Fresh Jazz from Blue Note
Posted by horasio on July 20, 2009
‘The finest in jazz since 1939”: that’s how the logo reads on every Blue Note record. It’s an exaggeration, but not a completely crazy one. Other companies recorded wonderful performances, but no other had so strong an identity: not only musical but also visual, extending to the design of the photographs on the sleeve. And no other jazz label remained so faithful to its ideals for so long. There is plenty to celebrate in the anniversary of the birth of Blue Note, 70 years ago.
The foundation of Blue Note was an early sign that jazz was a music with a world audience. It was set up by a German-Jewish immigrant named Alfred Lion and it was run by him and another escapee from Nazi Germany, Francis Wolff, for three decades. Lion bowed out with health problems in 1967; Wolff died of a heart attack in 1971. But the label continues, under different ownership, to produce notable jazz recordings to this day.
Lion, born in 1909, and Wolff belonged to the first generation of European jazz fans. Both were mad about the music; nobody would ever run an independent jazz label, a recipe for financial precariousness and endless work, for any other reason. Ruth, Lion’s wife, described his routine in the late Fifties and early Sixties. “Alfred was doing everything. He was taking care of getting the records out. He was getting to rehearsals. He was getting to auditions. He put in at least a 70-hour week. Days off were very rare.”
The unique feature of the Blue Note operation was meticulous attention to detail. There was more preparation than on rival labels. Bob Porter, who was associated with the rival label Prestige, once said that the difference between Blue Note and Prestige was “two days of rehearsal”.
Painstaking, too, was the attention to acoustic quality by the preferred Blue Note recording engineer from the mid Fifties, Rudy Van Gelder. An ex-optometrist, Van Gelder set up his recording studio in a room in his parent’s house in Hackensack, New Jersey. Consequently, early Blue Note sleeve photographs often contain domestic details such as venetian blinds and – as Richard Cook put it in his excellent book on Blue Note – “fragments of sofa”.
The jazz itself provided plenty of compensation for all the effort. Bobby Hutcherson, a master of the vibes and mainstay of Blue Note in the mid Sixties, noted: “Alfred and Frank were more like jazz musicians than record executives. They loved to hang out and have a great time. They loved the music and had a real feel for it.” The jazz critic Ira Gitler, writing about a live Blue Note recording from a club, recalled that enthusiasm. “I can almost hear Alfred Lion as he stood by the bar, saying, with that rolled ‘r’ typical of the native Berliner, ‘Yeah, dot’s fenky – grrovy’.”
Funkiness and grooviness were part of the Blue Note ideal right from the start. The trigger for its birth seems to have been a famous concert, Spirituals to Swing at Carnegie Hall on December 23 1938. Lion had been part of the packed audience and had heard amid a myriad of jazz, gospel and blues performers, three imposingly overweight pianists, Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons, playing six-handed boogie-woogie.
A couple of weeks later, he had two of them, Lewis and Ammons, in a studio for the very first Blue Note recording date on a sunny winter’s day in early January 1939. In some ways, it was a good indication of what was to follow. The salient qualities of boogie-woogie – rhythmic drive and rich bluesyness – remained trademarks of Blue Note recordings (boogie-woogie appealed greatly to another European émigré in New York, the abstract painter Piet Mondrian, who named several paintings after it).
Wolff, a professional photographer who joined Lion after reputedly getting the last boat out of Nazi Germany later in the year, felt that Blue Note’s music policy was elusive.
“Somehow we set a style, but I would have trouble to define same. I remember though that people used to say, ‘Alfred and Frank only record what they like’. That was true. If I may add three words, we tried to record ‘jazz with a feeling’,” he said. Stylistically, Blue Note wandered widely over the next three decades – from boogie and New Orleans jazz (the first Blue Note hit was Sidney Bechet playing “Summertime”), to bebop, hard bop and the borders of the Sixties avant-garde.
But, though Lion and Wolff kept up with changing developments, there were plenty of things Blue Note didn’t go for. The cool school of the early Fifties – Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Zoot Sims – scarcely registered with the label. Reputedly, also, Lion didn’t like pianists with a “beautiful touch” – which included a whole strand of keyboard performers, such as Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan and Bill Evans. Blue Note concentrated on music derived from those fundamentals of Afro-American culture: blues and the gospel church.
Revealingly, when he described what he liked about Meade Lux Lewis – “He was so strong. No water, no chaser. Straight” – Lion evoked Thelonious Monk. The very first important musician from the new bebop movement that Blue Note recorded, beginning in 1947, was Monk, and “Straight No Chaser” was among the most renowned of his compositions. There is indeed a common factor between Monk and Lewis, wildly dissimilar though their music was in many ways. You could define it as treating the piano as a percussion instrument: a set of tuned drums.
That’s true of Horace Silver too, a quintessential Blue Note performer. Silver’s “Doodling” and “The Preacher” provided two more hits that got the label through the mid Fifties. The organist Jimmy Smith was another perennially popular Blue Note artist.
Wolff described the first time he heard Smith – and decided to record him on the spot. “He was a stunning sight. A man in convulsions, face contorted, crouched over in apparent agony, his fingers flying, his foot dancing over the pedals. The air filled with waves of sound I had never heard before.”
Significantly, Smith appealed to Wolff visually as well as musically. Wolff’s marvellous photographs were an integral part of the Blue Note package. He was constantly snapping away at recording sessions. “Frank,” Lion would complain, “you’re clicking on my record!” He started off taking the pictures for his own pleasure. But when Blue Note started releasing LPs in the early Fifties, Wolff’s images became an important component in the design (though Ruth Lion remembered that many distributors felt that a picture of a pretty girl would move more units than a sweating saxophonist or organist).
The last visual element was added by Reid K Miles, a designer employed by Esquire magazine, who added bold – or as he put it “outrageous” graphics – which gave the whole product a strong, serious look. It recalled the typography of the Bauhaus, like Lion and Wolff, another product of Twenties Germany – and even Mondrian.