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How one designer created the “look” of jazz

Blue Note Records created the visual identity of modern jazz.

What does modern jazz look like? For a lot of music fans, the visual identity of jazz has become synonymous with a single record label that defined the sound and feeling of the musical style during its transformation from the complicated melodies of bebop to the soulful hooks of hard bop during the 1950s and ’60s. That record label is Blue Note, and their album covers are so iconic, they’ve been the point of inspiration for graphic designers and musicians for the past 60 years.

So what does a Blue Note album cover look like? Freddie Hubbard’s Hub Cap is a quintessential example of the main ingredients of the style: bold colors, candid photography, and perfectly placed typography.

Anatomy of a Blue Note album cover.
Estelle Caswell

The Blue Note style was largely carried out by Reid Miles, a graphic designer turned art director. His ability to create bold typographic layouts was world-class, and he used the session photography of Francis Wolff, Blue Note’s co-founder, in creative and often playful ways.

Miles designed well over 500 album covers for Blue Note between the mid-’50s and late ’60s, and his influence lives on. One example of that legacy is the countless homages other artists have paid to Blue Note’s album cover aesthetic, from Barack Obama portraits to Wu-Tang Clan albums.

Homages to Blue Note album covers.

The video above provides an inside look into the graphic design decisions Miles made by deconstructing some of his most iconic album covers. For more Vox videos, subscribe to our YouTube channel.