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Paul Bacon (1923-2015)

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Paul Bacon, one of the most highly regarded and imaginative book and jazz-album cover designers of the 1950s and beyond who is probably best known for his covers of Catch 22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest and Portnoy's Complaint as well as art-directed jackets for early Blue Note releases and then Riverside LPs, died on June 8 in Beacon, N.Y. He was 91. [Photo of Paul Bacon in 2002 by Hank O'Neal]

In the early 1950s, Paul was at the tip of a new artistic movement. Along with a handful of art directors and designers, Paul pioneered a new mood and mystique for modern jazz. Like a box of cereal or a bag of potato chips, the jazz LP in its 10-inch infancy called for packaging that sold the promise of what was inside: the artist's genius and the joy of the music. In the LP era, the record buyer's initial impressions and desires were in the hands of the art director, and jazz musicians knew it. In the early 1950s, Paul helped develop that square plot of colorful cardboard for Blue Note and then Riverside, setting a high graphic bar along the way. 

Paul's art-directed covers include Thelonious Monk: The Genius of Modern Music, The Amazing Bud Powell (which he also illustrated), Fats Navarro: Memorial Album, James Moody and His Modernists, Milt Jackson: Wizard of the Vibes and dozens of others. His art direction for Riverside includes Randy Weston: Cole Porter in a Modern Mood, Thelonious Monk's Brilliant Corners and Monk's Music, Sonny Rollins' The Sound of Sonny and Freedom Suite, Chet Baker Sings, Everybody Digs Bill Evans and many more.

In 2010, I had the good fortune to interview Paul, thanks to photographer Hank O'Neal, who introduced us. Below, I've brought together the four parts of my prior interview in one united post...

JazzWax: Where did you grow up?

Paul Bacon: I was born in Ossining, N.Y., but my family lived in many places in the New York City area. My father didn’t know how to do anything and was 27 years old when the stock market crashed in 1929. In the 1930s, my family was broke. We bounced around from place to place. It wasn’t pleasant but it also wasn’t unusual. Many families faced the same difficulty. We settled in Newark, N.J. in 1939.

JW: Were you happy about Newark?

PB: Yes. Especially since there was a “hot club" there. I don't mean a nightclub but a club made up of teens who were passionate about jazz. The club was quite a serious enterprise. We met, we listened to jazz records and talked about the music all the time in school.

JW: Where did you go to school?

PB: I was lucky enough to attend Newark Arts High School, New Jersey’s equivalent of Manhattan's prestigious High School of Music and Art. At Arts High, you could major in art, music or theater. 

JW: So you were already interested in jazz before your family arrived in Newark, yes?

PB: Yes. My introduction came through the radio. My brother and I realized we were jazz fans after hearing Benny Goodman on the Camel Caravan show in 1935. In Newark, we not only listened to Goodman and Artie Shaw but we met people who’d tell us about Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and others. The people who lived in Newark were older and hipper than we were. They had been listening to jazz and reading books like The Magic Mountain, which was foreign to us.

JW: Why did you feel drawn to jazz?

PB: The music transported me to another place. In Newark, our jazz club had about 23 teenage members of every conceivable background. Some had great collections of records. My brother and I had records but we didn’t have a phonograph. But the club did.

JW: How did you first hear about the club?

PB: We found it by making friends in school with Tony Tamborello. I became fond of his whole family. Tony could play Bix’s In a Mist on the piano. Tony eventually became Tony Bennett's right-hand man. One day Tony Tamborello said that his girlfriend liked the same music we did and that she was a member of this jazz club. He was a musician and didn’t have time for the club. But he told her about my brother and me, and she brought us into the club.

JW: Who was the girl?

PB: Lorraine Stein, who would marry Alfred Lion of Blue Note and later marry Max Gordon of the Village Vanguard, becoming Lorraine Gordon [laughs].

JW: What did you do after high school?

PB: I took a job with Scheck Advertising, a small agency in Newark. I talked my way into it. They thought I knew far more than I actually did. I could always draw, as well as write, sing and design. I was at the agency for two years and learned what I needed to know. I also was drawing and lettering on the side. Back then, if you wanted lettering on a poster or an ad, someone who knew how to letter had to do it by hand. 

JW: Did World War II alter your plans?

PB: I was drafted in 1943. My brother was already in the Marine Corps. They wanted me for the Army but I insisted on the Marines because it was a family tradition. I was 6 feet tall and weighed 133 pounds so they let me in. I was sent to Guadalcanal, Guam and China.

JW: How was it?

PB:
I never heard a shot fired in anger. My brother was injured within 24 hours of landing at Bougainville Island in the South Pacific in late 1943. I stayed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina until 1944. Eventually I was shipped out to the Pacific as a replacement. At Guadalcanal, the U.S. had already secured the island and there was a large base there. Then I spent time at Peliliu Island working. At this point I was a corporal. After Japan surrendered, I spent six months in China doing virtually nothing. In April 1946, the Marines sent me home.

JW: Where was your family?

PB: They had moved to Union Beach, N.J., so my mom could have fresh air. My brother had gotten married. When I returned, I didn’t bother taking advantage of the G.I. Bill. I got a job for $30 a week at Zamboni Associates on East 48th St. The person who hired me, Hal Zamboni, was a good typographic designer. I knew a fair amount about lettering and could draw. I was there for about nine years. We did mostly design work for companies, and I did the scratchboard drawings, which were popular at the time. Without getting too technical, it involved using a sharp tool to etch into a thin layer of clay coated in India ink.

JW: How did you meet Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff of Blue Note Records?

PB: When I returned from the war, Lorraine Stein had married Alfred. I had already known of him and Frank in the years before Pearl Harbor. Members of Newark’s “hot club" knew them.

JW: Where did you meet Lion?

PB: I had had a close friend in the Marine Corps, a radar guy. When I was living in N.J. after the war, I found his name in the phone book and where he was living. I called him up and we decided to get together. One day I started off in the direction of his house near Union Beach but it started to rain. I realized I didn’t really want to go, so I called and told him I wasn't coming. Then I called Lorraine. She invited me over to their place at 50 Grove Street. When I arrived, Lorraine, Alfred and I sat and talked and listened to records. That afternoon I became interested in modern jazz.

JW: When did you move into New York?

PB: Soon afterward. One of the members of the “hot club" called and said, “You still want to live in New York?” He told me he knew a trumpet player who was looking for a roommate. Moving in those days was easy. You took your raincoat, typewriter and two albums and hailed a cab. Bob Dugan was the trumpet player, and I eventually married his cousin, Maxine Shirey, who was a dancer.

JW: Where did you live?

PB: Where Hunter College is now, at 68th St. and Lexington Ave.

JW: How did you meet Orrin Keepnews?

PB: Through his partner Bill Grauer. In the late 1940s, Bill and Orrin published the Record Changer magazine. Bill had asked Alfred if he knew anyone who could write jazz reviews for the Record Changer and Alfred recommended me.

JW: How did you do?

PB: I took to the music very quickly. I loved musicians like Fats Navarro, Bud Powell and others, and I became the magazine’s modern jazz critic.  My first review was Erroll Garner's Bouncin' with Me, which was recorded in 1945 but reissued on a 10-inch LP.

JW: Did you do any illustrating?

PB: Not at first. The Record Changer covers were being illustrated by Gene Deitch. He also did a running cartoon that they ran in every issue. At first I just reviewed records.

JW: When did you start illustrating for the magazine?

PB: When Bill Grauer found out I was a struggling graphic artist. He asked me to design the interior pages. I was already designing Blue Note album covers for Alfred and Frank Wolff and writing for the Record Changer. I also was doing a lot of scratchboards for Hal Zamboni. But I knew I could handle the extra work.

JW: What were your early Blue Note covers?

PB: Pretty traditional stuff: Sidney Bechet, Meade Lux  Lewis, Albert Ammons. They were graphic visions of the music. They were drawn by hand and represented the best I could do at the time with two colors.

JW: When did you first meet Thelonious Monk?

PB: Sometime in early 1948. I often went to the Blue Note offices on Lexington Ave. after working all day for Hal Zamboni. One night I was up at Blue Note’s offices with Alfred and Lorraine. We were about to go down to their car to drive someplace to eat when Lorraine said, “I bet you don’t know who’s in the car.” I said, “Who?” She said, “Thelonious Monk.” I was surprised and curious.

JW: Did you know the name?

PB: There had been some talk about Monk in the papers. This was the late 1940s. Usually the papers seized on his eccentricities rather than his music. When we got downstairs, I sat in the back with him on our way up to Harlem to get dinner. He was fantastic. Along the way, he would listen to Alfred and Lorraine trying to figure out how to get where we were going.  They would be debating the best way to go or where to turn. Monk would just chime in softly with things like, “Oh yeah, I see what you mean if you go this way.” He was just riffing on what they were saying but it sounded like he was part of the marital discussion.

JW: Were you at the Lions’ party in 1948 when Orrin Keepnews met Monk?

PB: Yes. I can still hear Orrin’s voice as he spoke to him. I thought at the time that Orrin was an extremely bright guy. I remember I had one flash of thought though: “Orrin, don’t try to understand too much of what Monk is saying.” Monk was extremely taciturn, but he and Orrin hit it off.

JW: You and Monk had hit it off as well, yes?

PB: Yes. Monk liked that I was primarily an artist and illustrator—not a writer with an agenda. In fact, he never mentioned the stuff I wrote about him. And he always introduced me as an artist. I remember going to visit Monk late one night at around midnight in the green room at Birdland. I was telling him how tired I was and that I couldn’t stick around long. Then the door opened and in walked Charlie Parker. Monk said to me on the side, “Paul, do you know Bird?” I didn’t know him personally. So Monk brought me over to Parker. “Hey Bird, this is Paul Bacon. He’s an artist. “

JW: What did Parker say?

PB: He said, “Yeah, I know.” Monk knew we hadn’t met, so Monk pressed him: “Really? How do you know Paul?” Bird shot me a sour glance, implying that his life had been just fine before he had met me. So I jumped in and covered for him, saying something about having met him before.

JW: What was so special about Monk’s personality?

PB: He was truly free. Most people weren't like that then. Most people were looking for angles. Monk was just sailing through looking for people who were emotionally honest. Bill Grauer and Orrin Keepnews very much wanted to interview him for the Record Changer, and Orrin was able to do so beautifully. Orrin said to me later, “The fact that you were at that party didn’t do us any harm.” Orrin knew that Monk respected and liked me and that I would put him at ease. I always felt strongly about Monk's purpose. When Monk was arrested with Bud Powell in 1951 after the police found a packet of heroin in Bud’s car, I was one of the people who bailed him out.

JW: Were you in the studios when Monk recorded?

PB: Yes, all the time at Blue Note and Riverside. One time I was in the studio sitting on a stool while they were listening to playbacks of what he had just recorded. I was going to leave but Monk put his arm around me to keep me there as we listened.

JW: How did you feel?

PB: As though I had been knighted. Monk knew how I felt about his music. Once at the Lions’ apartment, Monk was listening to a playback of a recording. I saw Monk looking at my foot. He said, “You have good ears.” That was classic Monk.

JW: Did Monk also get you?

PB: I think so. I was up in Harlem at a party in the early 1950s. Alfred took me up there. The apartment was quite big and the place was crowded. Art Blakey was there and a bunch of other guys. I remember one small older guy carrying a large turkey drumstick. The conversation started getting heated, Blakey was shouting, “Why don’t we put up our own hotel and keep the white people out.” I started to feel like I shouldn’t be there.

JW: What did you do?

PB: There was a piano in an empty room. All the talk was going on in the kitchen. So I sat at the piano in the empty room. I couldn’t play but I could figure out songs. I had small hands but could play 10ths and I figured out how to play Liza. All of a sudden I spot Monk peering in the doorway.

JW: What happened?

PB: He came over to the piano, gently pushed me off the bench and said, “Draw!” Then he played the living bejesus out of Liza. [Monk wound up recording the song for the first time in 1956]

JW: Why do you suppose Monk had those tender feelings toward you?

PB: I think he could recognize that I was easy going and in awe of him. I think he also knew who I was deep down, and liked that I was an artist. He had pegged me as an artist based on a portrait of Meade Lux Lewis I had drawn that was hanging in the Blue Note offices.

JW: How do you know that?

PB: Monk said once when he introduced me, “Paul did a picture that’s on the wall there at Blue Note. It looks exactly like Meade Lux Lewis” [laughs]

JW: One of your most famous designed covers was Monk’s Music. How did Monk wind up in a red wagon?

PB: The guy who took most of the photos for me at Riverside was Paul Weller. He had a big studio. We wanted to get a photo made of Monk for the album cover. At the time, the art director was Harris Lewine.  Harris had this idea to find a Trappist monk outfit.

JW: What did you think?

PB: It sounded fine to me, but when we got to Weller’s studio and mentioned this to Monk, he flared up: “What kind of shit is that?” he said.

JW: What did you do?

PB: I knew we had to get a photograph. I said to Harris, “Listen, Monk’s mad at me. But we have to do something.” We looked over at Monk and he was half-sitting in a red wagon writing on sheet music. Paul had all kinds of props for photo shoots. I looked at Harris and Harris looked at me. Monk looked up. There was this pause. Then Monk said, “Yeah, go ahead.”

JW: Why do you think you were so attracted to Monk?

PB: He didn’t lie and didn’t fake anything. And he was completely free of reverse prejudice. He didn’t care anything about politics. That was pretty liberating. He just thought, “I don’t have time for that crap.”

JW: Your famous essay, High Priest of Be-bop was originally published in France. Why?

PB: I wrote it for the French magazine Le Jazz Hot at  the behest of Alfred Lion. It focused on Monk’s personality. At some point the Record Changer decided to publish it in English in 1949.

JW: Knowing Monk clearly changed your thinking about jazz—and certainly your outlook on art and life.

PB: I had never known a great artist before. A truly great artist. Monk was so used to people trying to get him to do things for them. I didn’t care about any of that, and I think he liked that.

[Editor's note: You'll find Paul's 1949 essay The High Priest of Be-bop in the Thelonious Monk Reader here.]

JW: What exactly is an album art director? PB: The art director back then came up with the vision for the album cover either alone or with his team. Then he hired the talent to get the job done. In the case of Riverside, we had periodic cover meetings with Bill Grauer, Orrin Keepnews, photographer Paul Weller and me.

JW: How did the creative solutions emerge?

PB: I'd have a concept or Paul Weller would think of some idea. Or we’d hear the music and think of a solution. In some cases Bill and Orrin had strong notions about the cover. We’d also discuss the album title. For example, Everybody Digs Bill Evans in 1958, with its laundry list of musician endorsements was my idea. So was the look, with the different typefaces.

JW: How did that come about?

PB: The problem we faced is that we had all of these rather flat lines of praise from other musicians. Very powerful endorsements. The challenge was this: What do you do to make such comments interesting to the eye? We needed to come up with something graphically that would make their words look interesting while at the same time showing the potential buyer that the biggest names in jazz were Evans' fans. We decided to use white type on a tan background for the comments. But we had to find a way to work in the musicians who were offering praise. Designer Ken Baren and I simply faked the signatures in the artists’ own hand so the cover took on another dimension. It was a typeface solution.

JW: Early jazz-album covers were executed with illustrations, yes?

PB: Yes. When I started doing album covers, they were pure graphic solutions. When Burt Goldblatt came along in the early 1950s, he was a photo guy, and covers started to change. He spearheaded the idea of having fewer and fewer graphics on the cover and using images instead, except for the artist's name and album title, of course.

JW: What was the goal?

PB: We were trying to convey with graphics what jazz was about. At Blue Note, there were certain things that I knew Alfred and Frank would not be happy with, such as too literal an image. I was very strongly influenced by those who came before me—like Alex Steinweiss and Jim Flora. Alex had started doing album covers before the war.

JW: Who ran the art show at Blue Note?

PB: I had absolute free reign. Alfred and Frank trusted me and thought I was good at it. I would think of an album title, and my title often suggested something graphic. It was exciting, cool, fun stuff. We didn’t have much color in the early days. All we had to attract the buyer’s eyes was fun and whimsy in the illustration and color treatment. The Amazing Bud Powell was the first portrait I did on scratchboard for an album cover.

JW: Were cover artists jazz fans?

PB: Absolutely. I was always listening to jazz and creating a mood in the covers that reflected the music and lifestyle I loved. There was no gravity. The beauty is we had plenty to work with.

JW: How so?

PB: Classical was about the same music. Only the orchestra and conductor changed. In the jazz world, the artists were all different and unique. Covers needed to rise to that level. In the case of Bud Powell, Frank Wolff gave me photos so I’d get a likeness on the scratchboard. Same with Milt Jackson.

JW: Yet your earliest covers focused on an older style of jazz. You had been a fan of the earlier music first.

PB: Yes, at the start, everything I did for Blue Note was for albums by old-timers like Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Vic Dickinson. All good guys but totally unconnected with what was going on in the late 1940s. The beginning of modern jazz for me was when Alfred played The Squirrel with trumpeter Fats Navarro and Ernie Henry on alto sax. I was knocked out. I remember saying, “That’s really dynamite.” Alfred smiled at me. He was just getting into it then. Everything was happening and new, and we were in awe of the talent.

JW: Did you still enjoy Louis Armstrong?

PB: I never lost my taste for Louis. At the time, we were still going down to the south end of Manhattan to hear Bunk Johnson. You could hear him on Friday and Thelonious Monk on Saturday. The city was wild like that then.

JW: But you were more than just a fan.

PB: How so?

JW: You and other cover designers were the promoters of a new feeling, of a mystique. Your covers had to capture the energy and promote the hip qualities of the music. Covers couldn't be square.

PB: True. We thought the music was great and that people should listen to it. I tried to get this point across through the graphics. My illustrations were saying, “Forget what you know and forget what you think. Just listen to the music.”

JW: In this regard, you were a big promoter of Monk's.

PB: I was trying to get others to listen to Monk’s music by designing compelling covers. I was slightly evangelical [laughs]. But that was true about virtually every artist, from the album covers to my reviews. The only things I ever bad-mouthed in print as a reviewer for Bill Grauer and Orrin Keepnews’ Record Changer were things I thought were pretentious.

JW: Why?

PB: The Record Changer had started as a medium to help people collect records. Then Grauer felt it should also include opinions and articles, and he pushed me to express myself honestly in print.

JW: When Grauer and Orrin started Riverside and brought you over, your first cover was Randy Weston’s Cole Porter in a Modern Mood in 1954.

PB: I had met Randy and thought he was a big talent. One of the things floating in my mind for the cover was Cole Porter on the 90th floor of a building, the skyline at night and sophistication. We all loved Randy’s playing and wanted to advance him as a new artist. So in the cover, I wanted you to feel the music, the city and Randy's sophistication.

JW: Let me ask you about a handful of album covers and how they came about. For example, Sonny Rollins’ Freedom Suite.

PB: That was largely the work of designer Ken Baren, who was my first hire. Ken was more likely to do abstract stuff than I was—when I believed that an abstract approach was the way to go. For that cover, we went with a childlike feel to soften the cover’s title. The goal always was to create a compelling contrast.

JW: How about Chet Baker Sings: It Could Happen to You?

PB: We just thought what we were selling there wasn’t jazz but romance. None of us, including me, was particularly fond of the album. I thought Chet was OK on there and interesting as a singer. But all that infant-child breathlessness never impressed me much.

JW: How did that cover come about?

PB: We decided the theme called for a glamour shot of Chet and left the execution up to Paul. The vision was to have Chet with a girl set in the mood for love. Chet was happy to do it, if he was off the junk long enough to be sober.

JW: How well did you know Baker?

PB: I had only met him once before, in the parking lot at Riverside Records on 51st St. My wife and I had just been in to see Bill Grauer when we saw this forlorn shape moving toward our car. It was Chet. He just managed to say, “Is Orrin [Keepnews] up there?” Chet was a type of phenomenon. He could play if he was really on. [Photo of Chet Baker by Herman Leonard/CTSImages.com]

JW: Was Baker authentic?

PB: I suppose so based on his definition. For me, he was on the opposite end of the spectrum from Thelonious Monk. Alfred and I once took Thelonious up to a radio station to appear on Fred Robbins' program. Fred wasn't a bad guy but in those days he was really ambitious but not yet hip. But he knew how to navigate the microphones [laughs].

JW: How did Robbins get along with Monk?

PB: Fred didn’t know what he was dealing with in Monk. Fred probably never met someone who was incapable of lying.

JW: Why, what happened?

PB: Fred talked a little bit, and Monk was muttering in his usual style. Then Fred played a record without saying who it was. At the end, Monk said, “Well, it sounds like someone trying to play like Miles Davis.” In truth, it was Chet Baker. Fred was infuriated, though he didn’t show it at the time. Later Alfred told me that Fred told him privately, “Never bring that guy around again.” I guess Fred must have felt that Monk's comment was intended to tell listeners that Fred was square. Which, of course, wasn't it at all. Monk was simply saying what was on his mind, the truth. [Photo of Chet Baker and Miles Davis by Cecil Charles/CTSImages.com]

JW: How was Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners photographed?

PB: We talked about what we could do with the title track, Brilliant Corners. We also listened to the different tunes. Then we tried different concepts, like Monk sitting in a corner or standing on a street corner, but they didn’t have any lift. They didn’t say anything. Then Paul came up with an idea.

JW: What?

PB: Paul said, “I think I can do something with a multiple image.” Paul set up mirrors somehow. The cover you see was done with one shot using mirrors, not multiple images. Monk got a huge kick out of it.

JW: Why the surrealist cover for Monk's Misterioso?

PB: The surrealists were cutting edge then, and I was probably more aware of modern art than others in our group. We agreed that Giorgio de Chirico was about as serious as you could get when it came to surrealism.

JW: Why not Dali?

PB: I didn’t really like Dali. De Chirico’s work is mysterious and suited Monk’s Misterioso title best. [The piece is de Chirico's The Seer from 1915.]

JW: And Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington?

PB: When the Ellington band was first reorganized in 1929, it was called The Jungle Band for the sounds it created with plungers and so on. The Monk cover was an obtuse reference to that. I figured those who knew would get it.

JW: The Other Side of Benny Golson?

PB: I thought it would be kind of funny if we literally featured another side to Benny. Sometimes literalism pays off when handled the right way with the right typeface. Remember, we were totally unfettered. We had no real paragons to base things on.

JW: Did you have a favorite cover that you illustrated?

PB: One of my favorites was an early Blue Note album for Ike Quebec called Mellow the Mood. The cover was a deliberate attempt on my part to try my hand at French painting.

JW: Did a jazz artist ever hate a cover?

PB: I did a cover for Steve Allen and Irene Kral in 1959. It was for United Artists, not Riverside or Blue Note. They gave me the record to listen to and told me who was on it. I thought it was a smart album. I called it SteveIrene-o!—as a play on “Steverino," Allen's nickname. I thought it was clever.

JW: What did Allen say?

PB: I was in an elevator soon after the album came out and Steve Allen was in there. Someone in the elevator said to him, “Hey, I saw your new album." Steve said, “I know. Isn’t that terrible?”

JW: What did you do?

PB: I sneaked out on the next floor [laughs].        

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved.

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