Design Friday Part 1. The Blue Note Masterpieces of Reid Miles

Blue Note Records was established in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Max Margulis. Francis Wolff became involved shortly afterwards. It derives its name from the characteristic “blue notes” of jazz and the blues. Blue Note Records is currently owned by the EMI Group and in 2006 was expanded to fill the role of an umbrella label group bringing together a wide variety of EMI-owned labels and imprints specializing in the growing market segment of music for adults.

In 1956, Blue Note employed Reid Miles, an artist who had been working at the time for Esquire magazine. The cover art produced by Miles, often featuring Wolff’s photographs of musicians in the studio, was as influential in the world of graphic design as the music within was to the world of jazz. Under Reid Miles direction, Blue Note became known for their striking and unusual album cover designs. Reid Miles design direction was distinguished by its tinted dup-tone black and white photographs, the creative use of sans-serif typefaces, and limited color palettes (often black and white with a single color), and frequent use of solid rectangular bands of color or white set within a defined grid system. In addition Miles was heavily influenced by the Bauhaus school of design, and the international Swiss design style that had emerged from Europe after the seconds world war.

Though Miles’ work is closely associated with the Blue Note label, and has earned iconic status and frequent homage, Reid Miles was only a casual jazz fan. According to historian Richard Cook, Blue Note gave Miles multiple copies of the albums he designed, but Miles gave most to friends or sold them to second-hand record shops. On a side note, a few of the mid-fifties album covers featured drawings by  Andy Warhol who was working at the time in New York as a graphic designer. Through his development of a consistent look, he was able to develop a brand identity that became the hallmark for the label. Blue Note was cool, modern and progressive.

Blue Note started the 12″ LP era in mid 1950s with some traditional jazz albums, but then launched the legendary 1500 modern jazz series in 1955.The first gem in the 1500 series is Miles Davis “1501” and the last is Bennie Green’s  “the little “bastard” number (1599) The style that was defined during the 1500 series would propel Reid Miles to design stardom over the next 20 years as he continued to work for Blue producing some of the most defining and influential album covers of the next 2 decades.

In 1958 the Blue Note record label changed the numbering on their albums from 1500 to 4000, beginning with 4001 which was Sonny Rollins´ Newk´s Time. The series would  run into the 1970s with more than 400 albums attributed to the 4000 series. It is the 4000 series that can truly be defined as the Reid Miles era.  During this period he functioned as the creative director for Blue Note records, and influenced the look of hundreds of albums they produced.

In 1967 partner Alfred Lion quit Blue Note due to health problems, and Francis Wolff died  4 years in 1971, and with that the rest of the original Blue Note family was finally gone.

In 1965 Blue Note had been sold to Liberty, but without any changes in the music or graphic design policy. But from 1967 on some changes become obvious, and Reid Miles was forced to comply to them.

The hard bop sound, which Blue Note had documented for the last two decades was in decline. And as tastes changed younger audiences found little in traditional jazz to interest them. Through the last half of the 1960’s Blue Note fought a losing battle aginst the signs of the times.

In 1971 the label moved towards the emerging fusion jazz sound, but overall it seemed to floundered in search of a direction both musically and stylistically. The classic blue-white label was changed to a black-blue and then to a solid blue. The old “The Finest in Jazz Since 1939”-logo was removed all together. By 1979 Blue Note was finished as active label.

Today Blue Note ( under the ownership of EMI) has reissued almost all of the classic Reid Miles designed LP’s on CD and as MP3 tracks widely available online.