languages.”

Here is another abstract drawing, this one for an album by Machito:

Machito ‎– Afro-Cuban Jazz – The Music of Chico O´Farrill, 1956

Another technique was the use of wash, usually with grey tones, to fill large areas of the frame and provide a dramatic effect. Here is a classic example from the album Count Basie Swings Joe Williams Sings. Notice the use of wash to provide shading on Count Basie’s face:

Count Basie Swings Joe Williams Sings, 1955

Here is another from a Bud Powell album, this time using black wash for the hands of the legendary pianist and as background to the title. You can easily see the effect of the wet wash on the drawing surface at the edges of the black areas.

Piano Interpretations by Bud Powell, 1956

Illustrators and album cover designers had to invent interesting ways to feature typography along with photographs, drawings and paintings to present the album titles and artist names in an appealing fashion. In those days you had to draw the text and could not rely on established fonts that you could manipulate with computers. Here are a couple of examples of how David Stone Martin introduced new ways to make the titles pop up. The first is the debut album by pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi. Notice the unique design of the letters spelling her name:

Toshiko, 1954

And a very different technique on Teddy Wilson’s album. This time the white text is in the background and the first focus is on the black piano, but then your eyes get set on the large text behind it.

Teddy Wilson ‎– The Creative Teddy Wilson, 1955

One of Martin’s favorite techniques was to focus on some trait of the musician and zoom in on it repeatedly on multiple albums by that artist. We saw Lester Young’s pork pie hat, but Martin also used the musician’s established nickname as ideas for drawings. No one got that treatment better than Charlie Parker. ‘Bird’ was dressed as a bird on many album covers, always with a saxophone featured as part of the drawing:

The Magnificent Charlie Parker, 1951

Sometimes just a bird would be enough, relying solely on the album buyer’s knowledge of the alto player’s nickname. Of course, the saxophone is there:

Charlie Parker With Strings, 1950

Even when Charlie Parker was sharing the credit with another musician, Martin drew him as a bird:

Bird and Diz, 1952

I can’t think of a better way to end this article than showcasing a collection of album covers Martin drew for Billie Holiday in the 1950s, by his admission among his personal favorites. Most of Billie Holiday’s recordings in the 1950s were made for Norman Granz’s labels, first with Clef and then Verve. In 1952 Holiday recorded her first album for Clef, The Lady Sings. It was also her first long play album of new material, as opposed to compilation albums of previously released songs on 78 rpm records. The simple cover is a hint to the singer’s turbulent life during that period.

Billie Holiday Sings, 1952

Another album, An Evening with Billie Holiday, followed in 1953 featuring additional songs from the same recording sessions in 1952. This time David Stone Martin was more explicit in his portrait of Billie Holiday:

An Evening With Billie Holiday, 1953

Granz’ went deeper into his catalog and in 1954 released material from Billie Holiday’s performances for Jazz At The Philharmonic in 1946. A review at Downbeat expressed the same sentiment as Martin’s wonderful drawing on the front cover: “The years that have passed since then have taken their toll on the great stylist, but this all happened on a night when she had everything, and if you don’t find this LP to be one of the most emotional half-hours you’ve ever spent, there’s something wrong.”

Billie Holiday ‎– At Jazz At The Philharmonic, 1954

Billie Holiday’s first 12” LP, Music for Torching, came in 1955. It was recorded during studio sessions that followed her performance at Hollywood Bowl in August of that year. Again, the simple and effective lines and the use of only a few colors:

Music for Torching With Billie Holiday, 1955

And one more, following a number of albums with covers that focused on her photographs, including the wonderful Lady Sings The Blues. In 1958 the album All or Nothing at All was released on Verve Records and featured some of her very last recordings. The original liner notes said: “As this set demonstrates, perhaps the primary reason Billie was always able to reach deeply into her listeners is that more than any other jazz singer, she would communicate the complexities of feeling in which we’re all involved.” Again, David Stone Martin’s drawing demonstrates this feeling better than a thousand words:

Billie Holiday ‎– All or Nothing at All, 1958

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3 replies »

  1. I loved this blog post. Thank you for researching and writing it! I need to learn more about Cafe Society (and other important songs which may have debuted there…) I’ve been releasing a lot of single recordings during this Covid downtime (when live performances slowed waaaay down) to various digital platforms. I am going to share your blog post with some of my graphic designer friends.

  2. This is fantastic. I knew nothing about this artist. The covers capture the spirit of the music. Thanks for a great post.

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