BLUE NOTE RECORDS HISTORY
In 1925,16-year old Alfred Lion noticed a concert poster for Sam Wooding's orchestra near his favourite ice-skating arena in his native Berlin, Germany. He'd heard many of his mother's jazz records and began to take an interest in the music, but that night his life was changed. The impact of what he heard live touched a deep passion within him. His thirst for the music temporarily brought him to New York in 1928 where he worked on the docks and slept in Central Park to get closer to the music.
On December 23, 1938, Lion attended the celebrated Spirituals to Swing concert at Carnegie Hall. The power, soul and beauty with which boogie woogie piano masters Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis rocked the stage gripped him. Exactly two weeks later, on January 6 at 2 in the afternoon, he brought them into a New York studio to make some recordings. They took turns at the one piano, recording four solos each before relinquishing the bench to the other man. The long session ended with two stunning duets. Blue Note Records was finally a reality.
The label's first brochure in May of 1939 carried a statement of purpose that Lion rarely strayed from throughout the many styles and years during which he built one of the greatest jazz record companies in the world. It read: "Blue Note Records are designed simply to serve the uncompromising expressions of hot jazz or swing, in general. Any particular style of playing which represents an authentic way of musical feeling is genuine expression. By virtue of its significance in place, time and circumstance, it possesses its own tradition, artistic standards and audience that keeps it alive. Hot jazz, therefore, is expression and communication, a musical and social manifestation, and Blue Note records are concerned with identifying its impulse, not its sensational and commercial adornments.”
At the end of 1939, Lion's childhood friend Francis Wolff caught the last boat out of Nazi-controlled Germany bound for America. He found employment at a photographic studio and joined forces with Lion at night to continue Blue Note. In the late 1940s, jazz had changed again, and Lion and Wolff could no longer resist the be-bop movement. Saxophonist Ike Quebec had become a close friend and advisor to both of them. Just as he had ushered in their swingtet phase, he would also bring them into modern jazz, introducing them to many of the new music's innovators and encouraging them to document it. Soon they were recording Fats Navarro and Bud Powell and giving Tadd Dameron, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, among others, their first dates as leaders. Lion and Wolff became especially fascinated with Monk and helped his career in every conceivable way. Despite critical resistance and poor sales, they recorded him frequently until 1952.
Monk's case was the first major example of what Horace Silver described in a 1980 interview, "Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff were men of integrity and real jazz fans. Blue Note was a great label to record for. They gave a first break to a lot of great artists who are still out there doing it today. They gave me my first break. They gave a lot of musicians a chance to record when all the other companies weren't interested. And they would stick with an artist, even if he wasn't selling. You don't find that anymore."
Album covers started to become a distinctive component in the Blue Note mix. Frank Wolff's extraordinarily sensitive and atmospheric photos and the advanced designs of Paul Bacon, Gil Melle and John Hermansader gave Blue Note a look that was both distinctive and beautiful.
Meanwhile, Lion was making first albums by the likes of Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson, Clifford Brown, Wynton Kelly, Elmo Hope, Kenny Drew, Tal Farlow and Kenny Burrell. He was also recording significant sessions with established modern talents like Kenny Dorham, George Wallington, Milt Jackson, Miles Davis, Thad Jones, Sonny Rollins and Herbie Nichols.
In 1952, Alfred became intrigued by the sound of a Triumph recording that saxophonist-composer Gil Melle had done at engineer Rudy Van Gelder's parents' home in Hackensack, New Jersey, where Van Gelder had a recording set-up in the living room. Blue Note had always been known for its superior sound and balance, but in Rudy, Alfred found an intelligent, kindred soul from whom he could extract an ideal sound. Van Gelder engineered most of the major jazz recordings of the '50s and '60s for many labels. He told me, "Alfred knew exactly what he wanted to hear. He communicated it to me and I got it for him technically. He was amazing in what he heard and how he would patiently draw it out of me. He gave me confidence and support in any situation."
By 1954, Blue Note naturally gravitated toward a system that was much akin to a repertory theatre company: using a revolving cast of sidemen and leaders who would assure them the creativity, compatibility and dependability that Blue Note sought. Leaders would appear on each other's projects: recurring sidemen would be groomed to grow into leaders. Sometimes such instances could be purely serendipitous. Horace Silver's first session was to have been a Lou Donaldson quartet date that Lou had to cancel at the last minute to go out of town. Alfred thought it was time for Silver to make his debut anyway and offered him the same date as his own trio session.
On the subject of Horace Silver, Lion felt in late 1954 that Horace should do a record with horns. He and the pianist arrived at the ideal personnel: Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, Doug Watkins and Art Blakey. The date went so well that these five men decided on a common purpose and formed a co-operative band called The Jazz Messengers. The group's idea was to present soulful modern jazz that incorporated the language of be-bop (without the virtuosic cliches of its second-generation followers) and the soulful, warm roots of blues and gospel music. It worked, and it became, with Van Gelder's engineering, the Blue Note sound.
Soon after, Blue Note would set in motion another trend in jazz. On the advice of Babs Gonzales and other musicians, Lion and Wolff ventured out to hear a Philadelphia pianist who had abandoned his original instrument and woodshedded intently for more than a year on a rented Hammond organ in the corner of a warehouse. As Frank Wolff told it in 1969, "I first heard Jimmy Smith at Small's Paradise in January of 1956. It was his first gig in New York. He was a stunning sight. A man in convulsions, face contorted, crouched over in apparent agony, his fingers flying, his feet dancing over the pedals. The air was filled with waves of sound I had never heard before. The noise was shattering. A few people sat around, puzzled, but impressed. He came off the stand, smiling, the sweat dripping all over him. 'So what do you think?' 'Yeah', I said. That's all I could say. Alfred Lion had already made up his mind."
Around the same time, Wolff met Reid Miles, a commercial artist who was a devout classical music fan. They struck up a rapport and Miles became the designer for the label for the next 11 years. He relied on Alfred to describe the mood and intent of each album and then created wonderful graphic covers that were different from each other, but still maintained an indefinable Blue Note look.
It was 1956, and the cast that gave the label its sound and identity - Lion, Wolff, Van Gelder, Miles, Blakey, Silver, and Smith - was complete. For the next decade or so Blue Note dominated the artistic and commercial courses of the music. As Wolff once said, "We established a style, including recording, pressing and covers. The details made the difference."
The early '60s saw Blue Note move to a higher plateau in the record industry. While they had always had strong sales with Jimmy Smith, Horace Silver and others, Donald Byrd's "A New Perspective", a unique 1963 album for jazz group and wordless choir, began crossing over to more general audiences. The next year, the company released two albums that were unexpected blockbusters, which had lengthy stays on the pop charts: Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder" and Horace Silver's "Song For My Father".
In addition to continuing its hard bop tradition with Morgan, Mobley, Silver, Blakey and younger men like Hancock, Green, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson, the label also moved cautiously into the avant-garde. Although a lot of chaotic and inferior music was passing for art in that movement, Lion and Wolff typically found the best and most substantial artists of the genre to record. Their first project was Jackie McLean's 1963 group with Grachan Moncur, Bobby Hutcherson and Tony Williams, all of whom would soon be recording their own albums as well. Tony's albums led to an association with Sam Rivers. There were also impressive works by Larry Young and Andrew Hill as well as the grand old masters of the avant-garde: Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman.
When Liberty Records made them an offer to sell out of Blue Note in 1965, they took it. Lion stayed on until mid-1967, when health problems forced him to retire. Wolff and Duke Pearson divided the producing chores, and the roster still maintained many fine straight ahead artists, but jazz was moving into another cycle of hard times, economically and artistically. There were few working groups and few decent, good-paying clubs. The scene did not provide an environment in which it could nurture young talent and perpetuate itself.
Frank Wolff slaved away at Blue Note until his death in 1971. With Wolff's death and the lessening involvement of Duke Pearson, the label's emphasis shifted more toward fusion. Donald Byrd discovered Larry Mizell and asked him to produce "Black Byrd", a huge hit. Mizell later produced Bobbi Humphrey who was brought to the label by Lee Morgan.
The old Blue Note managed to survive through a program of reissues and previously unreleased material that Blue Note executive Charlie Lourie and Michael Cuscuna started in 1975. That program survived sporadically until 1981: the last active Blue Note artist was Horace Silver, who recorded for the label from 1952 until 1980.
In 1982, Lourie and Cuscuna started Mosaic Records as a by-product of trying to convince current owner Capitol Records to restart Blue Note. Our first releases were complete Blue Note collections by Thelonious Monk and Albert Ammons-Meade Lux Lewis. In mid 1984, EMI hired Bruce Lundvall to resurrect the label in earnest in the United States. The label was relaunched the following February with the "One Night With Blue Note" concert of all-star bands composed of new and old Blue Note artists at New York's Town Hall. Blue Note was reborn.
Clay Corley Sr.
My name is Clayton E. Corley, Sr. aka Big Trigger host and producer of an award winning internet program!