The $1,000,000 Collection is a 1967 concept album by Johnny Dankworth, featuring impressionistic jazz pieces inspired by his favourite artworks, including Piet Mondrian’s Composition In Colour, Amedeo Modigliani’s Little Girl In Blue and Paul Klee’s The Sailor. It sounds exactly like the kind of music you would hear in the background of a feature on the opening of a new exhibition in a mid-sixties BBC2 arts show, which is hardly surprising as that is more or less exactly what it was – premiered at the legendary Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho and recorded for Fontana Records with a band full of the UK’s top jazz players of the time, including future television theme composer Laurie Holloway on piano and Kenny Wheeler – later to play on the Mr. Benn soundtrack (as you can read more about here) – on trumpet, which it has to be said does contrast slightly with the extremely American overtones of the title. Presumably The £1,228,800 0s 0d Collection just didn’t sound snappy enough.
Although the cover appears to depict a light-fingered Johnny reducing that total slightly by absconding with a copy of Derrick Greaves’ self-assembly Pop Art pansy Two Piece Flower lifted directly from a gallery wall, the fact of the matter is that Dankworth and his longtime musical and personal significant other Cleo Laine actually owned it, along with several other stuffy blowhard-infuriating examples of modern art that had caught their fancy. They were far from alone on this – there was a huge mutual appreciation and on many occasions collaborative crossover between the Modern Art and Modern Jazz scenes, and as well as inspiring some tremendous music, it also gave rise to some truly staggering sleeve artwork. Seriously, you may think that a bendy and stretched photo of The Beatles or a, erm, bendy and stretched photo of The Rolling Stones is the last word in far-out cover art, but honestly, they look like the European ‘Maxi-Single’ of Slow It Down by East 17 next to some of the splurges of sharp-line surrealist expressionism that surrounded the average collection of vibraphones and tape loops doing battle with a yodelling Norma Winstone. Here are ten of the most eyecatching examples of the literal artform, and, well, who better to start with than…
Cleo Laine – Shakespeare And All That Jazz (Fontana, 1964)
Backed by Johnny and the band, Cleo takes a summarising stroll through the works of The Bard, tackling everything from The Scottish Play to Sonnet 40 with wit, romance, snooks cocked at the wearisome behaviour of ‘blokes’ and, of course, lashings of dooby-bah-dah extemporisation, ensuring the album’s enduring popularity with GCSE English teachers planning to foist ‘a bit of a surprise today!!’ on bewildered classrooms. In keeping with the overall tone of respecting the art but not giving the artist a Get Out Of Jail Free card, the cover shows Cleo looking Sorry Mate You’re Bard-invitingly askance at a bust of Shakespeare with an expression that implies ‘yeah, you’re no The Exciting Mr. Fitch’, at a time when this wasn’t quite the done thing and indeed it caused a minor arts pages kerfuffle amongst men made entirely of tweed.
Johnny Dankworth – The Zodiac Variations (Fontana, 1965)
What better way to illustrate a suite of twelve impressionistic instrumental pieces representing all of the assorted chronological subdivisions of astrological hogwash (and a Catweazle-anticipating thirteenth dubbed Way With The Stars) than with Johnny reclining in the middle of a dramatically lit News Of The World Magazine Astrologer-friendly wheel of everyone’s favourite tosspot conman wrapped in orange curtain-touted signifiers of an unexpected opportunity that may come your way today, obsessively poring over what is doubtless ancient mystical advice that he should probably play the saxophone a bit. Typical Virgo.
Incidentally, you can find more of my thoughts on Johnny and Cleo’s fabulous sixties albums (and singles) here.
The London Jazz Four – Take A New Look At The Beatles (Polydor, 1967)
The Beatles were already branching out into album cover art featuring Phil Cool-style rubber-faced antics and far-out sketches of with bits of a fan’s scrapbook wedged in their hair by the time that The London Jazz Four delivered this remarkable collection of vibraphone-heavy BBC Four documentary-friendly reworkings of oldies but goldies, and, perhaps realising that there was no way they could compete with the psychedelic visual voyages of John, George, Ringo and ‘Dinners’, opted instead for a tasteful rendition of four How To Spot A Mason-esque City Gents staring aspirationally at a full-on I ‘Ung It On Me Wall art print of the Fab Moptops themselves. With no small irony, the wild interpretations of the likes of Things We Said Today, Rain and I Feel Fine are anything but stiffly starched and buttoned down, and indeed every bit as different-clobbered from the Beatle originals.
The Collin Bates Trio – Brew (Fontana, 1968)
Abstract time signature footstomp-along piano and bass shuffles to the fore as the briefly heavily toted but now massively obscure ensemble take the title of their title track a little too literally, and settle down beardishly under an eye-hurting umbrella in a fairly miserable-looking park with a ridiculously small volume of tea and a ridiculously large collection of teacups. It’s almost as though someone had thought of a visual pun but then had no idea of what to actually do with it.
The Mike Westbrook Concert Band – Celebration (Deram, 1967)
With their labelmates tellingly including Cat Stevens, Amen Corner and the pre-fame David Bowie, The Mike Westbrook Concert Band were closer to the pyschedelic and later progressive scene than many of their contemporaries, so small wonder that they chose to mark their arrival on the long-playing scene with a cover image somewhere between The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn-style photo trickery and that un-count-up-able credit slide for the musicians at the end of Mr. Benn. Suitable imagery indeed to accompany the likes of Pastoral, Awakening and Echoes And Heroics, but they’d only just got started…
The Mike Westbrook Concert Band – Marching Song (Deram, 1969)
Not so much hear the words I sing, war’s a horrid thing as hear the sounds we squawk through trombones with geese trapped inside them as the ensemble’s Vietnam-decrying spectacular multimedia immersive stage show finds itself deployed across a staggering double album that veers between the wearily triumphant Home and dreamily wandering Waltz (For Joanna) to the truly alarming Conflict, which would even have Starsailor-era Tim Buckley pleading with them to dial it down a bit. To really hammer the point home, a Westbrook Junior was commissioned to provide a relatively staying-in-the-lines child’s eye view of modern conflict, featuring parachutes, blazing helicopters and, on the front of Vol. 2, a fighter plane apparently repeatedly bombing one of its own side’s tanks. Sometimes the best satire genuinely is accidental.
The Mike Westbrook Concert Band – Love Songs (Deram, 1970)
The kids still have hold of the felt tips for the cover of Prog Jazz’s defining moment – which you can’t help but notice bears a certain degree of stylistic, typographical and chromatic resemblance to The Beach Boys’ at that point unreleased SMiLE – with this jaunty assemblage of neat handwriting giving little indication of the extended dancefloor-hammering excursions on the likes of Love Song No. 3, Autumn King and Original Peter to be found inside. Flip the record over, though, and you’ll see a truly alarming photo of Original Peter himself spinning around on his hands while The Concert Band play on oblivious to the risk of imminent foot/face impact. Which brings us around to the truly mind-hurting television presentation of the album… but you can find out more about that here.
Amancio D’Silva – Integration (Columbia, 1969)
Even in the hugely progressive – in both senses – jazz world, where nobody cared in the slightest where you were from if you could pick up the pace and dig the sounds, the late sixties still weren’t a tremendous time to be an ethnic musician in the UK. Everyone from The Yardbirds to Acker Bilk may have been plundering what had yet to be labelled ‘World Music’ for their far-out chartbound sounds, but the wider world and the wider media were still a little wary of the genuine article, with television and radio performances introduced with the air of a rare exciting novelty and very few of the practitioners finding their way onto album covers. Which it’s why it’s so striking to see this, well, striking portrait of the recently immigrated Brit-by-marriage Jonathan Miller protege on the front of this collection of spectacular East-Meets-West guitar mantras including Jaipur and We Tell You This. What’s more, it was released at the height of Enoch Powell’s snarly-mouthed swivel-eyed quavery-voiced bullshit-riven poison about ‘Rivers Of Blood’ (which ranks alongside his other great speeches about the unknown biblical source named ‘Q’ and that babble about an elephant). He was here, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. It’s a better album than any racist ever made too.
The Joe Harriott – John Meyer Double Quintet – Indo-Jazz Fusions (Columbia, 1967)
Meanwhile, speaking of ‘issues’ with presenting performers of a certain background on album covers, Anglo-Indian multi-instrumentalist John Mayer and Jamaican-born saxophonist Joe Harriott (and, crucially, their ‘Double Quintet’) were at the very forefront of cross-cultural musical fusion throughout the sixties, but were they allowed on the front of their finest artistic achievement? Were they Mint Bomb. Instead, Columbia opted for a Vipassana-observing lovely making transcendental hand shapes beneath a hazy purple filter and a title design more befitting of a short-lived ‘Carnaby Street’-themed Lyons Maid lolly. For the American release, Atlantic went one better and got her to stand up and strike a traditional dance pose, throwing in the kind of font you might more normally find attached to some chalky poppadums and indefinable generic ‘curry’ in packaging that can’t decide whether it’s cardboard or a plastic bag for good measure. Still, Indo-Jazz Fusions was home to the mighty Acka Raga, better known to generations as the mind-hurtingly ill-fitting theme to Ask The Family – which, ahh, you may read more if reading more is a wherewithal of your erudition, about here.
Georgie Fame – Get Away (Columbia, 1966)
Columbia were of course more than happy to put their Yeh Yeh-saying in the park-sitting Bonnie And Clyde let-me-tell-you-ing chart-topping poster boy on the front of his releases, and they seldom got more striking than this remarkable action shot of Georgie mid-concert, in front of some hip and happening two-tone monochrome chessboardy backdrop and lettering that suggested Exciting New Dimensions In Stereo even though it was actually in mono, and weird positioning that made it look as though the Hammond B3-toting Wake Up Morph songwriter was actually bashing out a cool post-Coltrane pattern on a drumkit. Which he was, erm, sat on top of.
The Don Rendell Ian Carr Quintet – Shades Of Blue (Columbia, 1965)
When you Freddie so Freeloader, all copymiles modal jazz, you accidentally come up with an album that may well be heavily in debt to Kind Of Blue but winds up being very nearly as good as it. Don, Ian and the Quintet would very quickly move towards avant-garde soundscapes such as the astonishing Dusk Fire, but this is arguably the definitive example of what the UK Jazzers were up to in the ‘Beat Boom’ era and as late night as an edition of Late Night Line-Up. Not that anyone told the miseryguts dollybird on the cover, who apparently followed the implication that the album was ‘Blue’ to the letter.
Blossom Dearie – That’s Just The Way I Want To Be (Fontana, 1970)
Something of a slightly more upbeat vibe for the piano-twinkling Europhile American singer-songwriter and this extraordinary self-reinventing collection of Raga/Bond Theme/Trumpton Fire Brigade Band Go Uptown/Downtown/Wherever Lord Belborough Actually Held His Rock Festival numbers where, backed by the finest regulars from Ronnie Scott’s, she raced through a series of arresting tributes to her musical associates like John Lennon, Dusty Springfield and Georgie Fame, and the legendary puddle-heeling psychedelic swagger I Like London In The Rain. All in all, then, a reasonable visual representation of an album that captured someone being the way they wanted to be. Which does leave you wondering how someone would denote an album composed largely of the sound of some blokes in lab coats attacking cellos with nail files. If such a thing actually existed. Which it does not. Clearly.
Buy A Book!
You can find much more on my encounters with Sixties UK Jazz in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Sweet Georgie Fame is the story of how I originally cultivated a love of Sixties Jazz via rooting around in charity shops; you can find it here. Diggin’ The Dankworths is a look through Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine’s often overlooked albums and singles from the sixties and early seventies, which you can find here. The Original Peter is a feature on The Mike Westbrook Concert Band’s alarming arts happening of the same name on late-night BBC2; you can read all about it here.
The Original Peter was one of my choices when I talked about my ideal evening’s entertainment on Perfect Night In; you can hear (and see!) it here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.