But Paul was also on the vanguard of a new artistic movement. Along with a handful of art directors and designers, Paul was creating a new mood and mystique for modern jazz. Like a box of cereal or a bag of potato chips, the jazz LP in its 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 late 1940s and early 1950s, Paul developed that square 10-inch and then 12-inch plot of cardboard real estate for Blue Note and then Riverside and broke new ground.
In Part 3 of my four-part interview with Paul, the legendary art director and designer talks about creating a new look for modern jazz at Blue Note and his move to Riverside in the early 1950s.
JazzWax: What exactly is an album art director?
Paul Bacon: 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 [pictured], 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. [Miles Davis album design and photos by Burt Goldblatt]
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 [cover pictured] 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 [pictured], 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 [pictured] 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. [Photo of Fats Navarro by Herman Leonard/CTSImages.com]
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.
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.
Tomorrow, Paul talks about a range of his Riverside covers and how they were created.