Friday, September 01, 2006

Burt Goldblatt: a great artist passes on…

I was sad to hear yesterday morning that Burt Goldblatt, a great artist whose work graces the covers of many jazz LPs and 7 and 10 inch EPs from the heyday of the 1950s, has died. His wife Kathy phoned me. Burt and Kathy were very generous with their time when I was writing about jazz cover design several years ago and we had kept in contact since. Even though our get-togethers and phone calls were infrequent, they were like family. It was their way. Burt even appeared on Coffeetime a few years ago.

I'll be attending a memorial service for Burt today; Alex MacNeil will be sitting in for me on Coffeetime, playing crime jazz and other gems as he did a few weeks ago when I was overwhelmed by work.

Below is an amended version the introduction to the piece I wrote in 1999. You can read the whole inverview with Burt on my website. His brilliant energy will be missed.

Burt Goldblatt was born in 1924 in Dorchester, Massachusetts. He served in the army in World War II and afterwards studied at the Massachusetts College of Art. After graduation he worked in a printing plant where he learned all that went into production at that time: stripping, platemaking, retouching, lessons not taught in art school. After freelancing for a time in Boston, he moved to New York City and began a prolific career as a commercial artist and photographer, becoming especially prolific in cover design, creating about 200 cover designs in 1955 alone. That same year he won the New York Art Director’s Award for best cover design of the year and the Princeton University Library exhibited his work.

One of Goldblatt's first cover designs was on a bootleg album for Billy Holiday on the Jolly Roger label in 1950. He worked for Savoy, Emarcy, Bethlehem and many other labels. With his first covers he aimed for a visual simplicity and yet also a strength of image by eliminating song titles from the cover and by creating unique and intriguing illustrations. His drawings of musicians employ a dynamic, serpentine line. The variations in weight from thick to thin would alone mark the drawing as distinctively his, but it is his original use of unusual perspectives that distinguishes Mr. Goldblatt's line drawings from others of the same period, whether it’s a view of Don Byas from above or George Wallington from below.

His other illustrative covers are equally distinctive, for example, a broadly abstracted caricature of Frances Faye or a portrait of Bud Freeman composed entirely of tiny saxophones. He utilized a vast range of methods and styles, including collage, montage, even x-rays. In addition to his illustrative designs, Goldblatt also became one of the outstanding photographer/designers. His photographic cover designs for Bethlehem combine evocative pictures with restrained yet lyrical typography. These covers are timeless designs, elegant works unto themselves that never look outdated or old fashioned.

Amazingly, he was self-taught in photography. He kept himself unobtrusive in recording studios and nightclubs, capturing millions of filmed images, some of which later graced his cover designs. He was accepted by the musicians and, in fact, was friends with many. More than just a jazz fan, it is safe to say that Mr. Goldblatt was himself part of the jazz scene, not just a chronicler of it.

Mr. Goldblatt designed covers into the '60s, but the changes in the industry brought about by rock and roll caused him to follow other pursuits. He went from a prolific cover design career to a prolific writing career, publishing and co-authoring 17 books on topics as diverse as Mobs And The Mafia: The Illustrated History Of Organized Crime, The Marx Brothers At The Movies and The World Series A Complete Pictorial History. He has also published books of his jazz photography and on the Newport Jazz Festival. Today, living in Hopkinton, Massachusetts and traveling regularly with his wife, he still pursues many projects both as a visual artist and as a writer. His work has been honored many times, in 1962 at the Smithsonian and in the winter of 1993-94 at Harvard University. Despite numerous medical setbacks, Mr. Goldblatt stayed active and optimistic in his later years “I’m a survivor; I’ve had cancer and triple-bypass heart surgery. I walk three miles a day with my dog. I was very active as a kid. I feel good.”

He passed away on August 30 in Boston, with his wife Katherine Holzman Goldblatt by his side. He is survived by his wife, two daughters, and two grandsons.