Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Reid Miles (1956)


Patterns in Jazz by Gil Melle, Blue Note 12" LP 1517, 1956, cover design by Reid Miles

I know. I can hear it now. The last thing the internet needs is another blog post singing the praises of Reid Miles and his 12-year stint (1955 through 1967) as the principle LP artwork designer for Blue Note Records! Right? Well, of course one cannot laud Miles enough: his work for the New York jazz label was a masterful high-water mark of mid-century modernist design. But there was certainly more to  this well-known figure whose full story has remained remarkably illusive.


Mobley's Message by Hank Mobley, Prestige 12" LP 7061, 1956, cover design by Reid Miles

Born in Chicago on the 4th of July in 1927, Miles actually grew up on the West Coast of California. After the stock market crash of '29, his family moved out west as so many other families did during the Great Depression and ended up in Long Beach. A marital split left Miles in the care of his mother who supported he and his younger sister by working in a cannery in San Pedro. Most of his youth is undocumented, although it is known that Miles joined the U.S. Navy near the end of the Second World War, serving as a chauffeur. Upon his discharge he returned to Los Angeles and, according to Wayne Adams who would later assist Miles in the 1980s, chased after a girl and wound up enrolled in the Chouinard Art Institute. Chouinard was then located in MacArthur Park and would merge with the LA Conservatory of Music to form CalArts in 1961. Other Chouinard alumni, whose names will be familiar to regular readers of this blog, include graphic designer S. Neil Fujita and pop artist Ed Ruscha. Rushca and Miles almost certainly never crossed paths that the school as the former did not enroll until the mid-1950s. However, it is very likely that Fujita and Miles met at Chouinard as both attended the school around the same time - a very interesting idea considering how Fujita would later find him on the East Coast designing LP covers for Columbia Records a few years after studying in LA.


Herbie Nichols Trio by Herbie Nichols, Blue Note 12" LP 1519, 1956, cover design by Reid Miles

The person at Chouinard with whom Miles most definitely came into contact was the eventual head of the basic design program, Bill Moore. Moore is something of a West Coast design/art/animation legend who influenced generations of students over the course of nearly 40 years at Chouinard and CalArts. He is the thread the ties together such disparate names as Reid Miles, Ed Ruscha, Tim Burton, and Brad Bird - all of whom studied with Moore. Miles apparently had very little influences in his design life, but Moore was one of them and an early one at that.


Olio by Thad Jones, Prestige 12" LP 7084, 1956, cover design by Reid Miles

Leaving Chouinard before completing the courses required for graduation, Reid Miles made a bee line for New York City, scoring a job with designer John Hermansader. The timing was certainly right as Hermansader, through his friend and fellow designer Paul Bacon, began working with Blue Note Records in 1953 not too long after Miles arrived on the scene. Here is where the story gets a little hazy. While it is known that Miles worked on the Blue Note account, it is not known how much of the early (1953-1955) work was done by Hermansader, how much was done by Miles, and how much was a collaboration. May we indulge in some speculation? Based on the collective body of work Hermansader provided for Blue Note, he quite feasibly could have been another big influence on Miles.
Blue Note historians tend to downplay Hermansader's contributions, but his other surviving examples of visual art clearly indicate a notable talent. The raw materials are there in the work which Miles would develop into an art by the end of the decade, but the question remains just how much input Miles had into the Blue Note designs early on. Unfortunately, neither man is alive today to discuss and the period is poorly documented. At any rate, Miles - who would develop a history of transience - left Hermansader in 1955 for a job with Esquire magazine doing the layout and paste-up work. However, whatever his contributions were to Hermansader's Blue Note account, they were significant enough to catch the attention of the label's owners Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff who asked him to take a lead role in the design of 12-inch Long Playing records, the format that by mid-decade had emerged as the preferred format of most jazz releases industry-wide. Esquire was apparently well-aware of this arrangement and allowed Miles to moonlight - which usually meant working on 3 or so Blue Note LP covers on his Saturday off from the magazine, being paid $50 a job/cover. Later interviews would reveal Miles to be would could be termed a workaholic, in that to him his work was his life and the absence of former made the latter unbearable at times.


J.R. Monterose, Blue Note 12" LP 1536, 1956, cover design by Reid Miles

Contributing to an even more hazy story is the fact that a year after this transition and for a time space of nearly 2 years, Miles was also contributing 12" LP jacket designs to Blue Note's de facto, if not friendly rival Prestige Records. From 1956 until 1957, his name graced the jackets of nearly a dozen discs. Interestingly, this work is seldom cited by design aficionados, although there are some excellent covers that easily rival his contemporaneous work for Blue Note. There are definitely some similarities between the covers and one can see his style developing which each subsequent release. So here is one artist, simultaneously providing the visuals for some of the important modern jazz music recorded of its time (or any time for that matter). And, of course, Miles was famously not a fan of jazz, preferring classical. But this period is interesting, mainly as it is of such high quality and yet overlooked by most design fans.


Quadrama by the Gil Melle Quartet, Prestige 12" LP 7097, 1956, cover design by Reid Miles

A third influence should be mentioned at this time. After Moore and possibly Hermansader, Miles other major influence of the time was known to be Saul Bass. Bass needs no significant introduction to readers of this weblog, but it is perhaps helpful to put him into historical perspective. At the time that Miles was accepting a job with Esquire and getting down to business in earnest with Blue Note and Prestige, Bass was gaining widespread notoriety first for his work on the posters and titles for Carmen Jones (1954) and even more so for The Man With The Golden Arm (1955). His greatest innovation was perhaps the liberation of type from the galley, finding new ways to communicate the written word that flew (sometimes, literally) in the face of convention. Of course, in the design world Bass is a true legend and this history books have been kind to the legacy he has left behind.


6 Pieces of Silver by the Horace Silver Quintet, Blue Note 12" LP 1539, 1956, cover design by Reid Miles

Reid Miles perhaps enjoyed his most lucrative years well after his run with Blue Note. Some time in the early-1960s he started focusing on photography. By mid-decade it was his main focus. Miles returned to Los Angeles in 1971 and within a few years established a style and clientele that made him quite successful by anyone's terms - although he retained a drive and passion for his work which lasted until his death in 1993. Miles occasionally returned to album covers during the second act of his career, but his style by then had changed so significantly that few people made the connection. Fortunately, his mid-'50s experiments are well documented and, hopefully, well preserved for the ages.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Brooks Brothers (1940)

Print ad, Brooks Brothers Clothing, New Yorker magazine, 1940

The Internet is a funny thing. No earth-shattering statement there for sure, but it is very interesting how much our culture and society has changed over the past 2 decades and how much of that has to do with technology in general and the Internet in particular. Scholarship, research, and eduction are only 3 areas which have been drastically effected by the way we all communicate and share information. What does this have to do with Brooks Brothers in 1940? The emergence/re-emergence/codification of what is now know as Ivy League Style has increased significantly over the past decade due in a great part to the Internet. Online forums and blogs have become clearing houses of information, shared experiences, core knowledge, and (sometimes) interesting discourse. It has also become the breeding ground for a lot of misconceptions due to poor research habits. 

There was a time when primary resources were arguably the only resources that held water. Everything else - such as faint (or vivid for the matters) memories of events fifty years in the past - was secondary in every sense of the word. There were also standards of citation which the Internet has perhaps most effectively done away with. Is all of this bad? No, not necessarily. But it has helped create an increasingly hyper-informed and under-educated society. 

But again you ask, what does this have to do with Brooks Brothers circa 1940? OK, I will answer the questions. The above scan from a primary source shows the classic Brooks Brothers OCBD (Google those initials for a good time) in 1940. Now what is interesting to me is not that only 2 colors (white, blue) were available. Nor is it that a US-made Brooks Brothers shirt cost the equivalent of around $30 in 2014 dollars. No. What strikes me most is that it features a breast pocket! Why is that so important? Well, general internet knowledge ™holds that Brooks Brothers did not add breast pockets to their shirts until 1965 or so. Much has been written and discussed around that. I bought into it wholesale for sure, taking it as fact and being uncharacteristically ambivalent about digging deeper. Certainly - or at least as far as I know - the Brooks OCBD lost its pocket some time between 1940 and 1965, but when? Why? 

My challenge to all of us that are interested, if not fascinated in these slowly vanishing traces of 20th Century culture is to dig deeper. Do your homework. Know your sources. Quote your sources. Edit your work. I suspect these words I type right now may very well last longer than the fingers that type them. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Portrait of a Spanish Poet (1959)

Portrait of a Spanish Poet by John Altoon, completed 1959

Los Angeles born artist John Altoon, spent nearly 5 years working on the painting he titled Portrait of a Spanish Poet. Often subtitled (Lorca), the piece is ostensibly a portrait of Spanish writer Federico García Lorca. It was completed in 1959 (the same year Altoon married B movie and television actress Fay Spain) and was included in Altoon's second solo show at the Ferus Gallery in 1961. By the time of that show Ferus had moved to its second location at 723 North La Cienega in West Los Angeles and had been under the direction of Irvin Blum for 3 years. Altoon's relationship with the gallery was firmly established by the late-'50s, being represented by Ferus. The painter had yet to fully transition to the more figurative approach he adopted in the 1960s, with the work being very much a product of his exposure to Abstract Expressionism due to his time spent in New York City as well as the Bay Area  School with exerted a strong influence on the LA art scene during the 1950s. 

John Altoon, Tony Lanreau, and Maggie Ryan, Venice, California, photo by William Claxton, 1959

The painting and Altoon made a cameo appearance on the dust jacket of the original 1959 edition of Laurence Lipton's The Holy Barbarians, the writer's survey of Beat Culture at the turn of the decade. Many (most?) had no idea that that giddy, shirtless beatnik in William Claxton's photo had painted the work of art hanging on the wall behind him, much less that he was the heart and soul of the burgeoning Ferus Gallery scene in West Los Angeles and Venice Beach. The connection was likely more due to Claxton, rather than Altoon laying any Beat Generation claims as the modern art circles on both Coasts tended to distance themselves from the Beat poets in spite of any lifestyle similarities.


Jazz Guitar: Jim Hall, Pacific Jazz 1227 12" LP, 1957, cover photo by William Claxton featuring John Altoon

Clax also played a role in Altoon's slightly earlier entree to mainstream exposure. As the staff photographer and cover art director for Dick Bock's Pacific Jazz Records, Claxton played a major role in the label's West Coast Artist Series that was begun some time in early 1956 as this excellent, highly recommended article outlines in detail. By the time it came to release guitarist Jim Hall's debut LP on the label, Bock and Claxton took a slightly different approach to the series by not only featuring the work or an emerging West Coast artist, but also by including a photo of the artist at work. The artist in question was John Altoon who was featured in the shot (albeit with his back to the camera). The device had already been used once the previously year for a Chico Hamilton Quintet release (also featuring Hall), but the Jim Hall/John Altoon/William Claxton image seems to capture the zeitgeist with slightly more authenticity. 

 Dick Bock, Jim Hall, John Altoon, and William Claxton, 1957

Altoon's career - and life - was short. He battled what some called true demons throughout his lifetime - but, in spite of his concerted efforts to manage his struggles, he died of a heart attack at the age of 44 in 1969. 

For more information about Altoon and the Ferus Gallery scene, I highly recommend Morgan Neville's 2008 documentary film The Cool School

If you live in or are going to be in the Los Angeles area before September 14, 2014, I strongly encourage you to visit the first major John Altoon retrospective, currently on exhibit at LACMA.


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

TK Smith (2014)


Desert Oasis: The Midcentury Modern Guitars of TK Smith by Nick Rossi, photos by Jacqueline Di Milia, courtesy of the Fretboard Journal

Issue number 32 of the Fretboard Journal is now available at newsstands everywhere. I am very pleased to announce that it includes an article penned by yours truly profiling guitarist and guitar-maker TK Smith. I first heard about TK in 1990 when Big Sandy & The Fly-Rite Trio released their debut LP on Dionysus Records and played in San Francisco to support the disc. I've been a fan of Smith's playing ever since. The path his life has taken is a very interesting one and it intersects with a lot of the topics covered on the pages of this weblog. I find his work to be beautiful, not only from the aesthetic perspective of someone who appreciates modernism, but also as someone who respects true craftsmanship. I also like that TK is part of a Southern California tradition - not in a convoluted way, but simple because he is both creative and curious. Plus he has great taste!

Fretboard Journal 32, Ry Cooder cover story, out now

TK Smith may be found online and you may also follow him on Instagram. And here's just a snippet of why he is one of the most interesting guitar players around…

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Fazıl Bey'in Türk Kahvesi (1923)

Turkish coffee by Fazil Bey, photo copyright 2014 by Nick Rossi

Although the early history of coffee is one surrounded by many claims and much legend, it is generally agreed upon that the world's first coffeehouse opened in Istanbul, Turkey (then still Constantinople) around 1554-1555, due in no small part to the Ottoman Empire's conquest of that city 100 years earlier and the immediate influence that overtook the former Byzantine capital. It would take Western Europe another 100 years to catch up with the Ottomans in this regard before the first coffeehouse west of the Balkans opened in Venice, Italy in 1645. Austria and England soon followed suit and by the 18th Century coffee consumption was conspicuous throughout both the New and Old Worlds.

Fazıl Bey'in Türk Kahvesi, Kadıköy, Istanbul, photo by Nick Rossi, 2014

But the Turkish coffeehouse occupies a very special place in history. Dating all the way back to the 16th Century, it has provided the template that is still closely followed in current times. The coffeehouse was established in Istanbul as a public place of gathering, where art and politics were discussed, leisure was pursued, and - of course - coffee was sipped. It is a grand tradition and one that nearly every culture has co-opted to some extent over the subsequent 500 or so years. 


Exterior shop detail, photo by Nick Rossi, 2014

However the current state of the coffeehouse in Istanbul is one of transition. For years now, the traditional shops have often perceived as as old-fashioned and have been slowly disappearing from the intricate landscape of the city. In their place have moved the usual suspects: multinational conglomerates proffering contemporary Italianate blends in oversized to-go cups. Convenience has replaced conversation. Some of the youth have reacted by creating the same sort of coffee culture that one sees in San Francisco - namely premium coffee served in a very contemporary, hip setting. While the result can be rather pleasing - both aesthetically and to the palate - the result is remarkably similar to what would find in The Mission or The West Village.  


Interior view of the first floor looking out at the entrance, photo courtesy of the Fazel Bey website

All that said, there do exist some lingering examples of Istanbul's rich coffeehouse tradition. It takes some looking for sure and even then it takes some additional digging to find the good stuff. Fazıl Bey'in Türk Kahvesi roughly translates to Fazil Bey Turkish Coffeehouse in English and has been roasting, grinding, and serving its own coffee - in the Turkish manner - since 1923. And while that provenance may not seem much for a city that reaches back centuries, it is a very long time for coffeehouse in Istanbul that is still in operation. The arabica beans are imported from Brazil, which makes some sense as 1920 reflected Brazil's peak in supplying the world coffee. Roasted an arm's distance from where the coffee is prepared and just a few feet from where it is served, this simple 2-floor building is a modern marvel of efficiency. It somehow manages to be both cluttered and crowded as well as clean and inviting at the same time - it's clientele a mix of students, businessmen/women, more adventuresome tourists, and wizened old-timers. 


View of the cashier (right) with the roaster visible in the background, photo courtesy of the Fazel Bey website

The coffee? Some of the best that this writer had the pleasure of sampling during a recent weeklong visit to the city. A deep, rich flavor with hints of chocolate. The consistency lacked much of the grittiness that is endemic to the preparation process, while still maintaining body and the frothy head. It's color was a beautiful, almost deep red. Presentation goes a long way and having your coffee delivered on a silver platter accompanied with a small glass of water and a piece of lokum (aka Turkish delight) certainly added immensely to a rather enjoyable visit. 


The roaster and grinder, photo courtesy of the Fazel Bey website

As Turkey continues to struggle with its own evolving cultural identity - and the more nefarious elements of its current government - this foreigner certainly hopes that these traditions are cherished and preserved. It would be hard to make a case for preservation to UNESCO, but considering the contributions these humble shops have made to the world such a mission is almost worth considering. 


Photo of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, c.1930, the father of modern Turkey enjoying his coffee and cigarette; a copy of this photo hangs on the wall in Fazil Bey's

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fonts of Rome (2014)

All images, copyright 2014 by Nick Rossi

There is simply so much to love about the city of Rome. And while many are intoxicated by the smells, the sounds, or the taste of the food, what struck me most on my recent visit was the abundance of wonderful design in everyday things - beauty in a great sense of the word. Certainly, other cities have a more unified design (Berlin?) and still others may appeal to me more from a modernist aesthetic (New York?), but the even more eternal than before city of Rome continues to blatantly disregard style guidelines with such careless aplomb that should be appreciated and applauded.

Traveler's note: I HIGHLY recommend the travel guide Rome: Moods and Places published by Herb Lester Associates. Not only was it a daily part of my finding beauty in everyday objects thanks to designer Nate Luetkenhans, but it was authored by author, blogger, and friend JP Gaul who has a very unique insight to the city of Rome.