By Sascha Feinstein
In our age of digital enhancement, where even a middle-school kid can dramatically doctor a photo, it’s easy to forget the hard-earned achievements of those who designed some of the jazz world’s most inventive and memorable album covers, including Thelonious Monk’s Brilliant Corners from 1956. Monk appears to have been cloned, sitting in a back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back circle. In the image that faces the camera lens, he smiles widely and sincerely, as though he’s thinking, “Yeah — this is truly hip.” I’ve adored that cover since my teenage years when I fell in love with jazz. I knew that it had been designed by Paul Bacon, who created album covers for Blue Note, Riverside and other companies, and who worked as a book designer for half a century. But I didn’t know how Bacon achieved this optical illusion until 2003, when we met for lunch in Manhattan.
“This cover was almost entirely Paul Weller’s doing,” he said, crediting the photographer. “We had a meeting where we asked, ‘How can you suggest brilliant corners? How can you show multifaceted qualities?’ I suspect the word multifaceted triggered something in Paul, because he said, ‘I think I can rig something up where you can see Monk from a number of different viewpoints without seeing any of the machinery,’ and he did it.” Although Bacon did not know the exact technical details, he said that Weller set up a series of mirrors, positioned at just the right angles, “because he had to do this in one shot.” Bacon added: “And Monk looks so relaxed. He looks absolutely wonderful. When Paul showed us the photo, I remember thinking, ‘I wonder how the hell he did this.’ It’s just perfect. He managed to make real our ephemeral idea.”
I wonder if contemporary record companies concern themselves with such matters since, frankly, they don’t need to. A CD is approximately 40 percent the area of an LP, and an album’s artwork no longer pitches music the way it did in the past, with record buyers flipping through bins, searching consciously for favorite players while also experiencing, perhaps unconsciously, the wonderful Rolodex of imagery. It’s not a lost art; some record companies — Clean Feed immediately comes to mind — still consistently produce albums with thoughtful, engaging illustrations to enhance the overall experience. But, especially given the popularity of downloads, a utilitarian cover is often good enough.
In the ’50s, however, designers and photographers like Bacon and Weller knew that collaborative efforts (visual jam sessions, if you will) could energize the album’s allure. The imagery never determined the music’s quality, of course, but it provided the first aesthetic experience for a buyer. That said, even some efforts by great professionals did not pan out, and a very different kind of improvisation took place when designing Monk’s Music the following year, 1957. Bacon explained that their preconceived idea for the cover — to have Thelonious wear a Franciscan monk’s cowl — was vehemently rejected by the artist. Monk stormed off, and they panicked; this had been their only concept. Weller had all sorts of things in his photography studio, including props for kids, and, as Bacon explained, “There sat Thelonious in the [child’s] red wagon. He wasn’t looking at us. And no one will ever know if this was premeditated — whether he set it up or whether he thought when he sat down, ‘If these guys have any brains, they’ll look at me and come over here.’ We’ll never know. But there he sat.” Still mindful of the fact that they had genuinely irritated Monk, they cautiously approached, began to stutter his name, and Monk answered before they could ask: “Yeah, go ahead.”
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