Album covers have always captured my attention, particularly those that were created in the 1950s, the ’60s and the ’70s. There was a bodacious quality about the imagery that drew me close: the alluring and moody portraits of the hippest music legends; the then-edgy and clever titles accentuated in bold and funky type; and the innovative and sophisticated graphic design all creating an enticing visual to the evocative record on the inside. The music itself, whether instrumental or with lyrics, was an expression of the composer’s emotions or a social commentary about the culture or social climate in which it was created. And right there, while listening to the record, I would contemplate the artistic album cover because in some way it was reflective of the message in the music.
“Jazz. Covers. Politics: Album Art in an Age of Activism” is an exhibition at The Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York City featuring more than 175 jazz album covers, actual covers along with some reproductions, that “make the politics visible.” Professor Robert G. O’Meally, Zora Neale Hurston Professor of English and Comparative Literature, and founder and former director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, writes about the exhibit: “One hundred and fifty years since the Emancipation Proclamation, 50 since the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama: This exhibit proclaims music — jazz music in particular — as indispensible to our responsibilty to remember and to take concerted action.”
The concept for the exhibition had been planned for years, an idea for Jazz at Lincoln Center, but with a dedicated team this exhibit was pulled together in two months. “Jazz. Covers. Politics” is divided into nine categories that incorporates concepts of politics for the titles such as Freedom Dreams, Celebrating Blackness, We Wear the Mask, and Amen Corner; and the exhibition features covers as early as the 1920s, the ’50s, the ’60s and up to the year 2000, with Common’s Like Water for Chocolate. This powerful exhibit was organized by the Romare Bearden Foundation and curated by Diedre Harris-Kelley, C. Daniel Dawson and Robert G. O’Meally, whose text throughout the show places the album covers in a narrative context.
“One of the reasons that this exhibit is important is because it is a holographic view of African-American culture,” says photographer and scholar C. Daniel Dawson, a member of the curatorial team. “It shows the continuation of the policital and social commitment by African-American artists from, at least, the time of spirituals to the most contemporary, avant garde materials.”
The show presents a variety of design styles, from drawings by the musicians (Miles Davis and Sun Ra) and paintings by famous artists such as Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence and Pablo Picasso to photos by established photographers such as Roy DeCarava and Chuck Stewart. Some of the artists and records on display include Archie Shepp’s Things Have Got to Change, Jackie McLean’s Let Freedom Ring, The Horace Silver Quintet’s Song for My Father, and the brilliant trio of Lester Young, Roy Eldridge and Harry Edison on Laughin’ to Keep from Cryin’. And what would an exhibit that celebrates jazz be without Thelonius Monk and Randy Weston, whose albums are also featured. There are also the covers of records by non-jazz figures such as poets Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and the cover of Unsubmissive Blue by the late Jayne Cortez.
“I have often felt this show could have been called the Real Ambassadors. Album covers were the things that were exported all over the world,” says Diedra Harris-Kelley, curator and co-director of the Romare Bearden Foundation. “Sometimes, they acted to introduce the idea, they were the face of the musician and the music, the first experience a listener has with the concepts contained in the sound. Most exhibitions aim to bring together ideas, to highlight and explain visual culture. In this case, it’s jazz and politics, and the art that speaks about it.”
“Jazz. Covers. Politics” will be open to the public on weekdays until Aug. 23, 2013. Reservations are required to view the show. Please email email@example.com  to schedule a visit.
Photograph: Courtesy Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, N.Y.