March 1, 2010

Sand, Surf, and Sax: West Coast Jazz Album Covers

The idea of “West Coast jazz” was to some extent a creation of record company marketing departments in the late 1940s and 1950s. Sure, many of the musicians were working out of Los Angeles (primarily) and San Francisco in clubs like the Lighthouse Café in Hermosa Beach. And, yes, many of them were part of the “cool” school of jazz (bossa nova was also thrown into the mix). But West Coast jazz was not an exclusive style of music – many West Coasters were hard boppers like their East Coast counterparts, although the West Coast varieties tended to be more compositionally based. Musicians often included in this school were Shelly Manne, Bob Cooper, Shorty Rogers, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, Bud Shank, and Dave Brubeck.
     It was record labels such as Contemporary and Pacific Jazz that really pushed the idea. One of the ways they did this was through their album covers. West Coast jazz albums often depicted images of beaches and lighthouses just to drive the point home and differentiate them from the urban/club settings found on many other album covers. A favorite tactic was to put the musicians on the beach – that's why Howard Rumsey’s Lighthouse All-Stars appear on a deserted, seemingly post-apocalyptic strand in suits and ties, pretending to play their instruments (rickety miniature piano included). There’s a Lighthouse live album of Cannonball Adderley that shows Cannonball and his band huddled under a beach umbrella, no doubt questioning their manager's judgment. And on one album cover, Lee Morgan (who certainly doesn't qualify as a West Coaster) sits holding his trumpet under a pier, perhaps wondering what the hell he's doing there.
     Since this was the advent of Playboy magazine and the nascent beginnings of the sexual revolution to come, jazz record labels also fell back on that timeless marketing axiom – sex sells. (Record companies producing classical, pop, and other types of music did this too.) For West Coast jazz album covers, this generally meant girls in bikinis. Art Pepper’s Surf Ride (Savoy) and another Howard Rumsey All-Star date have no problem showing some skin to push their tunes.
     As time went on, some covers became increasingly ludicrous. Contemporary Records’ You Get More Bounce with Curtis Counce! is a classic example. The cover shows a woman in what appears to be a white laboratory coat, unbuttoned, and she is using a stethoscope to listen to her own heartbeat. The expression on her face is one of utter, open-mouthed ecstasy. Is she just a happy medical professional? A tickled heart patient? The most responsive jazz fan ever? She's having a good time, that's for sure, and we’ll leave to the imagination exactly what might be bouncing in this scenario….
You Get More Bounce with Curtis Counce     The irony is that these albums almost always contained some outstanding music. In this case, Bounce features Counce on bass, Harold Land on tenor saxophone, Carl Perkins on piano, and Jack Sheldon on trumpet. The group really swings and the tunes may genuinely get your heart racing with excitement, even without the salacious, and amusing, cover.

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