Spending time in the south of France, a short distance from Nice’s museum of modern art, in the dusty window of a seller of antique books and art, I noticed an extraordinary and unusual book. Fashioned in the form of a grand piano, complete with silver piano keys, it was a folio of lithographs by the French artist and illustrator, Raymond Moretti, entitled simply Jazz. It sounded like my sort of book.
As seems customary in the fine art and antique business, no price was indicated on anything – that usually has to be established by negotiation, gauging the degree of interest, and jousting knowledge as to value, something easily done with records, but not in my case, with books. My French is serviceable but not up to debating the finer points of art, and I imagined it “expensive” from the level of hand-tooled craftsmanship.
I returned with camera the following day, hoping to grab a picture inconspicuously for further study. The book was still on display and did indeed look as beautiful, confirming my initial reaction. This time the bookseller inside, an elderly lady, noticed me peering through the window and the camera was getting frosty looks. Worse, she seemed suspicious, perhaps fearing that I might try and make off with some of the illustrations on display outside the shop. This was not going well, and near closing time, so I decided to leave things to another day.
A little research was required. Who exactly is or was Raymond Moretti, and what might be found in turning those fragile antique pages? Google quickly turned up some copies of Moretti’s volume Jazz, however none with the piano construction, merely in conventional book form, published more recent than I thought, in 1983. The piano edition seems something possibly rare, a special edition. I also discovered the asking price for second hand copies of this folio of Moretti lithographs was pretty stiff, variously priced at between 400 and 800 euros.
It seems Moretti was born in Nice in the ’30s, and had a long association with the city and the Riviera, as well as being a passionate jazz fan. He grew up listening to Basie on shellac disc. As his oeuvre developed he moved in the finest artistic circles of the Riviera, counting Picasso among his friends, as well as a collaboration with Jean Cocteau. I also found illustrations attributed to Moretti that I immediately recognised – one of Louis Armstrong, in characteristic dynamic penstrokes through which the image emerges from background.
One French fine art dealer on-line offered an insight into the illustrations within the book in that window, turning the pages, starting with Moretti’s interpretation of Duke Ellington.
The Louis Armstrong connection was stronger than I knew. Armstrong already has a place in the grounds of Arenas de Cimiez, off the Alée Miles Davis and Alée Barney Wilen, commemorating jazz artists at the annual Nice Jazz Festival (before the headline acts became Earth Wind and Fire and this year, Deep Purple). Various jazz musicians posed for Moretti, including Louis, Ela and Monk. The book revealed this amazing and on reflection well-known interpretation of Louis Armstrong:
What did Louis think of his portrait? Seen here attending its’ unveiling at the classic Hotel Negresco (whose entrance is graced by a lifesize mosaic sculpture of Miles Davis by Niki de Saint Phalle) Moretti is pictured beside Louis, right.
I expect Armstrong laughed, characteristically larger than life, though looking a little more pensive here, apparently being offered a bag of popcorn and a cuddly toy by his wife Lucille on his right (hat tip, EL)
Research drew my attention to the so called “Moretti Covers” that are found on twelve Verve records. As is often the case on the internet, someone had written a short paragraph on the existence of these reportedly sought-after and collectible covers, and that same paragraph is endlessly cut and pasted again and again, with no further insight.
“The 1960s saw the publication of Moretti Verve, a series of 12 LPs recorded by the greatest names of Jazz, the covers illustrated by the painter. These covers are now collector’s items”.
It transpires that the Moretti Twelve were not mainstream Verve releases, but alternative covers on French Verve. Jimmy Smith gets a designer working over in Moretti’s vibrant energetic style. The Verve still-photo has character, but to me, the Moretti sounds more like Jimmy Smith. Perhaps these things are an acquired European taste.
Tracking down the Moretti Covers was not easy as few seemed to tag their uploaded covers with designer detail, but with a little persistence a good few came to light, mostly Verve “Original Jazz Records” reissues, but you get the drift. If you could paint Bop, what would it look like? How do you capture music in ink and paint?
Raymond Moretti: Painter, sculptor, designer, illustrator, finally disappeared in June 2005
I returned briefly to the antique bookseller to take one more look at his piano special edition of Jazz, only to find it had gone.