Last Updated: May 3, 2020
Collector’s Guide to the Blue Note fonts (warning: Geek Rating 11/10)
On every Blue Note label, the one in “thirty three and one-third” speed is sans-serif if it is Mono, and with serif if it is Stereo. Not a lot of people know that, or need to, as it is completely irrelevant. The point illustrates how easily our brains interpolate – fill in the gaps, and see what we expect to see, rather than attend to what is actually there. The Collector needs to pay close attention to detail, and to make side-by-side comparisons that make differences jump out.
Collector’s most fruitful encounter with typography is the Blue Note record center label, which contains all-important detail of origin. From 1956 to 1966, and likely earlier, Blue Note labels were typeset and printed by Keystone Printed Specialties, Scranton PA.
Keystone maintained the Blue Note template for corporate elements of the label design, while individual titles had their unique content typeset seperately, and fitted into this template.
Different print suppliers favoured different makes of printing machines, for whom competing foundaries made proprietary font sets. These font-sets are effectively the signature of the printer, and often a signpost to the pressing plant.
Print technology in this time used hot-metal typesetting, using line-casting machines. Keystone was equipped with the Intertype make of line-casting machines. For Blue Note artist and album titles, Keystone used the geometric sans-serif font Intertype Vogue, in upper case only , with a range of different point-sizes, for fit and emphasis
Keystone labels generally have a slightly different greenish-tint ink for the album detail than for the corporate elements, which were usually in reflex blue. The paperstock used is quite fine high quality, which maintains sharpness of text by preventing ink from bleeding through into neighbouring fibres. It’s Blue Note quality, in everything.
The example below is a later Liberty release label , but illustrates the continuity of typesetting Blue Note labels in Intertype Vogue. The most prominent design element of Intertype Vogue is the shape of the capital G, a perfect geometric round character.
The detail of Blue Note label printing by Liberty continues at the end of this section.
Fontography – Blue Note Cover Design
Reid Miles Blue Note covers elevated fonts to an essential part of cover design, integrating large blocks of text with carefully cropped or enlarged photo of the artist by Francis Wolff. The choice of fonts was eclectic, selected for dramatic effect, and often blended with photographic elements.
Typography professionals have spotted these well-known Blue Note covers, and identified the font used in the design.
The back cover of Blue Notes operated a “house style” of sorts, with the three-column body copy set in a font selected purely for maximum readability, typically Franklin Gothic. The catalogue number, headline album title and artist name and instrument players was set in Bodoni Bold. The track-listing contrasts in a small bold sans-serif face.
Artist Name, Album Title, Catalogue Number and artist credits : Bodoni Bold
Song Titles: a san serif face (unknown), in upper case
Body Copy: Franklin Gothic (sans serif face popularly used for legibility)
In the early days the catalogue number follows the Arts/Title in Bodoni Bold, though later on a sans-serif face was deployed,
From 1956, the classic serif font is found on most Blue Note 1500 series and most of the 4000 series Blue Note originals in the Blue Note Years. Then suddenly, sometime between 1965 and 1966 the house style of Blue Note covers changed from serif to sans-serif, coinciding with the change of management to Liberty Records.
Within a year or so the Catalogue number had shrunk to insignificance and then all-but disappeared from the jacket design. Miles Reid’s influence was replaced by whatever designers were in favour with the new owners Liberty, and United Artists,
A large sans-serif catalogue number on the back cover is associated with “Liberty-NY Blue Note” – cover manufactured for Liberty. These include 4118 and 4171 ( font anomaly), 4193 Art Blakey’s Indestructible, 4203 Andrew Hill’s Andrew!!, 4219 Wayne Shorter’s All seeing Eye, and many other titles assigned a catalogue number by Blue Note Records Inc but whose release was produced by Liberty Records Inc.
These Liberty first editions are of course without “the ear”, rendering them as Van Goghs
Following the sale of Blue Note to Liberty in July 1966, Keystone Printed Specialties ceased to be the sole supplier of print to Blue Note. Liberty began to manufacture on both East and West Coasts, ultimately supplemented by a number of third party pressing plants, as the industry struggled with the capacity to meet the demand for records. Labels continued to be printed by Keystone for East Coast operations, but on the West Coast the task of typesetting and printing labels fell to the Hollywood giant, Bert-Co. Bert-Co was equipped with the rival Linotype line-casting machines. Linotype’s geometric sans-serif font choice was Linotype Spartan family, and generally album title and artist name were printed in only uppercase Spartan at the same point size.
The distinguishing feature of Spartan was that despite being a sans serif font, the number 1 as in “SIDE 1” has a horizontal left top serif. Keystone’s Vogue face has a pure sans-serif I – usually typeset in upper and lower case “Side l” with a simple without serif number I. Bert-Co also used the same inks for the whole label, including the elements of corporate design, and their incorporation symbol ® is poorly formed, due to type of ink and paper.
Liberty Records acquired the old stock inventory of previously printed covers and labels, many New York USA labels, which were used in the reissue of earlier Blue Note titles. It also had printed new Blue Note “New York” labels for its issues, before establishing the Division of Liberty identity.
Reissues by the West Coast plant Research Craft, who re-mastered reissues from copy tape, were required to print fresh Division of Liberty labels, which were typeset and printed by Bert-Co.
These are easily distinguished by their font and typesetting choices (Linotype Spartan, capitals only) , and drifting colour fidelity from the problematic Reflex Blue to intermixed shades verging on navy blue or excessive cyan tints.
In the final years of Liberty – 1969-70 – Blue Note new releases were pressed at a variety of plants and the label printing devolved to whoever was local to them.Keystone continued to print labels for Liberty Blue Note pressings on the East Coast, whose plants were predominantly All Disc Records Roselle NJ, Keel Mfg, Hauppage LI, and in the latter years , Columbia’s Pitman Plant, who had their own print facilities and different font preferences.