By John McDonough
Writers vs. Art Directors:
The Album Note Wars
from Jazz Notes 7/1 1995Copyright © 1995, John McDonough
When album note writers exchange their tales of woe about who ruined their copy, the villains used to be editors and sometimes record company people. But not now. Today the villains are the art directors.
In recent years, they have emerged as the most formidable and dangerous enemy of literacy since television. And like statesmen who long for a return to the clear simplicities of the Cold War, I'm beginning to see editors as brothers compared to these art school aliens who have OD'd on Interview magazine.
It could not have come at a worse time. As typeface sizes get smaller in the CD era and art director egos get bigger, the first casualty is readability. Have you read Ted Gioia's album notes, for example, on the recent box set, Chet Baker: The Pacific Jazz Years? You may have looked at them, but I'd offer a modest wager that you haven't read them. Not when portions of his sentences are tunneled randomly through dark blue or grey designs by an art school dropout who well may be blind, is unquestionably incompetent, and in either case shows an utter disrespect for the work of the writer.
I'm sensitive to this for two reasons. One, I write album notes from time to time, as do many of you. And second, I sit on the Chicago craft committee on album notes for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. This obliges me to read a good many notes and, along with Neil Tesser, Chuck Suber, and two other committee members, consider their candidacy for a Grammy nomination.
Last year I told my colleagues on the committee that in my view art directors have been running wild over album booklets to the point where they have trespassed - indeed stampeded! - on the writer's domain. As a result, some notes were getting almost impossible to read. I said I would decline to consider any album note made unintelligible by bad design, defined as hostile to readability. I understood this penalized the writers; but not as much as the designers (and presumably the album producers) were penalizing them, and their readers. The ultimate purpose of my little boycott was to put pressure on out-of-control designers by denying their labels a coveted Grammy nomination. I'll tell you the results in a moment. But first . . . .
One of the album books in contention during the 1993 Grammys was Verve's earth-toned Complete Billie Holiday, 1949-1959 art directed by David Lau. Although the cube design and production were magnificent (and compatible with CD storage shelving, unlike those dreadful tall boxes that fit nowhere), I thought the art direction had overstepped the frontiers of easy readability. Most of the first 70 pages were okay: black serif type on grocery-bag brown paper. The only real mish-mash was on page 55 where a huge chunk of Bob Porter's Verve history was submerged under a redundant Verve logo. Any designer of minimum aptitude would have wrapped it. But a more substantial impediment to legibility began on page 80, where the type not only got smaller but had to fight unsightly, unremitting, and inappropriate brown and grey vertical stripes through page 167.
But I'll tell you what really scarred me about that album. It won a Grammy! Not only for its design but its notes. Such was the result of my "boycott." How does one combat such richly rewarded incompetence?
It's a distressing symptom of contemporary communication that symbols seem to be replacing language as carriers of commentary. When Western thought regresses to the point where visual impressions and slogans are sufficient to express the complexities of our intellectual life and higher music forms, we are on a fast track to the social fundamentalism of the Stone Age tribe. Graphics became the language of choice for the counter culture of the '60s, which prided itself on its primitivism. They quickly colonized the rock album cover and displaced notes. This was fine; who needed notes when the audience was too stoned to read anyway? But in time the momentum of that sweep spilled over everywhere, even jazz and classical recordings, which traditionally had been accompanied by the most detailed and thoughtful annotations. One effect was to turn the art director into a shining knight and the writer into a poor knave. Today they are at war.
A friend at Columbia once told me that years ago Mati Klarwein received more than $5,000 for the Bitches Brew cover art while Ralph Gleason got about $250 for his notes. By the time Elena Pavlov did the art for Davis' Agharta in 1976, there were no notes at all. (Alas, what was there to say?) It doesn't bother me that the record industry finds art a more intrusive and powerful, and therefore more expensive, selling tool than copy. I can understand that.
On the other hand I see no reason why art and language have to be in combat inside a booklet, which is not opened until after the sale is consummated. Perhaps you've seen what designer Tony Sellari did to page after page of Will Friedwald's 1993 text for the Columbia Legacy Frank Sinatra: The Columbia Years, the Complete Recordings. On pages 40-41, 43-47, and 65 type is slapped over photos and drawings, crippling both art and copy. Moreover, the overprinted photos were redundant, since they were duplicated cleanly elsewhere in the collection. One wonders who in the Columbia executive feeding chain approved such astonishing miscarriages of taste and basic competence: Jerry Shulman, Didier Deutsch, Gary Pacheco? Is it possible that no one actually looked at it? It would seem so. If not, didn't anyone recognize the tackiness? Sellari's layouts on the more recent Frank Sinatra: The V-Disc are much improved. And Joel Zimmerman's work on the Columbia Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man also strikes a reasonable balance between pictures and words. The scourge, it seems, has migrated to RCA and its current Tommy Dorsey/Sinatra box set, where the victim once again is poor Mr. Friedwald. It would be interesting to know if any of the same art people were involved or whether they are all simply sheep.
What bothers me is not imagination or even trendiness, but art directors who fail to respect the integrity of the written form; who regard words as graphic play things. We as writers do not choose our words to be objects of art and visual form. We intend that they be read and carry meaning. Everything that furthers that purpose is good. Everything that impedes it is bad. Words are not supposed to be sculpted, printed on photographs or wall paper patterns, laid out in silly shapes the eye can't follow, or printed on dark colors. I've seen design faux pas that defy belief. It's not so much that they happened; accidents occur and experiments flop. It's that someone actually intended them to happen.
Item: A 1970 Japanese-produced box set called JATP - 1940s printed its discography in white type on white paper.
Item: On the otherwise excellent three-CD Verve set Ella Fitzgerald: First Lady of Song, David Lau actually was possessed to print type over type on a number of pages. It looked absolutely horrible.
Rock video design cliches belong on rock, rap and pop packaging, whose buyers are unsophisticated at best, and perhaps functionally illiterate. Jazz buyers deserve to be treated as grownups, regardless of their age.
Good graphics and album notes should be allies, each attending to the whole. I think we all know the ideal models of layout excellence for large scale album notes: any Mosaic set, the Atlantic MJQ40, Verve's Complete Charlie Parker on Verve. There are many others.
So what should a writer do? I would say, the only thing he can. Discuss the issue with any producer offering an assignment. When Verve's Peter Pullman and Michael Lang asked me in 1993 to take on part of The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Books (along with Benny Green), I was not about to turn down the gig or demand layout approval as a condition. But I did outline as forcefully as I could my impatience with the growing trend to disregard the printed word. Pullman said he appreciated and understood my point. He explained that Verve's purpose was to avoid the extremely rigid layout formulas that used to appear on one Prestige and Muse LP after another. I appreciated and understood his view and saw no reason why we couldn't accommodate one another. Later at lunch in New York with Peter and executive producer Lang, we discussed it again and Lang said he would keep my views in mind. Both struck me as eminently reasonable men.
I don't know if these conversations influenced the outcome. I had no role in the design and take no credit for the results. What I do know is that art director Chris Thompson, whom I've never met, produced a tiny masterpiece that combined imagination and practicality. More important, not a page of the booklet was guilty of visual self-indulgence or excess, only gentle wit and understatement.
The printed word and visual style are not mutually exclusive. If design has transgressed readability, it may be because no one has spoken up for readability. Producers prepared to invest money in album notes put value on writing. Most will probably listen to reason. That has to be the job of the writers. It's reasonable that consumers be able to read serious commentary on serious music.