Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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BLUE NOTE label

A legendary jazz record label formed in New York City in 1939 by Alfred Lion (b 21 April 1908, Berlin; d 2 February 1987), a jazz fan since age 16 who emigrated to the USA in 1938. Fascinated by boogie-woogie, he began by recording Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, piano solo and duo (he recorded Lewis on harpsichord in 1941); then the Port of Harlem Jazzmen in two sessions, first with Ammons, Frankie Newton, J.C. Higginbotham, Sid Catlett, Teddy Bunn (1909-78), guitar, Johnny Williams (b 1908; d 23 October 1998), bass; then with Lewis instead of Ammons and adding Sidney Bechet, whose 'Summertime' became the nearest thing to a hit. Lion was joined late 1939 by fellow Berliner and childhood friend Francis 'Frank' Wolff (d 1971). They recorded an Edmond Hall quartet with Charlie Christian on acoustic guitar and Lewis on celeste in 1941, 'Profoundly Blue' a classic. The label's imaginative, instinctive innovation in production revealed deep sympathy for the music and its players: they often cut 12-inch 78 sides, rare and uncommercial then, providing more flexibility for musicians; the held sessions at night and provided food and drink, the attitude helping to obtain quality results. They turned to 'swingtets' led by tenor saxists John Hardee, Ike Quebec, etc; Quebec's 'Blue Harlem' was another hit in 1944; he became a close friend and a talent scout, urging the recording of bop: Blue Note recorded Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Herbie Nichols and carried on for decades.

Resources were strained when the introduction of the long-playing record required the additional expense of sleeve art for each release, but Wolff turned out to be a genius in that department, taking the photographs himself and supervising work that set a standard for the industry: the LP sleeves have been collected in books (designer Reid Miles d 1993) and some of Wolff's photographs have been reproduced in fine-art editions. After 1953 the quality studio sound was the work of Rudy Van Gelder, master of jazz recording engineers, who credited Lion with helping to invent his techniques. Pianist Horace Silver and his Jazz Messengers invented hard bop and a Blue Note house style, the name and combo then taken over by drummer Art Blakey; the genre's later classics included 'Moanin' ' by Bobby Timmons, 'Sidewinder' by Lee Morgan, 'Maiden Voyage' by Herbie Hancock, the work of Donald Byrd, Lou Donaldson, Bobby Hutcherson and others. From 1956 there was the Hammond organ combo of Jimmy Smith; in the '60s there was the rediscovery of Dexter Gordon, Eric Dolphy's Out To Lunch, free jazz masterpieces by Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman.

After 25 years the label was sold to Liberty and its identity lost, the product in and out of print as Liberty was acquired by United Artists, then absorbed by giant EMI. The last Blue Note records were by Silver in 1980, the label phased out in 1981 but refusing to die: Japanese and French EMI began reissuing discs with the original sleeve art, proving that the market was there; EMI London imported French pressings from 1984 digitally remastered; disc jockeys rediscovered funk roots, EMI released a 12-inch limited edition single of 'Sidewinder' in 1985; producers Michael Cuscuna and Charlie Lourie reissued classics on their Mosaic label: limited edition sets of Monk, Ammons, Lewis, Quebec, Hardee, Nichols, Tina Brooks etc included previously unissued material. Finally Blue Note was relaunched in 1985 by Manhattan Records and Capitol Industries (EMI). Bruce Lundvall (b 13 September 1935, Cliffside Park NJ; d 19 May 2015, Ridgewood NJ) was tapped to lead the revived label and stayed for 25 years; he had earlier created Elektra/Musician at WEA, and before that had a career at Columbia. A Town Hall concert/ celebration included artists associated with the label, and Blakey took the night off from a gig in London to be there: the party was issued on four LPs. Albums by Grover Washington, George Russell, Stanley Jordan, Michel Petrucciani, Jack Walrath's Masters Of Suspense etc were issued with Cuscuna on the A&R committee. In the 1990s Blue Note was once again in the forefront of bringing along some of the best young musicians, such as pianists Geri Allen, Benny Green and Jacky Terrasson, tenor saxist Joe Lovano, vocalist Cassandra Wilson and others (alto saxist Greg Osby stayed 16 years before starting his own label), also continuing to record the masters (lovely duet Manhattan Moods '93 by McCoy Tyner and Hutcherson), to say nothing of a priceless vault of reissues: three-CD sets Lee Morgan At The Lighthouse (from 1970) and complete Herbie Nichols (1955-6), six-CD complete Dexter Gordon are examples of how it ought to be done. The TV documentary Blue Note: A Story Of Modern Jazz '97 was made in Germany by Julian Benedikt.

Early in the new century Blue Note and pianist/singer Norah Jones collected a clutch of Grammies; Lundvall was criticised because some people say Jones's music isn't jazz, but her first CD tugged earlobes because it sounded different: the secret is selling records, not splitting hairs. Since then Lundvall has signed Anita Baker, and folk-rockers like Amos Lee and the Wood Brothers, and the retro-pop duo the Bird and the Bee. Under Lundval, Blue Note was one of the few parts of EMI that was in the black; if what he called 'the adult sophisticated pop area' is the answer, let it subsidize the jazz. Lundvall said in early 2009, 'With the serious jazz artists, you look to break even or make a small profit. You keep the budgets in line, do the best marketing job that you can, and stay with the artists as they develop.' The ideal result of that investment is catalog. Guitarist Lionel Loueke's debut album in 2007 had only sold 6,000 copies, but Coltrane's Blue Train (1957) sold 15,000 in 2008; Hancock's Maiden Voyage (1965) sold 10,000. Maybe the old-fashioned musical values are still the best?

Late in 2008 the label made a round of catalog deletions; any title that sold fewer than 350 copies over a 12-month period was vulnerable, but the playing field has changed: the deleted albums are still being offered in digital form through services like iTunes and Rhapsody. In addition, as a 70th-anniversary tie-in, Amazon recently introduced an exclusive on-demand CD series, Back From the Vault, with more than 200 out-of-print titles. On the label’s 70th anniversary in 2009, events included concerts and club engagements in New York and an album and 50-city tour by the Blue Note 7, including pianist Bill Charlap.