Great Album Covers: Mingus Ah Um

Mingus Ah Um 2

From the buoyant gospel of ‘Better Git It In Your Soul’ and the mournful grace of ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ to ‘Fables of Faubus’, a caustic protest song inspired by the Little Rock Nine and the ongoing effort to right the wrongs of segregation, Mingus Ah Um is one of Charles Mingus’s most diverse and accessible albums. It was recorded over two sessions with his Jazz Workshop, a rotating group of familiar musicians which on this occasion included John Handy on alto sax, Booker Ervin and Shafi Hadi on tenor sax, Horace Parlan on piano, Dannie Richmond on drums, and Willie Dennis and Jimmy Knepper sharing the trombone. And it was released on 14 September 1959, as Mingus’s first album for Columbia.

The iconic cover of Mingus Ah Um was designed by S. Neil Fujita. Born in Waimea, Hawaii to Japanese parents – called Sadamitsu, the name ‘Neil’ only adopted while at boarding school in Honolulu – Fujita had begun his studies at the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles when in 1942, in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he was forced to relocate to an internment camp in Wyoming. The following year he enlisted with the 442nd Infantry Regiment, which was made up of Japanese-American volunteers and became by the end of World War II the most decorated unit in American military history.

Completing his studies after the war, Fujita joined the prominent Philadelphia advertising agency N. W. Ayer & Son, where his experimental designs brought him to the attention of Columbia Records. He was hired by Columbia in 1954. Previously much of the label’s design work had passed through the hands of Alex Steinwess, remembered today as the pioneer of album cover art, and Columbia’s first Art Director when he was appointed to the position back in 1938. Fujita’s task was to build on what Steinweiss had created, heading a team of designers who could compete with the innovative work coming out of leading jazz label Blue Note.

Many of Fujita’s best-known album covers seemed to grasp the sympathies of feeling, the shared patterns and common impulses between modern jazz and modern art. With a background in painting, he moved away from the illustrative style adhered to by Steinweiss, and introduced popular music to abstract expressionism – the geometric shapes and patches of mixed colour in his own pieces sharing much with the Bauhaus-era work of Wassily Kandinsky. Together with his photo edits, Fujita’s designs for Columbia managed to encompass all of the outpourings of bebop as they appeared from the middle of the 1950s, from the relaxed tempos of cool jazz and the blues and gospel-inspired flurries of hard bop, to the climaxes and breakdowns of avant-garde and free jazz.

In addition to Mingus Ah Um, Fujita painted the covers for Time Out by The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Far Out, Near In by Johnny Eaton, and Glenn Gould’s 1959 recording of pieces by Berg, Schoenberg, and Krenek. His photomontage for the Jazz Messengers’ first studio album documented Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Hank Mobley, Donald Byrd, and Doug Watkins in the swells and lulls of performance. And his design for ‘Round About Midnight showed Miles Davis, photographed under red lights by Marvin Koner, coy but resolute behind shades.

The designer Milton Glaser, who worked on album covers with Fujita, said:

‘He had superb taste and was one of the early art directors in the field who distinguished himself by having a rigorous design objective. It was a kind of synthesis of Bauhaus principles and Japanese sensibility.’

While recalling his time at Columbia, Fujita explained:

‘When I got to Columbia, there was the beginning of some idea of album cover art but it was still just type and maybe a photo of the artist and some shapes arranged in an interesting way. That was the first concept of album cover art. Actually the first examples of album art that I can remember were on children’s records, because they might have included a painting or something else to illustrate the idea. But I think that I was the first to use painters, photographers and illustrators to do artwork on album covers.’

In fact Fujita had briefly left Columbia in 1957, and in 1960 he departed for good to start his own design firm. By 1963, he had joined the public relations firm Ruder & Finn, creating a division which would come to be known as Fujita Design. He turned to book jackets, and designed the covers for John Updike’s short story collection Pigeon Feathers, Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, and Mario Puzo’s crime epic The Godfather, later teaching at the Philadelphia Museum College of Art, the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan.

* * *

Mingus Ah Um 3