David Stone Martin: Jazz Visualized

By Luke Harbur


American Jazz Museum’s four jazz masters, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington, were pioneers of the jazz sound.

But album cover artists like David Stone Martin pioneered its look.

Born June 13, 1913, David Livingstone Martin grew up in Chicago, Illinois. He took graphic design classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. While in school, he worked as an assistant to social realist painter Ben Shahn. Shahn would let Martin help him on his assignments, including the mural for Chicago’s 1933 World Fair.


After graduating, Martin's first jobs came from government agencies. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, Martin worked for the Federal Artist Project and Tennessee Valley Authority’s art division. His 1940 mural, “Electrification,” is still inside the U.S. post office of Lenoir, Tennessee.


During the U.S. involvement in World War II, Martin worked in the Office of Strategic Services and Office of War Information.

His 1943 painting, “Above and Beyond the Call of Duty,” became a primary recruitment poster for the U.S. Navy.

With an established portfolio, Martin moved to New York City in 1944 to pursue commercial design and illustration. Martin would frequent Café Society, a jazz club in Greenwich Village. It was in this club that he met and befriended pianist and singer Mary Lou Williams.


Williams had launched her solo career in the early 1940s and wanted Martin to design the artwork for her first album. Williams introduced Martin to Moe Asch, the owner of Asch Records and the Disc Company of America. Asch immediately recognized Martin’s artistic talent and hired him as art director. The first album cover Martin designed was the Mary Lou Williams Trio (1944).

Asch’s record company went bankrupt five years later, but jazz record producer Norman Granz hired Martin as his go-to graphic designer.

Martin worked with Granz for the next 20 years, designing hundreds of album covers for Granz's five labels.

By the end of his career, Martin’s portfolio included more than 400 album cover designs. Each design featured fewer than three colors and his signature “DSM” line style.

Martin compositions began with a free-hand sketched image using a crow quill pen. Next he would create visual depth with variance in line weight. Two- and three-dimensional shapes share the same space. Martin's final designs capture the liveliness of jazz.


Only three known exhibitions have focused on Martin’s graphic influence: “Jazz At First Sight: The Work of David Stone Martin” at Lincoln Center in 2010, “The DSM line” exhibit at University of Nebraska in Omaha in 2011, and the “Ephemera Press” exhibition in 2013, which explored the relationship between Mary Lou Williams and David Stone Martin.

Martin’s work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Smithsonian Institute, and here at AJM. A number of his album cover designs are on display in our permanent exhibit. The next time you’re on the Vine, be sure to come check out the visual embodiment of the energy of JAZZ!