Julian Benedikt is a documentary filmmaker with a taste for jazz—he has made a handful of movies about jazz in Europe, the drummer Chico Hamilton, and—in 1997—the great Blue Note record label. It is a lovely and instructive documentary about the founding and triumph of an essential part of the jazz story. Now it’s out on DVD, and it is delightful viewing for any jazz fan.
Happily, the great bulk of Blue Note: A Story of Modern Jazz is made of interviews with jazz musicians, and brilliant ones: Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Johnny Griffin, Jay Jay Johnson, Max Roach, Ron Carter, it goes on and on. They celebrate the legendary founders and leaders of the label, German immigrants Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, two men whom the musicians themselves celebrate as great fans, perfect facilitators, and—ultimately—artists themselves. When these artists sit around and talk about Lion and Wolff, there is an atmosphere of joy, laughter, and appreciation.
“He really loved the music,” Hubbard says of Lion, “and I really loved him.” “They could recognize when something was groovin’ and when it wasn’t,” Hancock explains. Johnny Griffin imitates Lion—“It must have schwinging.” And, boy-o-boy, did Blue Note dates schwing.
There was something different about the jazz records made for Blue Note. What was it? Some say that it was the fact that Lion and Wolff actually paid the musicians to practice before the recording date. Or maybe it was the perfectly articulated engineering of Rudy Van Gelder, who started recording these legendary bands in his Hackensack, New Jersey home. This film suggested these things, but it makes the stronger argument: that every Blue Note recording, no matter how modern, was built around a keen feeling for the blues.
The label’s first recordings, after all, were piano duets between the great stride and blues players Albert Ammons and Meade “Lux” Lewis. Bob Belden explains that Lion first developed the habit of recording great, vibrant musicians who were just beyond their prime. The first Blue Note “Hit” was Sidney Bechet’s recording of “Summertime” (1940)—which “created the cash flow that allowed Blue Note to continue. It was, after all, Blue Note, and its origins were in this kind of backbone jazz, grooving, blues-drenched swing. But when bebop came along in the ‘40s, Blue Note was there to capture and spur the music’s development.
The bulk and heart of the film focuses on the Blue Note glory years, beginning in the ‘50s with Lion’s recordings of Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and then Art Blakey and Horace Silver. While the biographical details about the men are interesting (Who knew that Lorraine Gordon, the proprietor of the legendary Village Vanguard and widow of Vanguard impresario Max Gordon, was the first wife of Afred Lion?), what you really want is to hear bassist Bob Cranshaw talk about how playing on Blue Note dates “fed my kids.” Better still are the terrific performance footage of Horace Silver in his heyday; Hancock, Carter, Williams, Hubbard and Joe Henderson from the 1985 Town Hall concert, or vintage Sonny Rollins playing with a trio in the ‘60s.
There are two fine sections unrelated to the music itself, first on the photography of Frank Wolff—how his iconic black-and-white imagery reflected the artistry of the music. Then the film turns to an exhibition of the album art designed by the great Reid Miles once Blue Note started issuing 12-inch LPs. Riveting.
How could it be that these two Germans, barely through Ellis Island, had such a feeling for jazz? The film makes clear that it was no coincidence that a pair of immigrants recognized jazz as a great art. So many of the great jazz critics and club owners who supported the music were Europeans, immigrants, Jews. In a striking appearance, jazz fan Kareem Abdul Jabbar notes that so many white Americans heard jazz as marginal music, “bordello music”, music implicitly derided by racist bias. Outsiders such as Lion and Wolff helped the music to survive because they shared the musicians’ sense of exile and, less stained by US racism, could see what was truly great about it.
The main chapter in the Blue Note story ended in 1966 when the company was sold. Lion retired to Mexico with his second wife, and Wolff died in the 1972. But it never really died, as the recordings live blissfully on. In 1985, a Town Hall concert featuring so many of the original greats was organized, and 1986 brought the rebirth of the label under Bruce Lundvall. It lives on today, probably the most consistently fine major label in jazz. But movie makes only a nod toward the contemporary Blue Note with a short section of Cassandra Wilson singing.
By 1986, the origin story of Blue Note was almost concluded—Alfred Lion died in 1987. Many musicians—and many music fans—mourned his passing.