Paul Bacon is modest and soft-spoken. Since the late 1940s, jazz musicians have sensed in the album illustrator, designer and art director a wise and gentle soul. This was particularly true of Thelonious Monk, who saw Paul as an unpretentious artist and sensitive thinker. For his part, Paul saw in Monk a creative genius who was impervious to conformity and allergic to hidden agendas. Paul felt strongly from their first meeting in early 1948 that Monk was everything a jazz musician should be and more. [Photo of Paul Bacon in 1996 by Hank O'Neal]
Paul first expressed how he felt about Monk in a deeply insightful essay. While Orrin Keepnews' Thelonious (published in the Record Changer in 1948) was the first serious appraisal of Monk's music and mission, Paul's The High Priest of Be-bop: The Inimitable Mr. Monk in 1949 was the first reportage on Monk's quirky personality, drawing a connection between the pianist's frustrations and eccentricities and his unadorned creativity.
In Part 2 of my four-part interview with Paul, the album cover illustrator and designer talks about meeting Monk and the evolution of their symbiotic relationship.
JazzWax: When did you first meet Thelonious Monk?
Paul Bacon: 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 [pictured] 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. [Photo of Orrin Keepnews, center, with Thelonious Monk, by Esmond Edwards/CTSImages.com]
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. [Photo by Herman Leonard/CTSImages.com]
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 [pictured] 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. [Photo of Art Blakey by Paul Hoeffler/CTSImages.com]
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 [pictured] 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.
Tomorrow, Paul Bacon talks about the thinking behind some of his other well-known LP covers for Riverside Records in the 1950s.
JazzWax note: You'll find Paul's 1949 essay The High Priest of Be-bop in the Thelonious Monk Reader here.