Saturday, September 18, 2010

Burt's Works

All photographs and record album art shown below are in copyright and available for licensing, and I am pleased to acknowledge, belatedly, the assistance of...(c) Burt Goldblatt Estate Archives/

A few years ago, about this time in early September, the life of one of the great originators of record jacket art came to an end. Industry insiders and serious Jazz fans remember his name, but the broad public seems not to know Burt Goldblatt, who was a veritable 20th Century Renaissance Man: illustrator, graphic designer, master of typography, prizewinning photographer, galleried painter, good friend to scores of musicians, recognized author and more. His drawings and photographs showed up on more than 3000 albums in the course of a professional design career that lasted only 25 years. He was probably best known for singlehandedly providing the images and design for most of the Bethlehem 10" and 12" LPs between 1953 and 1962, but he also did brilliant covers for Savoy, Roost, Storyville, EmArcy/Mercury, Verve, Atlantic, and others. Goldblatt even painted the cover illustration for the famous first album reintroducing Thirties bluesman Robert Johnson; issued on Columbia in late 1961, the jacket offered a view from overhead looking down on the bluesman seated and playing his guitar--a dramatic visual cleverly resolving the problem that no photos of Johnson were known to exist back then. (Two, possibly three, have been found since then.)

But Goldblatt walked away from records in the mid-Seventies, to focus on his photography and writing. Over the next three decades, he won several photo awards, did more and more painting, had new shows and major retrospectives both, and eventually authored or co-authored 17 books, but the two that matter here are both currently out-of-print: Jazz at Newport: The Illustrated History (1977) and Jazz Photos 1 (1984)--and given the 80,000 photos in his archives, plus all those illustrated covers from the Fifties and Sixties, it really is time for a Goldblatt Jazz Too!

Here's some of Burt's story... During WWII he was stationed for a time on the same Alabama base where Lester Young's military problems occurred, and he'd sneak into the separate area for Black soldiers, in order to hang out listening to Pres jam with lesser players. After his war service and art college in Boston, he worked first at a printer's, learning the trade from top to bottom, becoming a skilled typographer, and then gradually seeking out graphic design work. Early Fifties record jackets commissioned by Boston's Storyville Records and the bootleg label Jolly Roger, plus a career move to New York City, helped him secure the historically significant illustration/design/photography/art direction he soon provided to indie companies Bethlehem, Roost, Savoy, and then the bigger industry labels.

Goldblatt became friends with many musicians as a result of the work, from Chris Conners, who name-checked Burt in a Cole Porter song she recorded; to Bud Powell, who titled one of his originals "Burt Covers Bud"; to Billie Holiday and Stan Getz, two of the musicians he photographed and hung out with most; to Charles Mingus, Hank Jones, and others who praised his friendliness and sincere interest and his ability to blend in unobtrusively while snapping photos at rehearsals or recording sessions, club gigs or concert performances. It was Goldblatt's own dedication to Jazz that led to his remarkable Newport book; he attended every festival and photographed nearly every concert staged from 1954, the debut year, right through to the final farewell-to-Newport event 22 years later, accumulating many thousands of photos, 300-and-some of which illustrate the unauthorized history he wrote working from memory, notes, journals, newspaper accounts, and the hundred-plus interviews he conducted.

It's a fine book, the year-by-year sub-chapters full of great anecdotes and pithy commentary from Burt and those he interviewed. But I have to say that the photo reproduction is, ironically, less than perfect--too many pictures printed too dark or too gray, even too fuzzy-imprecise, for maximum impact. It appears that publisher Dial Press used a paper too cheap, perhaps too absorbent, for the book. But why would print-savvy Goldblatt not have objected? Since I don't own a copy of his later book of Jazz photos, also from Dial, I can't compare the two. But I would still reiterate the need for a large-scale Goldblatt book to be published in this era of quality paper and digital reproduction, maybe even inexpensive double-blacks printing.

His best legacy is all those wonderful album jackets--bright colors, dramatic angles, powerful simplified type and all. So I offer a varied sample of his covers as my small tribute to one amazing, multi-tasking artist, his name stated in plain type on almost every cover--"Burt Goldblatt"--currently still awaiting his call to sit with Francis Wolff, William Claxton, Herman Leonard, and a few others in the pantheon of great Jazz photographers.


James Harrod said...

Burt Goldblatt also had a tune penned in his honor by Henri Renaud, BURT'S PAD. Recorded by Henri Renaud's Birdlanders, Don Byas, Bobby Jaspar, Oscar Pettiford, Jimmy Rowles, and Rene Thomas. Burt's photography archive is represented by CTSIMAGES. His work also received coverage in the landmark volume, Jazz Grafico, the catalogue published in conjunction with the exhibition in Spain. Steve Cerra hipped me to your feature, very nice.

Jim Harrod

AmandaD said...

I just found a letter written by Burt Goldblatt in my apartment. It was written on a type-writer and dated 10/24/1979. It is a letter thankimg "John and Nancy"for letting he and Kathy visit "rocks edge" the former home of Eleonora Sears. I'm looking for more info on it....

IWitnessEd said...

That's a cool discovery. Are you a relative or friend of BG? Did you know he had lived in that apartment? I hope you'll keep us in the loop for anything else you learn (or find!). Good hunting...