Blue Note Records has embodied the best jazz has to offer for over 80 years. With a catalog of greats, from Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordo and countless others from the bop and post-bop eras, to the funky recordings that hip-hop artists have repeatedly sampled, to its current roster, the label remains at the forefront of the genre.
It wasn’t just the music that set the label apart from the rest. Founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff also knew that the look of a record could be as compelling as the sound. While both were omnipresent in the studio during seminal recordings, it was Wolff who brought his camera, snapping photos of the artists as they performed or kicked back between takes. Cover-designer Reid Miles was the man who took these images and created magic.
Born in Chicago and raised in California, Miles attended Chouinard Art Institute in LA after a stint in the navy. Eventually relocating to New York City, he worked at Esquire magazine for a time and was brought in by Wolff to design the label’s album covers. The work he crafted would come to define the label as much as the music. “A canon of work so individually styled that a Reid Miles sleeve was as recognizable as the trumpet timber of Miles Davis or the plaintive phrasing Billie Holiday...creating sleeves that transcended the mugshots and mysticism of other genres’ sleeves.” (Felix Cromey, Blute Note: The Album Cover Art)
Miles used Wolff’s (as well as his own photographs) along with bold typefaces and shapes and produced artwork so original that his style is still being imitated and discussed today. “Working almost exclusively in the American post-war typeface Trade Gothic, Miles laid the groundwork for the classic and much-imitated American look that we associate with condensed sans serifs.” (Chris M. Hughes, Wired)
A simple color palette, strong type and concise cropping of a studio shot were his trademarks. Sometimes the typefaces were straightforward and at other times warped and skewed to take center stage. That he divined these perfect visual companions to the music within is even more remarkable considering he did so without the benefit of hearing it. Not a fan of jazz, he found a workaround. “Rather than listening to the music, he worked directly from written descriptions of the music and the artists, given to him by the record labels.” (Chris M. Hughes, Wired)
For 12 years, he created an incredible body of work for the label, ss timeless as the music housed in his sleeves. He left Blue Note in 1967 and spent his second act as a photographer, founding the studio Reid Miles, Inc. upon his return to California. His new projects included work for the Saturday Evening Post, Look, and Esquire, along with corporate projects and a fine art series. Not entirely leaving the music business behind, he designed sleeves for Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler, the Jacksons’ Goin Places and Bob Dylan’s The Basement Tapes, among others. He also found his way into the world of directing TV spots, one of which earned him a Clio Award.
Reid Miles was a talented and visionary artist whose work will long be remembered. He passed away in 1993, at the age of 65.