Even if the name Paul Bacon doesn't ring a bell, his covers for more than 200 jazz albums will. Paul helped set the mood and mystique for modern jazz back in the early 1950s at the dawn of the LP jacket. Back then, Paul was the illustrator and art director of many early Blue Note albums and became Riverside's art director until the 1960s, when he went on to an even more illustrious career as a book-cover designer. [Photo of Paul Bacon in 2002 by Hank O'Neal]
Paul's 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 Part 1 of my four-part interview with Paul Bacon, 86, the graphic designer and art director talks about growing up in Newark, N.J., the girl he met as a teen who would later change his career, his interest in graphic design, serving in World War II, and designing early covers for Blue Note:
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. [Pictured: Newark, N.J., in the 1930s]
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 [pictured], 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 [pictured]. 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.
Tomorrow, Paul Bacon talks about meeting Thelonious Monk, why the pianist was so fond of him, saving Charlie Parker from embarrassment, Monk's soft spot for artists, and how Monk came to be photographed for Riverside sitting in a red wagon.
A JazzWax thanks to Hank O'Neal.