The Blue Note Years

Blue Note Records has a complicated relationship with their history as a genre-defining jazz institution. On the plus side, Blue Note is shorthand for certain standards of taste: post-bop jazz, excellent sound quality, well-dressed musicians, innovative graphic design and iconic photographic style. On the negative side, their history can potentially create an orthodoxy which pre-determines the outcome of future projects. And externally, their iconic look and feel is easily appropriated.

Left: Sonny Rollins, Vol. 2, 1957
Right: Joe Jackson, Body and Soul, 1984

Left: John Coltrane, Blue Train, 1957
Right: Scott Weiland, 12 Bar Blues, 1998

These Blue Note simulacra are initially clever, but ultimately lacking in any aesthetic authenticity or affect. The label’s strengths came from within. From the passion of label co-founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, from the sensibility of sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder, from the designer Reid Miles, and especially from the musicians.

Still, there are times when the appropriation of style is appropriate.

When we were approached to design a logo for Blue Note’s 60th anniversary, the project had already gone through several hands, both in house and in other agencies.

The best way to approach this kind of project is to substitute the desire for innovative form-making with the humility of visual archaeology. In other words, dig for a logo away from your genius. In this case, all I had to do was look at the shape of the number 60 and find the appropriate stand-in.

Left: Dexter Gordon, Go, 1962
Right: Blue Note Records, 60th Anniversary logo

Voila. The quickest logo approval of my career. And we only showed one option.

The second part of the project was to design a 60th Anniversary box set for seven two-disc sets and a 48-page picture book. The CD sets would be sold separately, so graphically, they had to have a stand-alone quality: with full titles and UPC codes. Because tinted black & white photographs made up the famous Blue Note photographic style, most of the design moves were variations on tinting and color.

Since there wasn’t much of a budget for anything other than ink on paper, we had to convey luxury through classic ink and press trickery. Once again, our method came from Blue Note’s history.

Many of designer Reid Miles’ covers used a technique known as a poor man’s duotone. The duotone is a color separation technique which integrates a second color to a black & white image for a more gradual transition from highlight to shadow. The added color also tints the resulting image. During Mile’s time, the duotone was the realm of the person making the printing plates, requiring a combination of specialized equipment and skill – all with corresponding up-charges.

The poor-man’s duotone just lays black ink over an area of flat color – as seen in the Coltrane cover above.

Our approach was a variation on the poor man’s duotone known as a double-hit. A flat area of Pantone blue was laid down, and then the image was sur-printed in the same color. Since most inks used in offset printing are translucent (due to environmental regulations) there’s a thinness to flat areas of color. But when a color is double-hit, it gains a richness and depth usually reserved for lacquer-based inks.

This was the trick we used throughout. Maximum effect for minimum cost.

There was an inherent division to the set which was the result of a dormant period between 1979, when EMI phased out the label in the face of falling jazz sales, and its relaunch in 1985. This was reflected in the picture book, split between Francis Wolff’s iconic photos and Jimmy Katz’s images for the new Blue Note. So to subtly suggest this difference, every image taken prior to 1979 was sepia tinted, and everything after 1985 was tinted blue.

Since they had to stand alone, the individual two-disc packages were tinted according to subject matter. Because the photographs were taken over a 60-year period, and with a wide range of film stock and lighting conditions, coherence was achieved through a consistent layout.

This was a limited run of less than 3000 box sets. Recently, I’ve been happy to see that our reverence for production details and the label’s history is reflected in the resale market. Currently, unwrapped copies are selling for close to $1000 US.

Design: Mark Kingsley
Agency: Greenberg Kingsley
Client: Blue Note Records
Creative director: Gordon Jee
Photography: Francis Wolff, Jimmy Katz
Printer: Queens Group

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