A History of Blue Note Records, hmv celebrates the Iconic Jazz label...
In hmv stores, we are celebrating the history of iconic jazz label Blue Note Records.
With its storied history and extraordinarily rich back catalogue, Blue Note is undoubtedly one of the most important record labels in the history of music.
The company's releases have documented the rise and fall of many different jazz styles during a remarkable 10 decades of recording and have always kept pace with the music's ever-changing landscape; charting its evolution from swing and bebop through to cool jazz, hard bop, free jazz, jazz-funk and beyond.
Today, Blue Note is part of the Universal Music Group, a giant conglomerate, but back in March 1939 when it began, it was a minuscule independent operation. The company was founded by three men who knew very little about the music industry, but one of them, Alfred Lion, a Berlin-born Jewish refugee who had fled Nazi Germany in 1936, knew a lot about jazz. And it was his passion for the music that was the label's driving force; but he wouldn't have succeeded without his two initial partners, Max Margulis and Emanuel Eisenberg, both writers, who supplied the necessary financial backing to get the label off the ground.
Though Blue Note became synonymous with modern jazz, it wasn't always that way. In its maiden press release, the new company stated its desire "...to serve the uncompromising expressions of hot jazz and swing," and their initial recording was a 78 RPM single by boogie-woogie pianists Meade “Lux” Lewis and Albert Ammons. But it was soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, a pioneer of New Orleans-style jazz, who put Blue Note on the map in late 1939 with his single, ‘Summertime,’ which became the label's first hit.
But in 1947, the fledgeling label changed direction when it signed an avant-garde pianist/composer with an unusual name; Thelonious Sphere Monk, who together with saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter, Dizzy Gillespie, was in the vanguard of a revolutionary new jazz style called bebop.
Signing Monk was Blue Note's entree into the world of modern jazz and proved a significant step as it set Lion's label on a new path; one that would see Blue Note play a pivotal role in chronicling the rise and evolution of both bebop and post-bebop jazz in the ensuing years.
Blue Note blazed a trail that other jazz labels desperately tried to follow in the 1950s and 60s. Teaming up in the early 50s with pioneering recording engineer, Rudy Van Gelder, the label developed its own distinctive sound, defined by a sense of clarity, warmth, and depth; and between 1956 and 1967, graphic designer, Reid Miles, in tandem with photographer Francis Wolff, gave the label striking and memorable cover art, which helped to make Blue Note the coolest of record labels.
The company also boasted an incredible roster of talent, many of them trailblazers, during this fertile period; ranging from Miles Davis, Art Blakey and John Coltrane in the 50s to Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter in the 60s.
Dean Rudland, a noted British DJ, broadcaster, and Blue Note connoisseur who masterminded the hugely successful Blue Break Beats series of compilations for the label in the 1990s, says that the company survived because it was successfully able to balance artistic endeavour with commercial considerations: “They found a niche as an independent that worked well and it allowed them to pioneer certain things musically, but they always needed to keep enough commercial musicians – like the 3 Sounds and Jimmy Smith - in order to keep it going."
He continues: "They used that success to allow themselves to record the likes of Andrew Hill, who never really sold in any numbers, but whose recordings are now considered touchstones of modern jazz piano.”
But Blue Note lost its independence when Lion sold his company to the major label, Liberty, in 1965, at a time when jazz audiences were shrinking and the music was being marginalized by the growing popularity of pop and rock. Liberty, in turn, was absorbed by United Artists in 1969, which was Blue Note’s parent company until EMI took it over in 1979.
Under EMI, Blue Note was put into hibernation until 1985 when Bruce Lundvall spectacularly revived it. Under his leadership, the label blossomed through the 1990s and into the 2000s.
When Lundvall retired in 2011, noted record producer Don Was became Blue Note’s president and continued to adhere to the label's original aim of "uncompromising expression" by signing a range of artists, both established ones and relative unknowns, that continued to push the jazz envelope.
Blue Note's long and rich history is littered with iconic and beloved records. Here are five of the best of them, five records which tell at least some of the label's glorious life...
The release of Thelonious Monk’s startling debut album, The Genius Of Modern Music Vol. 1, in 1951 marked a seismic event in jazz and put Blue Note at the cutting edge of contemporary music. Up until 1947, the year Blue Note first recorded Monk, Alfred Lion’s focus had been on making boogie-woogie, swing and trad jazz records but with the signing of the hat-wearing pianist/composer originally from Rocky Mount, North Carolina, the label fully embraced bebop and modern jazz.
Together with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk was part of bebop’s holy trinity; three virtuosic young musicians who were bored by the regimented dance pulse and formulaic commercialism of the big band swing sound which had dominated jazz in the 1930s and 40s. Instead, they devised an innovative musical language in small group settings that was characterized by high-velocity melodies darting over complex chord sequences.
Parker and Gillespie were quickly snapped up by recording companies, but Monk, whose music, with its angular melodies and clashing dissonant notes, was a much harder sell. Though few people took Monk seriously and many ridiculed his innovations, Alfred Lion was prepared to take a risk and recorded the pianist for a series of 10" 78 rpm singles in October 1947.
Among those singles were the haunting ballads ‘Round Midnight’ and ‘Ruby, My Dear’; the former became Monk's signature tune and has the distinction of being the most recorded jazz composition of all time. Monk was also adept at writing jaunty, uptempo songs in the shape of ‘Epistrophy’ and ‘Well, You Needn't,’ which were driven by an addictive swing groove. Those early Blue Note 78s were the foundation of Genius Of Modern Music Vol. 1.
For Alfred Lion, who was deeply smitten by Monk's outré modernism, the album's title wasn't an exaggeration and its eight songs showed that the pianist was not only a remarkable composer who had created his own musical universe but also possessed one of the most extraordinary minds in jazz.
Though Lion hailed Monk as a genius, the pianist's music sold poorly initially because people found his quirky keyboard playing with its spiky melodies and surprising harmonies challenging. “If you listen to Monk now you may not understand how revolutionary that music was in 1948,” says Don Was, Blue Note’s current president. “It was incendiary. He changed so much; changed the way musicians composed songs, voiced chords and the whole approach to both soloing and accompaniment. It was a radical transformation.”
But Monk’s commercial failure took Blue Note to the brink of financial disaster. “The label nearly collapsed when they put all this money into Monk and his records wouldn't sell,” explains Swiss filmmaker Sophie Huber, director of Blue Note Records - Beyond The Notes, the acclaimed 2018 documentary. “But we might never have heard of Monk if not for Blue Note.”
Reluctantly, Lion didn't renew Monk’s contract after 1952 but his label's daring acquisition of the pianist marked Blue Note's entry into the world of modern jazz and became the platform upon which it began building up an impressive catalogue of music.
By recording Monk, Lion realised that modern jazz was where the company's true destiny lay and wholeheartedly committed his label to exposing its prime movers and shakers over the next two decades; beginning with Bud Powell (a protégé of Monk's who was the piano playing equivalent of Charlie Parker) and trumpeter Miles Davis, who would become one of modern jazz's leading stylists and pathfinders.
In the immediate years following Genius Of Modern Music, Blue Note would also introduce the world to many more musical geniuses; among them pianist/composer Horace Silver, saxophonists Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane; trumpeters Clifford Brown, and Lee Morgan; and guitarists Kenny Burrell and Grant Green.
Saxophonist John Coltrane's masterpiece Blue Train is one of the most iconic albums in Blue Note's catalogue. At the time he recorded it, in September 1957, "Trane" was no longer with the Miles Davis Quintet - the jazz supergroup that had first put him on the radar of the jazz public in 1955 - and instead, was playing with Thelonious Monk's quartet. The saxophonist had been fired from Miles' group earlier in the year for his heroin dependency but, accepting his dismissal as a wakeup call, went on to quit his addiction the hard way.
Once free of his demons, Coltrane looked to rebuild his career and got a gig with Monk, whose tricky melodies and unusual chord changes helped the saxophonist become a more technically accomplished player. Noticing Coltrane's transformation, Alfred Lion at Blue Note, who had turned him down a year earlier, asked the saxophonist to record a session for his label.
Although Coltrane already had an album deal with Prestige, he was given permission to record for Blue Note as a strictly one-off project. What transpired was Blue Train, one of the greatest jazz albums of all time.
On Blue Train, Coltrane surrounded himself with bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones, his former close colleagues from the Miles Davis band, and two rising stars from drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers; teenage trumpeter Lee Morgan and trombonist, Curtis Fuller, who were both already recording as solo artists for Blue Note.
All but one of the album's five tracks were original Coltrane tunes; the standout being the title song, distinguished by its haunting call and response-style theme played by three horns.
The album not only marked Coltrane's growth as a composer but also revealed his dazzling virtuosity as a tenor saxophonist, especially via his long solos, which were characterised by dense blizzards of notes and were famously described by one US jazz critic as "sheets of sound."
Blue Train was the first of many musical masterpieces by John Coltrane but was also an LP that encapsulated the hard bop sound that largely epitomised Blue Note's musical output from the mid-1950s to the mid-60s. An outgrowth of bebop, hard bop was energetic, forceful, and direct; defined by blues and gospel elements combined over a driving, infectious beat.
Besides John Coltrane, Blue Note's hard bop exponents included Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers - who played a key role in popularising the music - saxophonists Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, Johnny Griffin, and Lou Donaldson; pianist/composers Horace Silver and Sonny Clark; trumpeter Lee Morgan and Hammond organist supreme, Jimmy Smith, who was the label’s most successful artist in the late 50s and early 60s.
The emergence of hard bop as a core component of Blue Note's musical identity coincided with the label's discovery of Rudy Van Gelder, a talented amateur recording engineer who was able to give the label a unique sound. Though he worked as an optometrist by day and used his parents' living room as a recording studio until 1959 when opened a custom-built studio, Van Gelder was a boffin-like genius who brought a new level of technical expertise and improved audio fidelity to jazz.
"He was absolutely critical to the sound of the label," states Don Was. "I don't think you'd have those records without Rudy Van Gelder. I love the fact that if you put on a Blue Note record from 1965, even before you know what artist or song it is, you can tell it's a Blue Note record. It's a signature sound. Great labels have it."
For Dean Rudland, Van Gelder, who helmed sessions for other labels like Prestige, Riverside and later Impulse!, revolutionised the process of jazz recording in general. “Rudy was important to the whole sound of jazz after the 1950s,” he states. “He engineered so many important sessions, in a studio that he had built himself, and nurtured those sessions from the setting up of the mics to the cutting of the lacquer.”
But what made Blue Note LPs sound different from other Van Gelder recordings? Dean Rudland attributes it to Alfred Lion’s musical predilections. “Alfred’s taste and preferences meant that their records sounded unique from the many other hundreds of sessions recorded (by Van Gelder),” he says.
Don Was agrees: “I think the Blue Note sound was to do with Alfred Lion's taste because I discussed that with Rudy, and he said he shaped the sound to what Alfred liked. It really came down to pragmatic things like the choice of microphone that you use on the saxophone. That changes everything.”
Blue Train's longevity and enduring popularity is undoubtedly due to a combination of Van Gelder's immaculate recording technique with the quality of the material and performances from Coltrane and his band. 63 years on, Blue Train remains a musical touchstone in both Coltrane's and Blue Note's catalogues.
“Wayne is simply one of the greatest musicians to have ever lived,” says Dean Rudland, describing the much-decorated New Jersey-born musician who is regarded as one of jazz’s greatest living saxophonists and composers. “His contributions on his own records, his time with the best period of the Jazz Messengers and his various moments as a sideman are simply phenomenal. Any label would have been lucky to have him.”
Blue Note were fortunate enough to sign him twice: in 1964 and more recently, in 2012. Now 87, the saxophonist has made myriad recordings, both as a solo artist and as part of three legendary but very different groups; Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, the Miles Davis Quintet, and Weather Report. Despite his many and varied musical accomplishments - including more recently, his Grammy-winning comic book-inspired triple album Emanon - Shorter's 1966 LP Speak No Evil is widely regarded as his finest creation.
Speak No Evil was recorded in December 1964 when Shorter was just a few months into his tenure with the Miles Davis Quintet. He brought in pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Ron Carter from Miles' band as sidemen along with trumpeter, Freddie Hubbard - whom Shorter had played with in The Jazz Messengers - and John Coltrane's drummer, the mighty Elvin Jones.
Shorter first revealed his talent as a composer during his fertile stint in The Jazz Messengers and his remarkable writing ability combined with his gutsy but fluent tenor saxophone playing caught the ear of Blue Note's Alfred Lion, who signed him in early 1964.
Speak No Evil was Shorter's third offering for the label and contained six original songs; ranging from the swinging title tune to the haunting mid-tempo ‘Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum’ with its snaking melody, and the soft ethereal ballad, ‘Infant Eyes,’ which Shorter wrote for his newborn daughter (the song was quickly adopted as a jazz standard and has been recorded many times by other musicians).
Speak No Evil was a life-changing album for current Blue Note boss, Don Was, who first heard it as a teenager and considers it his favourite LP of all time. "It really spoke to me and has provided incredible comfort to me over the years," he reveals.
"It's like great poetry and I was able to project my own emotional life onto it and find some comfort. As someone who makes records for a living, it’s served as a model for me and something to strive for. You don't just strive to make a fashionable hit that goes away - you really strive to create and make music that helps people make sense out of their own lives.”
Stylistically, the musical roots of Speak No Evil were hard bop, which Shorter had helped formulate as a member of The Jazz Messengers between 1959 and 1963, but the saxophonist was stretching the style with oblique, elliptical melodies and unusual chord changes; moving towards the more abstract, post-modern jazz he was playing in the Miles Davis Quintet.
As well as its impeccably-produced sound, Speak No Evil also highlighted the brilliance of Blue Note's artwork, which the label had been noted for since the mid-1950s.
Designer Reid Miles cropped Frank Wolff's photograph of Shorter and his then-wife, Teruko Nakagami, to show just their faces, which were bathed in a blue sheen and framed by a white horizontal border that was imprinted with the outline of red lips. The end result was an indelible image that matched the striking sonorities of Shorter's music.
“I think it’s an eye thing,” says Dean Rudland, explaining why Blue Note covers were so striking. “Frank took some amazing photos but it was beyond him simply being in the right place with the right access. Somehow he and Reid just connected visually.”
Reflecting on the importance of Blue Note’s artwork, Don Was says it was groundbreaking: “When Reid Miles designed those covers, there was nothing derivative about them; he was doing something highly original and yet you can see in retrospect how his style has really become part of the vocabulary of mainstream graphic designers.”
A 79-year-old Shorter was brought back to Blue Note in 2012 by Was and his return reinvigorated the label, as the producer reveals: “The vibe of having Wayne around is absolutely inspiring to the other musicians on the label. He's just got this positive, powerful energy. It means a whole lot to everybody to have him on the label - and he's still the most innovative guy in town.”
Considered a masterpiece and one of the greatest albums in Blue Note's canon, Speak No Evil reflected a new kind of post-bebop jazz that Shorter and several other young, forward-thinking musical minds were creating at Alfred Lion's label in the mid-1960s; pianists like Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill and McCoy Tyner, together with saxophonists Sam Rivers, Jackie McLean and Ornette Coleman; organist Larry Young, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, and trombonist Grachan Moncur III.
Their presence on Blue Note's roster showed that the label was not content to stand still and was proactive in documenting new developments in jazz as the 60s marched inexorably towards the 70s.
As Donald Byrd's Black Byrd showed, Blue Note in the 1970s was a different label from the one that the long-serving Detroit trumpeter had first joined two decades earlier. By then, it was owned by United Artists and its releases weren’t as frequent as in the past, and its signature hard bop sound had given way to a more contemporary pop-style jazz approach.
Byrd was a survivor from the Alfred Lion era, arriving at the label in 1958, where he not only established himself as one of hard bop's foremost musicians but also showed an inclination for experimentation by using larger ensembles which used vocalists; as illustrated by his gospel-themed albums, A New Perspective and I'm Goin' Home.
When Lion sold Blue Note in 1965, Byrd stayed on at the label and as the 60s rolled into the 70s, he moved away from hard bop and began using electric instruments and experimenting with rock and funk rhythms.
His first two attempts at what the critics dubbed “fusion” were the albums Electric Byrd and Ethiopian Knights; both had mixed reviews and didn't engage the wider public like Miles Davis's groundbreaking Bitches Brew had, but Byrd's next album, 1973's Black Byrd, proved a resounding commercial success and took both Byrd and Blue Note into the US pop and R&B charts.
On Black Byrd, Byrd hooked up with a new Los Angeles-based production team called Sky High, founded by two of the trumpeter's former students; Larry Mizell, a talented songwriter and arranger, and his brother Fonce Mizell, a former member of the Motown production team, The Corporation, which had produced hits for the Jackson 5.
Unlike Byrd's previous albums, Black Byrd didn't feature any extended bebop-style jazz improvisation; instead, it found the trumpeter playing catchy, pop-like horn melodies over funkafied, soul-style songs seasoned with synthesisers and simple vocal refrains.
The album was savaged by the jazz critics but shot to No. 2 in the US R&B albums chart and peaked at No. 36 in The Billboard 200 in the summer of 1973; it quickly became the best selling album in Blue Note's history and its success prompted Donald Byrd to collaborate further with the Mizell brothers.
Black Byrd was a game-changer for Blue Note and signalled the label's radical change of direction; leaving pure acoustic jazz largely behind to focus on a hip, new kind of electric street funk that was more in tune with a time defined by blaxploitation movies starring Afro-topped actors like Richard Roundtree and Pam Grier.
Flush with chart success, Blue Note also hired the Sky High team to collaborate with the first African-American female instrumentalist signed to the label; flautist, Bobbi Humphrey, whose four Blue Note albums landed in both the US pop and R&B charts in the early 70s.
Some of Blue Note's old guard were also turning to soul and funk; like alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, who had played with bebop pioneer Charlie Parker and been with the label since the early 1950s; in the late 60s, he scored a big hit with the funky groove ‘Alligator Bogaloo’ and in the 70s continued to churn out charting albums that melded jazz with earthier funk and soul elements.
Although there was an emphasis on jazz-funk, the label wasn't without variety; singer Marlena Shaw could convincingly blend jazz with soul and even scored a disco hit for the label (1976's ‘It's Better Than Walkin’ Out’) while saxophonist Ronnie Laws, acoustic guitarist Earl Klugh and electric violin virtuoso Noel Pointer were pioneers of a new melodic instrumental style that would eventually be labelled smooth jazz.
“I think by this point Blue Note wasn’t reaching an audience as a label, but the records were,” observes Dean Rudland. “Instead, these records added another layer to the label’s catalogue, one which was crucial to its renewed importance in the 90s.”
The success of Black Byrd gave both Donald Byrd and Blue Note's career new momentum at the start of the 1970s though at the end of the decade, the label's parent company, United Artists, was bought by EMI, who decided to close it down. Blue Note, it seemed, was no more.
Robert Glasper, a remarkably versatile pianist from Houston, Texas, signed to Blue Note in 2005. He was brought to the label by Don Was' predecessor, Bruce Lundvall, the man who brought Blue Note spectacularly back from the dead in 1985 and revived the company as a major force in jazz.
Like Alfred Lion before him, Lundvall had a keen ear for extraordinary talent and was responsible for many of the key new signings of the post-Alfred Lion era: like guitarist Stanley Jordan and vocal contortionist Bobby McFerrin in the 80s; smoky-voiced chanteuse Cassandra Wilson and hip-hop duo, Us3 in the 90s, whose Herbie Hancock-sampling hit, ‘Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),’ helped the hip-hop and acid jazz generation discover Blue Note’s back catalogue; and in the 2000s, golden-voiced singer/songwriter, Norah Jones, who quickly became the label's best-selling artist of all time.
The signing of Glasper came near the end of Lundvall's tenure as the label’s president. Although the keyboardist had impressed on his early Blue Note albums, which captured him mostly in an acoustic, straight-ahead setting, it was after Lundvall's retirement and at the beginning of Don Was' tenure in 2012 that Glasper began to truly blossom as an artist.
That was the year he released Black Radio, a kaleidoscopic, genre-blurring collision of jazz, R&B, neo-soul, and hip-hop that included fresh urban interpretations of rock songs by David Bowie and Nirvana.
Glasper also brought in an array of star vocalists from the contemporary US R&B scene to help bring his musical vision to life; including Erykah Badu, Lalah Hathaway and Ledisi. The album topped the US jazz charts as well as rising into the upper echelons of America's pop and R&B album charts.
Blue Note president Don Was views Glasper as one of contemporary jazz's most significant and innovative artists. "Robert Glasper to me is what Miles Davis was in the 60s and 70s," he says. "I think Robert today is a leader and galvaniser and someone who is a master chef who's combined many familiar elements into a brand-new taste."
After Black Radio and its equally successful sequel, Black Radio 2, Glasper played a leading role in shaping Blue Note's direction, not just via his own recordings but through other projects, he was involved with.
He brought his unique keyboard skills and savvy compositional know-how to two very different supergroups he participated in; the jazz-focused Blue Note All-Stars and the more R&B-oriented ensemble R+R = NOW. Glasper also co-produced and appeared on Heritage, the third Blue Note album by West African guitarist, Lionel Loueke (a fellow member of the Blue Note All-Stars), while his bassist, Derrick Hodge, recorded three albums for the label.
Despite its genre-fluid sense of modernity, Black Radio was an album that reconnected with Blue Note's past; with the funky 60s soul-jazz vibe of Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock (one of Glasper's idols) and Lou Donaldson, and the 70s electric jazz-funk of Donald Byrd and Bobbi Humphrey.
In the wake of Glasper's success, the label's relationship with an African American audience under Don Was’ watch was reinvigorated by the signing of soulful jazz vocalists Gregory Porter and Kandace Springs. And the company’s acquisition of young black instrumentalists, such as trumpeter, Ambrose Akinmusire, vibraphonist Joel Ross and saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, shows that in the second decade of the 21st century, Blue Note is still committed to capturing the "uncompromising expression" of musicians at jazz's cutting edge.
Though Blue Note has been a major label imprint for many years, Dean Rudland believes that it hasn’t lost its independent spirit. “Alfred Lion’s legacy is preserved in the way that his label is considered the ultimate jazz label, and the way that it was kept separate when Universal bought EMI,” he says. “I think that strength and resilience is pretty impressive.”
For Don Was, Alfred Lion was a role model, both as a producer and record company boss; so much so, that he still adheres to the label's original ethos when producing artists and making records today.
"I think their signing of musicians that they respected, and trusting them to do their thing, was the key to Blue Note building a rich catalogue of music," he says. "Alfred Lion just let the musicians be themselves and pursued their vision. That's the philosophy we still take with the artists."
Evidently, then, Blue Note is in safe hands as it enters its tenth decade; and its slogan, “The Finest In Jazz Since 1939” still rings true...