My Jazz Odyssey: A Musical Tribute to Baseball Cards

Baseball and Jazz. Two things I enjoy greatly, and two things Ken Burns made popular PBS documentaries for. That could be part of the reason I’m associating the two in this post, but why not? Both had musicians and athletes that brought wider public awareness of inequalities and civil rights struggles of the Black population. Both have had their share of talented and brilliant minds that lead to innovations that forever altered their respective professions (far too many to mention!). In today’s world, I kind of see both as being seeing as less-cool than other sport and music options, especially if you take deep dives into advanced baseball statistics or music theory. Of course, I think both can be as cool as the other side of the pillow or else I wouldn’t be writing this. However, baseball cards could (be found in corner stores all across North America, and can still be to this day. Jazz musicians never graced cardboard in this fashion, so I want to do my small part and give an idea of what they may have looked like.

More than any other card, baseball has the most classic look. It makes sense that more effort may have been put into these cards than, say, basketball or football since baseball was the undisputed #1 sport in North America for decades in terms of popularity. Many designs had a clean-cut presentation that often adhered to the K.I.S.S. method (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) to create cards worth collecting on an annual basis. It takes the right balance of an appropriate photograph, eye-catching colours, font selections, and keeping symmetry in mind to make a memorable card. Thinking outside of the box every once in a while wouldn’t hurt either, but you wouldn’t necessarily need to be a Van Gogh to construct a work of art. Those principles have made many of the best Topps baseball card designs from the ‘50s and ‘60s stand the test of time, much like so many album covers that graced Blue Note jazz records from the same era.

I’ve simply imagined what some of the baseball card designs might look like if adapted for a musical purpose. Some of the sets I based my cards on were picked from my favourite designs, and others I simply chose for their unique look. I branched out beyond Topps to get a mix of manufacturers here, and the musicians selected were chosen with purpose. Each of them represents not just the greats of the genre, but ones that helped me understand jazz and expand my horizons. It was a gradual process to get to the point where I could comfortably call myself a jazz fan, and each of them had a key role in that process in some form.

I’ll begin with where my jazz odyssey started. As a beginning bass player while in high school, I was rapidly becoming familiar with many of the more influential four-stringers within rock and metal (Geddy Lee, Les Claypool, Cliff Burton, etc.). I was not yet a regular jazz listener, but I would always one name when reading magazines and online discussions regarding the all-time greatest bass guitarist: Jaco Pastorius. Since I had seen the man referred to as the Jimi Hendrix of bass, I had to invest in some of his recordings. Thankfully, my dad owned a few Weather Report albums in his sizeable record collection, and I made my start with Heavy Weather. It was a good beginning for me, very accessible with numerous highlights for the bassist, including his delicate touch on “A Remark You Made” and his two compositions in “Havona” and the fast-paced “Teen Town” (a track you could consider the bass player equivalent to Van Halen’s “Eruption”).

Considering the release date of Heavy Weather, I chose the 1977 Topps design as a basic template to follow.

1977Topps_Jaco

1977Topps_JacoBack

Note that I didn’t include the album among his discography. Baseball cards of the time typically would list statistics from the season that the card was printed during, with the most recent information being from the season prior. That said, this highlights how in-demand Jaco was as a recording artist, having played on several albums in 1976 that are now considered to be classics. It was an easy enough design to tackle, and it gave me the flexibility to flaunt his band name in place of the team moniker at the top of the front. I like the placement of the autographs over the photos as well. Jaco signed his name differently throughout the years based on the samples I’ve seen while searching, and I decided to place the one that is solely his first name on the front since I found it to be the most photogenic. In need of a card number, I took it from a reliable tool of Jaco’s, his 1962 Fender Jazz bass a.k.a. “The Bass of Doom”.

While Jaco and Weather Report was where I first started diving into jazz on my own, my exposure came years before that. Chick Corea was always one of those guys that my dad would bring up when talking about music. The pianist/keyboardist’s name is a very fun one to say, never being far from my memory due to the alliteration. When I got my first bass I decided to familiarize myself with his work through the Chick Corea Elektric Band after borrowing a John Patitucci instructional video out of the library (more on that story here). The sound on their recordings was very much a product of the technology of the day, which I’ll admit what a slight obstacle for me, but damn could they ever play!

My first Elektric Band album was their 1986 debut, which featured a lineup in flux. Two guitarists played on that album, Carlos Rios and Scott Henderson. It wasn’t until the Light Years album that their lineup solidified with the addition of a saxophonist in Eric Marienthal and guitarist Frank Gambale joining Corea, bassist Patitucci, and drummer Dave Weckl. It’s shortly after that point in their career that I took inspiration on a card design, looking towards the 1988 Score set. I don’t have a particular attachment to those cards, but the fronts are rather clean-looking with a simplistic approach on the front that works well to show the entire band in landscape orientation.

1988Score_ElektricBand

1988Score_ElektricBand_Back

The photo I used on the back appears to be from the same session as the front, so that lends to some nice continuity. The band’s logo fits nicely where the team logo was placed, and I attempted to be relatively faithful to fonts for the most part. It was difficult to figure out what to include regarding information, so I basically used the space to talk up the musicians and promote what would be their upcoming release that year (Eye of the Beholder). There aren’t many parallels to baseball stats I could have made, but perhaps a harsh jazz critic (not me!) might want to track their errors.

As a side-note, given that Chick Corea recently passed away, the rest of the band held a YouTube livestream discussion that I highly recommend. As long as I’ve been familiar with the band, there were several stories shared that I’d never heard before.

For the next card, I thought of an interesting idea that I had seen several sets do variations on. Since baseball cards at a time were marketed towards children, some sets would flash-back to the players themselves were kids. I’d seen it on hockey cards we’d find in Post cereal boxes in the ’90s, but the concept existed decades before on baseball cards. I was hoping to do a Herbie Hancock card based off the 1972 Topps take on the concept, but I couldn’t locate a picture of him where he was a kid. Nonetheless, I took a cue from these jazz greats and improvised. 1993 Pinnacle also had a flashback-style subset called “Now & Then” where they’d show pictures of a player as they appear currently and as they appeared as rookies, so I shifted my focus.

If I think harder about it, Herbie Hancock may have been the actual first jazz name that got put in my head, and it’s once again all thanks to my father. I’ve got a bunch of memories of my dad sharing much about his music career before I ever got into jazz, throwing even more alliterative names at me with Herbie’s frequent guitarist collaborator ‘Wah Wah’ Watson. May dad was a big tech guy too, and use to tinker with synthesizers and MIDI, the sort of technology that Herbie made a good living working with. Strongest of all in my memory is that there was a hiking trail near the trailer park my family spent our summers at, and someone nailed a rather menacing sign to a tree that read “Beware of Headhunters!”. The Headhunters, being the name of Herbie’s band in the mid ‘70s, my dad would always hum “Chameleon” or another Herbie Hancock song when we walked past it, and my mom would tell him to “cut it out” when he insisted that there were actual headhunters lurking in the woods of Haliburton, Ontario.

Here’s my attempt at the card, going back as far as I could go with Herbie to a photo that was tagged as being from 1960. Not a child, but a young man of nineteen or twenty years old.

I took quite a few liberties on the back of the card. A sampling of album covers to summarize his solo career to that point (Maiden Voyage, Crossings, and Future Shock along with the aforementioned Headhunters) to add some colour to the back above the main write-up, and an unoriginal choice of placing his birth year in place of the card’s number. It’s highly unlikely for a card set to have nearly 2000 cards in it, but it would sure be thorough in its coverage of the jazz.

Right after I completed the Herbie Hancock card, it clicked with me that I had seen one highly popular jazz artist when he was a kid: Miles Davis! I wanted to do a card of Miles anyway, and remember seeing old photos of him in the documentary The Miles Davis Story. My introduction to Miles was the electric era, having taken a copy of Bitches Brew out of the library when I was in college. I’ll admit that it didn’t grab me on the first listen. Returning to the album again a year or so later, I began to appreciate what he was doing though it still took some adjustment on my behalf. I’m sure Kind of Blue or Sketches of Spain are more typical albums to begin with if you’re trying to jump into his massive catalog, but my persistence did pay off.

1972Topps_MilesDavis

1972Topps_MilesDavisBack

I initially thought that the photo I found for the contemporary Miles was from near 1972, but it may be from roughly around the time he was incorporating electric instruments into his bands in the mid-to-late 1960s. I don’t consider that of high importance considering that it was not at all uncommon for sports cards to use photos from years past, or even the same photo for several sets in a row instead of a fresh one. The number 5 is a natural choice for the card number as representing his great quintets, and the bio is as solid a crash course for Miles as I could think up. The word spacing I didn’t fuss to much over and is a bit ugly, but I don’t think it looked that hot on the original card anyway.

One of my go-to sources of buying jazz albums early on was through Chapters book stores. Outside of jazz, I couldn’t find a damned thing there. They usually only had the more popular of pop and rock albums, and mostly had easy-listening music. My jazz luck, however, was quite good, and the prices were usually better on their jazz CDs versus the other music they kept in stock that interested me. One of the first albums I bought there was Introducing Billy Cobham. I think my brother had a Mahavishnu Orchestra album in his collection that he plays on, but I wasn’t very familiar with it. While it is a compilation album, which I typically don’t like buying, it certainly did the trick. Cobham could play with a thunder that I was more used to hearing from rock drummers, but there was no doubt he was rooted in jazz. The album had a great blend of material from his Atlantic albums of the mid-1970s, with emphasis on his debut album Spectrum. I eventually bought Spectrum at the same store a year or so later, which I realized I left behind at the cashier when I was at the other end of the mall around a half an hour later. That stressed me out way more than it should have!

I chose the 1974 Topps set to use for Cobham’s card, which I always found to be easy on the eyes.

1974Topps_BillyCobham

1974Topps_BillyCobham_Back

You’ll notice that a typical theme so far is that it took what is largely referred to as “fusion” (a mix of jazz and rock elements) to help me get accustomed to jazz music, and I acknowledge the jazz sub-genre in the card’s front banners. The photo could possibly be from after 1974, but there’s no way that I was going to say no to that sweater! One reason I wanted to do a card from this set was the cartoons they’d use on the backs to share obscure facts, but my crude tracing of a clipart soldier leaves something to be desired. Unlike with the Jaco card, I used a font rather than a real autograph because I couldn’t fit Billy’s real one into such a narrow space. I have the same problem when I need to provide my signature for government-issued ID, so it appears we have something in common.

The next artist may seem too unorthodox to many jazz purists, but my mind was open to his style when I first heard him. I’m going with Ornette Coleman. I was introduced to Ornette through guitarist Pat Metheny, a guy I could easily have included in a card of his own. His Bright Size Life album included one of Coleman’s compositions in “Round Trip / Broadway Blues”, and I bought their collaborative album Song X around the same time. As for Ornette Coleman leading his own bands, it was his The Shape of Jazz To Come album that I started on. And, yes, it came from the jazz section of Chapters. Ornette’s sense of melody would probably throw many a loop, but The Shape of Jazz To Come never seemed too challenging for me to listen to. I’ll chalk my Bitches Brew experience up to that comfort, but just don’t get me to explain any of it nonetheless (I’ll leave that up to Polyphonic). He’s one of those guys that I can still get excited about whenever I stumble across one of the less-popular, more difficult to locate works in his discography, just as I did months ago when finding Virgin Beauty.

To commemorate the first of his albums I bought, and since I wanted to go back in time to much older card sets, I’m going with that era and paying homage to the 1960 Topps design. I suppose I could have picked a set from the year prior since that was when The Shape of Jazz To Come was released, but this design allowed for me to squeeze two photos onto the front rather than one. And boy, did the fronts of that set ever look sharp!

1960Topps_Ornette

1960Topps_Ornette_Back

As you can see, I went with what I did on the Chick Corea card and gave credit to the musicians that played with him. I’m not very knowledgeable about the early portion of his career, but since he didn’t have very many recordings out at that stage, I felt safe only listing a couple points in his Career Highlights section. Also, my choice of a more minimal drawing made for a cleaner cartoon panel than it did on the Cobham card.

It got to a point as a jazz consumer that I asked myself why I never went any further into the past than Miles and Ornette. Charlie Parker was a name that I’d always hear about, but never knew where to start. I only ever seem to find bargain-bin compilations with his playing on them, but not much in terms of high-fidelity recordings. Some I own have a handful of quality tracks (in terms of the recording, not the performance), but it seems to be a difficult search. Although I’m including a card for him, I still strive to buy some of his essential works. One that I do have my eye on is Jazz at Massey Hall. With “Bird”, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell, and Max Roach, you have what is known in baseball circles as a Murderers’ Row of talent. The fact they were able to all be on the same stage in Toronto blows my mind! If anybody can refer me to the definitive version of that particular album, please let me know.

As for Parker’s card, why not go with the 1952 Topps look. The Mickey Mantle in that set is arguably the most iconic baseball card of all-time.

1952Topps_CharlieParker

1952Topps_CharlieParker_Back

I’ll admit that I took a complete guess on his eye and hair colours, simply wanting to match the original set with that information included. I don’t know why it was important. Maybe there were people that only collected cards of blue-eyed players for some reason. I figured a list of some of his more popular songs might have been something that would go on a card in hopes that kids could convince their parents to collect singles in a similar fashion to how they collected baseball cards. The tracks on this Parker playlist: “Billie’s Bounce”, “Thriving on a Riff”, “Yardbird Suite” (I only wanted one song with Bird in the name), “Ornithology”, “Ko-Ko”, and “Moose the Mooche”. In this case, card number 151 was chosen for his address in New York that stands as a historical building known as the Charlie Parker Residence.

I’m not as in awe of modern card designs as I am the older ones, and my graphic design skills couldn’t pull many of them off anyway, so the newest I’m going here will be the 1997 Bowman design. I’m choosing this set not because of the design necessarily (which I do like), but the set has the rookie card of my all-time favourite Toronto Blue Jay, the late Roy Halladay. Which jazz artist do I find fitting for this era? John Scofield.

Scofield helped usher me into what I will refer to as modern jazz that led into the 21st century through his various collaborations with Medeski, Martin & Wood. My brother found his A Go Go album one day, which featured the trio as his backing group, and it was around the same time I picked up MMW’s Note Bleu: Best of the Blue Note Years 1998-2005 compilation. I can’t remember which purchase came first, but both recordings impressed upon us. While Scofield wasn’t on any Note Bleu tracks from what I recall, I ordered a copy of the Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood album Out Louder not long afterwards. It’s just one example of how he has adapted with the times in continuing to make relevant music and isn’t shy when it comes to hooking up with new collaborators. Scofield still stands as my personal record holder in that I’ve seen him more than any other jazz artist at three times in concert in three different contexts, and I’d easily see him again.

Now here’s that card I promised.

1997Bowman_JohnScofield

1997Bowman_JohnScofield_Back

The front lets me do something different with the photo, having the upper portion overlap the frame. I didn’t have the patience to do a search for the exact fonts used in this set, so for that I’ll apologize. The back has some nice features I decided to keep with the list of Resume, Skills, and Up Close categories. I had fun with that part of it. The color scheme I played around with because I like the base set reds rather than the prospect card’s blue, but everything about this card is kind of a hodgepodge. For instance, the front was looking a bit empty, so I slid the logo of his record label at the time (Verve) where the team logo would go. He would be supporting his album Quiet around this time.

I wanted to throw one more in as a last-minute addition with violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. His albums are plentiful, and somewhat overlooked in the grand scheme of fusion artists, but is another one of the guys that that my dad turned me on to through his record collection. Watching the discussion on the Sea of Tranquility YouTube channel regarding the ranking of his albums made me realize I should get back in and learn his material better. I never thought that a group led by a violinist would have so much appeal to me, but he had always managed to surround himself with talented players that makes many of his fusion albums from the ‘70s and ‘80s worth purchasing. And if you haven’t heard his work, his albums from that period can be obtained quite affordably on vinyl and are easy to locate.

While most of what I’m familiar with is his stuff from the ‘70s, I’ll go with another design from the ‘80s for the sake of variety. His Mystical Adventures album is one of his most intriguing works of that decade, so I’m going with the simple 1983 Fleer design. It would be coming off that record, and he had a large enough body of work at that stage to fill out a discography section.

Brown and beige can make for a bland colour palette in certain instances, but there’s something about this set that makes it work. Maybe it’s due to baseball being played on dirt and these are earth tones, but I couldn’t tell you. I’m honestly surprised I was able to cram so many of his recordings into the list and have them still be legible. To make it work, I left out some of the stuff that came out on French labels and work he did with other artists.

That’s all I’m going to do for now. More of these art-type projects could be coming to this blog in the future, and there’s are no shortage of artists in my entire music collection that could find their way onto these pages. Did any of these jazz artists have an impact on you like they did me? If you aren’t a card collector, would sets like these make you want to pick up the hobby? Any comments on topics such as these, feel free to fire away.

And let’s go Blue Jays!!

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