Identifying the Impulse
While they employ many well-meaning people, best intentions have not rescued the reputation of labels, which are viewed by some as necessary evils for getting music heard. Yet the mere mention of Blue Note Records is enough to glaze over the appreciative eyes of the most cynical jazz diehard. From its inception, Blue Note has made uncompromising music; they weren't just a method of delivery, they were an active partner in the creative process. Founder Alfred Lion and his partner Francis Wolff, whose company was an oligarchy by today's standards, took the time to develop and nurture talent. More importantly, they were fans who cared deeply not only about the music but the human beings who made it.
The label's unlikely origins date back to postwar Berlin, where as teenagers Lion and Wolff shared a fascination for this strange new music from America called jazz. In 1928, Lion went to New York in pursuit of his obsession, so broke he slept in Central Park, and after being hospitalized following a job-related accident, he returned to Germany, where signs of Hitler and Nazism were everywhere. Lion and his mother moved to Chile in 1933, where she was hired as an importer/exporter, and by 1937, her connections landed Alfred a job in New York City. He was back and financially solvent – in the greatest jazz city in the world.
Upon his return, the hot jazz movement popularized by Louis Armstrong was in full swing, and Lion couldn't get enough. Attending the 1938 "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall, Lion was transfixed by the power and dexterity of boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. Two weeks later, on January 6, 1939, Lion pulled together enough money to book the two musicians into a recording studio. He naively let the pianists run over their allotted three minutes, forcing Lion to abandon the standard 10-inch, 78 rpm format and press Blue Note's first release as a 12-inch 78, a format reserved exclusively for classical music at the time. This error set Blue Note apart from the crowd almost immediately.
Shortly thereafter, the label issued a brochure with their statement of purpose: "Blue Note Records are designed to serve the uncompromising traditions of hot jazz or swing ... by virtue of its significance in place, time, and circumstance, it possesses its own tradition, artistic standards and audience that keeps it alive. ... Blue Note Records are concerned with identifying its impulse, not its sensational and commercial adornments." It was evident Lion had not jumped into this venture haphazardly. Though "hot jazz" would change to include other styles, the label's principles would not.
Lion's next sessions, which produced the label's first hit, soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet's "Summertime," had a late-night ambiance thanks to a unique Lion innovation. He began recording at 4:30am, after the musicians had finished their regular gigs, an all but unheard of concession in those days, and one that foreshadowed the rapport Lion later developed with his artists. Scorned and ignored by their own countrymen, it took a German immigrant, an outsider himself, to discover the true artistry of these musicians. Jazz was the black man's music, and though it had plenty of skillful white practitioners, Lion all but ignored them. Musicians made fun of this man with the thick accent who implored them to "schwing," but they respected Alfred Lion, if only because, when they recorded for Blue Note, it tended to be their best work. Lion knew what he wanted, and how to get it.
"It's because of the attitude Alfred had toward making records," explains Cuscuna. "It really worked, it came through. What he and Frank always said was they wanted stuff that was soulful and swinging, stuff with feeling. Alfred was very compulsive and put a lot of work and planning into records. He would sit down with musicians and find out what they wanted to do. He also encouraged people to write and rehearse, even paying for rehearsals at a time when it wasn't very status quo. Instead of getting jam sessions, he got really sparkling music, very much alive, very vibrant and cutting edge.
"And because they loved soulful stuff, they would always almost inadvertently have a certain amount of success. Things like 'The Sidewinder' [by Lee Morgan] and 'Song for My Father' [by Horace Silver], Alfred would be the first to admit he had no idea 'The Sidewinder' was going to be a hit. In fact, they were really caught short when they put the album out. They had only pressed 2,000-3,000. They had no idea. They were just doing shit they liked. That's so much of what made it work. It wasn't subconscious, but it was worked on."
Francis Wolff caught the "last boat out of Germany" bound for America, and joining with Lion soon after, the label scored a second hit in 1941 with clarinetist Edmond Hall. Not long after that, Lion was drafted and Blue Note suspended production. The label had a burgeoning catalog of 27 78's, which they were able to keep in print thanks to the graces of Milt Gabler and his Commodore label and shop, where Wolff took a job. Lion, meanwhile, was shipped off to an Army base in El Paso, Texas.
Undaunted, Wolff took on Blue Note as a full-time venture. Though bebop was beginning to make waves, the label continued to record more traditional fare, scoring moderate success with saxophonist Ike Quebec. Finally, no longer able to ignore bebop's roar, Lion and Wolff took a year off starting in August, 1946 to listen to this radically new music. Unlike so many of his swing peers, Quebec embraced the bebop revolution, and began introducing his two benefactors to a variety of the emerging players of the day, including two formidable piano talents, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell.
Lion latched onto Monk's music with a ferocity, and in two months recorded 14 sides of the musician's repertoire before releasing a single record – all of which became classics. No other record label had been brave enough to tackle Monk's beautiful, off-kilter compositions, or his strange and halting technique, but Lion, as he would so many times in the future, instantly recognized Monk's genius. Blue Note went on to debut many important talents, but Monk would prove to be their greatest "discovery."
Whereas Monk's wholly original work was labeled bebop as much for its time frame as for any real musical connection, Bud Powell was the logical keyboard extension of the trail blazed by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Fast, kinetic, and chord heavy, Powell did most of his great work with Blue Note. A victim of a brutal police beating, the troubled pianist's problems were compounded by shock treatments and persistent drug use. Lion showed his infinite care and patience. When Birdland kept Powell more or less under house arrest in a fully equipped apartment so he would be on hand each night for his gig, it was Lion who showed up and escorted Powell around town, taking him to movies (Powell loved westerns). Monk and Powell's recordings established Blue Note as a pianist's label, and pianists were a passion of Lion's; he would discover more phenomenal, though less well-known, players during his reign at Blue Note, including Herbie Nichols and Andrew Hill. With Monk, Powell, and the extraordinary trumpeting of another signing, Fats Navarro, Blue Note moved from a traditional label to a harbinger of the changing times.
In 1953, saxophonist and graphic artist Gil Melle introduced Lion to an engineer named Rudy Van Gelder. At first Lion was dubious of this eccentric, an optometrist by day, who had actually built a recording studio in his parent's living room, but as soon as he heard the warm, expansive, natural sound and sonic detail Van Gelder was getting, all doubt was assuaged. Van Gelder would engineer virtually every Blue Note session for years to come.
Pianist Horace Silver headed up his first session for the label in 1952 when his boss Lou Donaldson couldn't make it, introducing his soulful and upbeat sound to the world. Silver later joined Lion's favorite drummer, Art Blakey, for the classic A Night at Birdland, with a band that included Donaldson and trumpet great Clifford Brown. In the audience for the recording was a college-aged Bruce Lundvall, current president of Blue Note.
"I came home from college and went to Birdland," recalls Lundvall, "where I watched Alfred record Art Blakey and Clifford Brown, and that's something I've never, ever forgotten. I worshiped Clifford, he was my idol. I was there when they did the first album at the Cafe Bohemia with the Jazz Messengers, Blakey, Hank Mobley, Horace Silver, and so on."
Blakey and Silver went on to form the Jazz Messengers with Doug Watkins, Hank Mobley, and Austin trumpet hero Kenny Dorham in late 1954, and though the incarnation was short-lived, the group ushered in the driving, soulful genre known as hard bop. Conceived by Silver and Blakey as a reaction to the overly complicated and arcane bebop, which they felt had driven away much of the audience for jazz, hard bop was music with appeal and integrity. Their first session, under Silver's name, produced the label's biggest hit to date, "The Preacher." Lion despised the tune and tried to prevent them from recording it. He called it "corny," and only when Silver threatened to postpone the date did Lion relent. Proving it was no fluke, the Messengers followed up the success with Silver's "Doodlin."
In 1956, Blue Note finally began pressing 12-inch LPs, hiring designer Reid Miles to handle the covers. Though Miles was a classical music fan, trading in the jazz records the label gave him, his work proved an uncanny match for the music inside. Hip, modern, and distinctive, his designs are possibly the most imitated in commercial art history. Along with partner Francis Wolff's visionary photography, candid shots snapped unobtrusively at virtually every Blue Note session, the label unveiled a visual element as striking as the music between the covers. Both Reid's and Wolff's amazing portfolios have been the subject of art and photography books in recent years.
With the team of Lion, Wolff, Blakey, Silver, Van Gelder, and Reid in place, the "Blue Note sound" began being heard everywhere. Lion continued to run the label during its most prosperous period largely the same way he always had, with vision and authority. Frequently, he shelved entire sessions, citing them "no good." History has proven him a bit hasty in pronouncing judgment, as many fine unissued sessions have since seen the light of day. Sidemen knew that a Blue Note session could take time, held to these exacting standards. Lion would sit stone-faced until the music started to move him; when his smile or his odd dancing broke out ("He'd tap his foot on beats one & three," Herbie Hancock is quoted as saying), that's when the musicians knew they were grooving.
Lion was an active partner in almost every aspect of individual sessions, from sidemen and song selection on down. The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions of Dexter Gordon, released in 1996, contains correspondence between Lion and Gordon which includes Lion's detailed instructions for a particular session: "I don't want any complicated music," he writes, "but rather some good standards in medium, medium-bright, and medium-bounce tempos. This, of course, should also cover some blues."
The real blues came from being unable to hold on to artists like John Coltrane, but Blue Note never had the cash to bid for established talent. Still, they managed to corral most, if not all, of the significant artists of the times, if only for one or two albums. What's more, in cases such as Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch or Coltrane's Blue Train, where the bulk of the artists' recordings at the time were on other labels, the Blue Note releases, because of the care paid to them, stand head and shoulders above the rest.
As they had done with bebop, Blue Note began addressing changes around them wrought by Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and others, signing up Coleman, Taylor, George Russell, Don Cherry, Andrew Hill, and Larry Young. All recorded uncompromising outside fare for the label. Yet Blue Note's great albums had all been arduous labors of love for Lion and Wolff. Despite continued success, profits were continually devoured by ongoing projects. Cash flow was a constant worry, and when the huge Liberty Records made a generous offer in 1965, Blue Note's stressed-out and exhausted partners accepted. Despite Liberty's promises of maintaining the status quo, it was the beginning of the end.
Lion, not accustomed to corporate overseers and in increasingly poor health due to heart problems, stayed on until 1967, retiring into seclusion. Reid Miles also departed, and visual changes were instantly apparent. Wolff continued on as a producer, hanging up his camera. By 1970, the release of Ornette Coleman's New York Is Now signaled the end of the avant-garde at Blue Note, and even mainstream artists began looking elsewhere, as a syrupy fusion began to infect the roster. Then, in 1971, the final straw: Francis Wolff died, and with him went the label that was.
Blue Note would sink into into a miasma of corporate neglect for the next decade. Though never officially shuttered, new releases slowed, and were it not for the efforts of Cuscuna, all of the label's history could have vanished. Exploring the vaults, he discovered many unreleased sessions, releasing them with little or no guidance from Lion. In fact, the two had never met; Lion's second wife, gravely concerned for his health, whisked her husband away from the jazz life. The only person who knew how to reach them was Lion's close friend Horace Silver.
"I had gotten into the Blue Note vaults in '75," recalls Cuscuna, "and was putting out a lot of unissued stuff off and on through '81. I used to give Horace copies to give to Alfred, so he was aware of me, but there was no way to reach him. Horace said he couldn't put me in touch, his wife would get upset. They pulled the plug on my doing a series of unissued material, so the label was pretty well dead except for a few things they wanted to stay in print.
"Charlie Lourie and I came up with a plan to restart the label, but we were told they wouldn't for another couple of years. So it occurred to me that we might be able to do these box sets we planned on our own, if we did it mail order and made them limited editions. That would avoid distributors, returns, and that way it could be financially feasible to pull it off. Mosaic put together a box set of Thelonious Monk recordings, this was in '82 or '83, and one day there was a call from Alfred.
"He had sneaked over to a friend's house so his wife wouldn't know. I was shocked, I thought I'd never hear from this guy, but he was really curious about what we had done, and we ended up talking for about an hour and a half. After that, I always had to wait for him to call, because Ruth didn't want him anywhere near music, but eventually she capitulated. Alfred came down in February of 1985 for the Town Hall Concert, and then we started a face-to-face friendship."
The Town Hall Concert was staged to coincide with the official re-launching of Blue Note. Lion and his wife were reunited with many of Blue Note's extended family of musicians (a recording of the event has just been reissued), and there he met Cuscuna for the first time, along with Bruce Lundvall, the label's newly appointed president.
Lundvall has proved to be a canny hire. A career industry man who was responsible for signing acts as diverse as Dexter Gordon and Willie Nelson while at Columbia Records, he has been a lifelong jazz fanatic. "When you were growing up and had only so much money to buy records with, there was that kind of trust you would have in a couple of labels. With Blue Note, you'd find an innate quality and never be disappointed."
"It's really gratifying to spend the remaining years of your working life doing something you most love. As a good friend said to me, 'You know when you were 17 and running to Birdland every weekend, if you ever thought you'd be running Blue Note, you'd have died in your tracks.' It's been 14 years so far, and it's been great. I think we are a label now that speaks to the times, which you have to be.
"People ask me, 'Is Blue Note what it used to be?' I say no, it can't be. In the days when Alfred and Frank ran it, they were completely in control. They could make a record, and if they didn't like it, they could put it on the shelves. All the covers were by Reid Miles, and they were great, but the artists didn't have much to say about them. The thing is, every artist wants their own cover designer, photographer. They want to perform in different studios. They all can't be recorded by Rudy Van Gelder.
"If you try to do that, then you are your own boss and you have your own record company, but if you are working for any of the major record companies, the artists have far, far more say than they used to. But we have been able to sign cutting-edge new people, and vocalists, which Blue Note was never famous for. That's a fairly broad-based label."
The label's new roster includes exciting talent as varied as Joe Lovano and Cuban legend Chucho Valdes. They have scored huge crossover success with British DJ act Us3, organ trio Medeski, Martin & Wood, and vocalist Cassandra Wilson, and are developing many exciting new artists, including Marcus Printup, Greg Osby, Tim Hagans, Charlie Hunter, and more. The range is greater than the old days (there are some smooth jazz acts), but by and large, the label is once again handling itself with true distinction.
To celebrate their upcoming 60th anniversary, a "Blue Note Takes New York" series is planned for Manhattan in January. And the label continues to mine its past, still spearheaded by the omnipresent Cuscuna ("I put in my regular 120-hour week, so I have time for everyone"). In addition to all the new releases in the excellent Connoisseur series, which makes available long-deleted titles, the label has just released The Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions of Herbie Hancock, and The Blue Note Years, a voluminous and beautifully assembled 14-CD set, which while barely skimming the surface of such a deep well, serves as an excellent introduction to Blue Note's first six decades.
As for Lion, his emergence from seclusion to attend the Town Hall Concert, and later the Mt. Fuji Festival in Japan, proved revelatory. He witnessed firsthand the outpouring of gratitude for his life's work; the ovations he received were tumultuous. For a man who had spent the last 18 years in seclusion, a man so modest he never put his name on a single record he produced, a man humbled by the momentous talent he had the privilege to record, Lion had no idea how much the Blue Note legacy had come to mean to people all over the world. He was overwhelmed by the reaction. And when Lion's heart finally gave out in 1987, he knew his vision, dedication, creativity, and compassion for the job he had done were appreciated and respected worldwide. Lion had not only done his job well, no one has ever done it better.