Alexander Jarman

The Best Job In New York City

Alexander Jarman
The Best Job In New York City

Our last Listening Party was devoted to the music of Joanne Brackeen in honor of Women's History Month, so our post on album art this week is similarly focusing on a great woman designer, Paula Scher, and her work on Brackeen's Ancient Dynasty.

Paula Scher's design for Ancient Dynasty by Joanne Brackeen  (1980, Tappan Zee Records)

Joanne Brackeen

Somewhere along her brilliant career, Brackeen earned the title "the Picasso of jazz."  During our last listening party, some of the guests remarked upon her ability to showcase many different textures within a single song, and that is certainly a link to the collagist master of early modern art.  Joanne was also remarkable for having reached the heights of jazz despite being self-taught and a woman.  She is perhaps most famous in the last regard for having been the first woman to play in Art Blakely's Jazz Messengers group.  Joanne is still kicking butt at age 78, and has played a major role in shaping jazz not just through her own compositions, but also through her teaching. She has held faculty positions at many prominent institutions, perhaps most distinguished among them Berklee College of Music.  

Paula Scher

Scher has smashed some glass ceilings of her own, especially as the first woman principal at the design firm where she still works, Pentagram.  Having originally moved to New York City to work on book design, she was hired by CBS Records in 1972 and began designing album covers.  In her interview on the Netflix series "Abstract" Scher describes that moment of her life as "being a kid with the best job in New York City."  It was here (and at Atlantic Records) where Paula learned about trying to meet demanding recording artists half-way, and she began to relish the opportunity to design for jazz artists, because she found they wanted to be more artistic and creative with their albums than artists in other genres. 

The Tappan Zee Bridge

More specifically, Scher received assignments from an imprint of CBS, called Tappan Zee. Bob James had begun the sub-label after recording three successful solo albums, and named it after a bridge he knew well–the Tappan Zee bridge which crosses the Hudson River between Rockland and Westchester counties.  Scher created big, bold graphics for James' albums, as evidenced by Touchdown, H, and Lucky Seven, among many others. 

Bob James' album Touchdown, unfolded to reveal front and back together.

As an artist on the Tappan Zee label, Joanne Brackeen enjoyed the benefits of Scher's amazing design. The beautiful, almost haunting piano keys of Ancient Dynasty are an amazing visual equivalent of the album's title and seem to point to the long legacy of jazz.  Other Brackeen albums of that era, such as Keyed In, display a similar sensibility as the album design for Bob James.  

Paula Scher's design for Joanne Brackeen, Keyed In, 1979

As a designer Paula Scher was most in love with typography and her adept use of the written word, which she would become so famous for in her post-album design days with poster designs for NYC's Public Theater, were evident early on in designs for Charles Mingus.  

Paula Scher's design for Charles Mingus, Changes One, 1975

Paula Scher is now one of the most important names in American design, and an even more important symbol as a strong woman in a field so long dominated by male perspectives.  She continues to create amazing and surprising work, though at age 68 her legacy is already well cemented.  Everyone, though, does have regrets in their life and career, and if Scher has but one the best guess might be her cover design for Boston's debut album, which she calls "dumb" but nevertheless has become an icon.

Boston's first album, designed by Paula Scher in 1976