Tangled Up in Blue Note

Julian Benedikt

In 1939, two German immigrants to the US, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, founded the Blue Note record label, one of the diamonds of jazz. In the past month or so, I’ve been listening to the music of Blue Note obsessively. I’ve been swimming in it, drunk with it.

It’s obviously wrong to elevate a record label — the business side of art! — above the music itself. But in the case of Blue Note, even the musicians themselves talk about the label as a state of mind and about the men who founded and ran it for decades as essential jazz musicians.

“Blue Note” means something in jazz — it’s a certain sound to a record, a style that is tight and sharp and funky but also adventurous, a disc that melds modernism to the groove without sacrificing either. Every jazz collector will talk fondly of “my Blue Notes” — and not just the music but also the cover art, the graphic style, the clarity of the recorded sound. There are universally loved Blues Notes — Blue Trane and The Sidewinder and Night of the Cookers — and there are personal favorites that are also classics.

A Story of Modern Jazz — on Film

Earlier this year a splendid 1997 documentary about Blue Note, Blue Note: A Story of Modern Jazz, was officially released on DVD. Directed by German filmmaker Julian Benedikt, it collects memories and performances by a glorious who’s who of the great label: Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Johnny Griffin, Jay Jay Johnson, Max Roach, Ron Carter, Bob Cranshaw, and more. The documentary also includes wonderful interviews with the folk artist Taj Majal, the basketball legend and jazz lover Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the genius recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, and Alfred Lion’s first wife, Lorraine Gordon (who later married Village Vanguard owner Max Gordon and who still runs the underground Carnegie Hall on 7th Avenue). Though hearing Hubbard and Hancock talk about their Blue Note days is priceless, they almost downplay the special quality of the end result.

Jimmy Smith,
Back at the Chicken Shack (1960)

As a jazz fanatic, the interviews that most resonated with me were those with producers Michael Cuscuna and Bob Belden, and also with Abdul-Jabbar and Taj Majal — folks who look at their Blue Note records with the kind of awe that is normally reserved for Michelangelo or Mozart. These incredibly talented folks are reduced to a semi-articulate thrill when they gaze at the cover of Tony Williams’ Spring or when they hear an Art Blakey press roll. That, I think to myself, is how I feel about jazz. I want to shout about it. And the jazz on the great Blue Note records may be the most shout-worthy of all time.

What made these records — the records produced by two non-musicians in the New Jersey suburbs — so great? Well, they paid the musicians to practice, for one. They had a great engineer in Van Gelder, no doubt. And their taste in musicians was exceptional, of course. But the film suggests it is something else. First, these immigrants seemed to have a feeling for the blues — they shared with the musicians a deep understanding that blues is a complex mixture of suffering, longing, and rapture — and they insisted on this feeling in the music they drew out of the players. And second, they demanded that the music have that locked-in feeling, that groove. Hancock explains, “They could recognize when something was groovin’ and when it wasn’t.” Johnny Griffin imitates Lion: “It must have schwinging!”

And the fans in the documentary affirm this as they scat Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco” or as they flip through record sleeves and delight in seeing old friends come up in the mix. Blues Notes, you see, are more than just jazz records. They are the jazz records — the essence of what makes jazz so joyful. Even the ballads, even the adventurous avant-garde dates: they swing so hard that they make the blues feel like the greatest day in your life.

My Blue Notes — Gone!

This movie blindsided me, perhaps. Just about a year ago, I did something unthinkable, heretical. I sold my jazz LPs.

They’d been in two huge record cabinets in the basement for 11 years. I had a turntable there, sure, and I played them once in a great while. There were over 600 platters (97 percent jazz) and probably 30percent Blue Notes among them.

But in the years since 1984, I had replaced about half the collection (and probably all the Blues Notes) with compact discs. Indeed, my CDs number well over 1,000 and spill out of a closet in my living room. Then, to top it off, I copied many of the CDs onto my computer and have acquired at least 1,000 additional “albums” in digital form. I’ve never had more Blue Note recordings at my fingertips.

When I started considering selling the wax, collectors always asked me the same question: how many of the Blue Notes are “original pressings”? I quickly learned that none of my Blue Notes LPs were originals. Oh, they looked great, with the distinctive Blue Note cover graphics and liner notes, and they were in superb shape. But the collectors were looking for material of historical rarity and not mere aesthetic beauty. My stuff was mostly reprinted material from the 1970s. I wouldn’t get much for it, but that’s because it was dime-a-dozen stuff. I let the whole lot go for a relative song. My basement felt lighter and emptier. I was purging. And I had the music anyway, right?

But now, after watching Taj Mahal flip through his albums with such delight, I pretty much want to kick myself. I want those covers back! I want the smell of them, the one-foot-square joy of touching them. I want to frame every one and build a shrine to the day I bought each one.

The Blue Note Habit Starts Early

Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers,
Roots & Herbs (1961)

I started collecting them when I was a ninth-grader. My friend Bobby and I had been listening to jazz on the radio, and we’d bought a few entry-level fusion records and Brubeck Quartet albums. But the first Blue Note we heard — Roots and Herbs by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers — hooked us. So strong! I remember telling Bobby, “I want this music to follow me down the street as I walk.” As we bought a few more Blue Notes (Horace Silver’s Horace-scope and then Freddie Hubbard’s Hub-Cap), we were addicted.

We read up on the music — “hard bop”, the critics called it — and we started to develop our favorite pianists and to understand why Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane and Oliver Nelson could play the same instrument and yet sound so utterly distinctive. Blue Notes were way better than baseball cards. More expensive too.

What we had discovered, of course, was the essence of the Blue Note signature. Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff made well over 1,000 recordings for the classic incarnation of Blue Note (between 1939 and 1966), and hundreds were stone classics. Almost any Blue Note you could lay your hands on would be terrific in that same dashing way — rock solid swinging but often (and more often as the ’60s wore on) with the musicians given license to take risks. You could look at the back of the disc and see which of your favorites would be featured: Lee Morgan on trumpet, yeah! James Spaulding on alto! What about Bobby Hutcherson on vibes? And yet these familiar names retained the ability to surprise as much as they could delight.

By the time I was collecting Blue Notes, of course, the glory days were over. Lion sold the label in 1967, and the quality control faded considerably. While some of the great musicians continued to record for Blue Note — Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, and guitarist Grant Green, for example — both the hard-hitting swing and the sense of adventure was too often replaced by formula and commercial questing. In 1974, for example, Blue Note was recording the great trumpeter Donald Byrd, but only in the guise of commercial group “the Blackbyrds”, and the soul-jazz flutist Bobby Humphrey, who was having a go at Stevie Wonder tunes. “Blue Note” as a term-of-art in jazz had become a thing of the past. Thankfully, the rich vein of classic material was virtually inexhaustible, at least for a young guy of limited means. It seemed I could live my whole life always finding one more great Blue Note record I didn’t know.

Classics — and Personal Favorites

Certain Blue Notes were obviously gold — flat-out classics. The first time I heard Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, I knew it was great. Jimmy Smith’s classic Back at the Chicken Shack always sounded like a timeless organ groove. Maybe the greatest Blue Note of them all is Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil — a quintet recording of such unsurpassed compositional beauty and cleverness that its tunes have all become modern standards.

But during my Blue Note collecting career, I came up with my own canon of favorites. Here, I’ll describe just three of them — recordings that reflect the immense range of the label despite its signature sound. It seems that I’ve listened to these records hundreds of times, and they are all recommended with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for chocolate ice cream.

Sonny Clark, Cool Struttin’ (1958)

Sonny Clark is not one of the legendary jazz pianists. Though he played steadily for Lion between 1957 and 1961 (two years before he died at 32 as a heroin addict and alcoholic), his body of work is merely tasty. But the 1958 date released as Cool Struttin’ contains some kind of magic. It is an ebullient record, a disc that makes you glad to be alive. It pulses with slap-happy swing.

Like so many of the great Blue Notes, Cool Struttin’ starts with a great, sweet-and-sour band. Clark is teamed with Miles Davis’ rhythm team of bassist Paul Chamber and drummer “Philly” Joe Jones. Together they take an undeniable, rubbery swing at every tune. Clark is a deeply funky pianist using blues on every solo and every accompaniment. His right hand is relaxed but assertive, yet his left hand has a minimal role to play, merely punching out accents or guiding a hip, single-note counterline. The result is a gracious compliment between down-home and thoughtful, between gospel and Thelonious Monk.

Atop this team, the disc features a front line of Art Farmer on trumpet and Jackie McLean on alto. In contrast to the funky and driving rhythm team, the horns are cool and even. Farmer plays in his instrument’s pleasant mid-range, sounding somewhat like Miles but with a more mellow and flowing melodicism. McLean is working his way out of this Charlie Parker obsession into an original sound, and he is evenly tart and methodical. Put together, his group plays with a no-stress swing as deep as the Marianas Trench. It feels effortless.

The tunes featured on Cool Struttin’ exploit the band’s strengths. The title track is a simple mid-tempo blues — no muss, no fuss. Clark’s solo is funky but clever, quoting a snippet of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” one moment and playing a pentatonic run the next. “Blue Minor” is a 32-bar theme but one still drenched in blues gravy. Additionally, the band assays Miles’ bop tune “Sippin’ at Bells” and a rarely played standard, “Deep Night”. (The CD release includes two non-LP tracks from the same sessions, the Clark original “Royal Flush” and the Rogers and Hart tune “Lover” — both welcome additions.) All the performances here have that special jazz thing — a sense of freedom and exploration for each individual driven by the propulsion that only the group can achieve.

Add to this the amazing cover — a black-and-white photo of a woman’s legs in classic black pumps easing down an urban sidewalk, topped with electric yellow capital letters providing the title and the classic Blue Note logo, “The Finest in Jazz Since 1939”. Irresistible.

Eric Dolphy, Out to Lunch (1964)

Like his mentor John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy made only one studio date for Blue Note, but it is certainly the finest of his too-short career. Dolphy was a searing jazz talent but also an enigma. His playing was not anarchic, but it was harmonically “free” — he knowingly played outside the standard bop harmonies and beyond the rhythmic phrasing that was common in jazz at the time while still retaining a sense of precision and control in his work. So, while he was quickly labeled an “out cat”, his music benefited most from careful rehearsal and top collaborators.

Out to Lunch gives Dolphy both of those luxuries. And in Dolphy, Blue Note got a nearly ideal musician to serve the label’s new (in 1964) interest in more avant-garde jazz. Here, Dolphy has crafted five distinctive and catchy original themes. Some are complex (“Hat and Beard”), some are daringly lyrical (“Something Sweet, Something Tender”), and some “Straight Up and Down”. By excluding piano from the band and using only Bobby Hutcherson’s vibes as a chording instrument, Dolphy opens up space in the band, giving Tony Williams and bassist Richard Davis full responsibility for propulsion, and giving Hubbard, Hutcherson, and himself maximum room to construct melody from the ground up.

The resulting tunes are pinnacles in 1960s jazz. They find entirely new formats for improvisation, and they significantly widen the range of acceptable structures for jazz composition. On Out to Lunch, it seems rare that the players are simply blowing over the chord changes. Rather, Dolphy has set up different vamps, baselines, and harmonically free sections that allow the improvised sections to be compositionally unique. On the title track, for instance, Dolphy solos over an ambling bass-and-drums groove, while Hubbard sings over a more insistent, almost military staccato that includes the vibes.

No matter how free these sections become, however, it is never hard to imagine Lion in the control room, doing the awkward little dance that all his musicians remember accompanied truly cooking dates. Out to Lunch may shatter convention, but it still swings, just in a new way.

Joe Henderson, Mode for Joe (1966)

Recorded near the end of Lion’s producing career in January of 1966, Mode for Joe is an album of near-perfect balance. Unlike Out to Lunch, this classic approaches freedom delicately, but it gets there still. Henderson’s band here is fairly large by Blue Note standards — seven all-stars strong, with a front line of trumpet (Lee Morgan), Henderson’s tenor, trombone (Curtis Fuller), and vibes (Hutcherson again), and a rhythm section of Cedar Walton on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Joe Chambers on drums. While the bulk of the playing fits soundly in the Blue Note groove, the adventure in the composing and in the approach to tradition is strong.

The standouts on Mode for Joe are the two tunes composed by Walton, who also wrote great material for the Messengers and for his own releases up to this day. The title track starts with a suspended rhythm under a series of beautifully voiced chords for the horns, which then invites Henderson to play a series of cracked harmonics leading into a relaxed solo over a single mode. Each solo is like a lazy conversation, with Fuller getting in the best, most cooking argument. “Black” is even better, built around a hip Walton baseline and a fast, precise swing that invites Henderson to wail and Morgan to crackle. On these solos, the possibilities of freedom are exploited but allegiance to the blues is never betrayed.

When I first heard Mode for Joe, I was familiar enough with both Blue Note and its great roster of musicians to feel that I had discovered a mature masterpiece, even if it was one that not every critic would place at the top of his list. I’ll admit, with so many great soloists, no one stretches out much. And the first track, “A Shade of Jade”, sounds a mite sloppy in its execution, with Chambers pounding the group into order. But this is a recording date where Blue Note was in its glory — with complex compositions happening around an insistent groove, and with the soloists propelled upward into vivid expression by all of it. I mean, dig Morgan’s hip 6/8 blues “Free Wheelin'”, with its irregular accents and Walton playing barrelhouse figures around the head. Every player is dripping with soul like it was a Motown date (many of them, in fact, were from Detroit), yet they play with a harmonic cool and complexity that befits jazz musicians of the post-Coltrane era.

All three of these Blue Notes — but so many others as well — are essential documents of jazz at a particular high-water mark, at a peak of adventurous groove.

Blue Note Today

An obsession for the glory days of Blue Note should not obscure the great work coming from the label today. Beginning in 1986, Blue Note was effectively revived by record executive Bruce Lundvall as a subgroup of EMI Records. Not only did many of the classic but hard-to-find Blue Notes get a gracious reissue treatment, but Lundvall sought out exciting young jazz musicians and promised them the same kind of artistic freedom, fair financial treatment, and good distribution as in the old days.

Cassandra Wilson, Loverly (2008)

Much like in the old days, the “new” Blue Note has had the good fortune of a best-seller or two to finance its integrity. Classic Blue Note sold a whole bunch of platters of Sidney Bechet playing “Summertime” and of Morgan’s The Sidewinder — these made Out to Lunch possible. Today’s Blue Note produced a modest pop-jazz album by an untested vocalist in 2002, and Come Away with Me made Norah Jones a star. That disc has made possible daring discs by the likes of pianist Jason Moran, saxophonist Joe Lovano, and pianist Robert Glasper. Last year’s In My Element by Glasper was an up-to-the-minute stunner that Lion would have loved: it had the groove of swing, the freshness of change, and the dash of great improvisation.

Maybe the best thing about the new Blue Note has been where it has fused artistic adventure and some pop pleasure. The string of recordings by Cassandra Wilson since 1993’s Blue Night ‘Til Dawn and continuing through 2006’s Thunderbird has been a genuine rethinking of jazz singing. Wilson has retained enough jazz in her game to stay relevant in the art form, but she has built a new kind American singing too — something that is equal parts delta blues, folk directness, jazz embellishment, and gospel soul. Her new disc, Loverly is due out in June from — where else? — Blue Note.

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