Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 13, 2019

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes

Filed under: Film,Jazz — louisproyect @ 7:25 pm

“Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes”, a documentary directed by Sophie Huber, opens tomorrow at the Metrograph in New York. If you are not a jazz fan, the name Blue Note might not mean very much to you but as analogy, it is to jazz as Sun Records is to early rock and roll or Chess Records was to the blues. Founded in 1939 by Alfred Lion, a Jew who had fled Nazi Germany and Max Margulis, another Jew who put up much of the seed money for the label, it was unlike the commercial labels like Columbia that were always looking for a way to get over on Black musicians. While it will be obvious that I found the film to be an essential contribution to the jazz documentary genre, it is unfortunate that it did not even mention Max Margulis, who reviewed music and wrote for left-wing periodicals, including the Daily Worker in the 1930s and 1940s, under the pen name Martin McCall.

The film gives the impression that Francis Wolff, a Jewish émigré from Nazi Germany, just like Lion, was a co-founder of Blue Note when in fact he was not. However, he soon assumed responsibility for co-managing the company and serving as its photographer. As Wolff was a commercial photographer in Germany, all of the cover photos that were done by him remain as iconic as the music on the vinyl, with this being an exemplar of the combined art forms.

For his complete portfolio, go here.

Lion and Wolff were jazz fans primarily and little interested in getting rich. They started off recording stride piano players like Meade Lux Lewis but on the advice of big band tenor player Ike Quebec turned to bebop in the early 50s. Among the musicians that Lion introduced to the jazz aficionado was Thelonious Monk. As happens through much of the film—and gloriously—we see footage of recording sessions with Monk who was not a commercial success at the outset. Eventually, he moved to Prestige Records but perhaps he would have remained in obscurity if Lion had not taken a chance on him.

The film is graced by interviews with two elderly figures who were key to the Blue Note story. First is long-time recording engineer Rudy van Gelder, who died 3 years ago at the age of 91. Van Gelder lived with his parents in a typical suburban home in New Jersey. A jazz fan like Lion, van Gelder persuaded his parents to allow their living room to be used as a recording studio for Blue Note in 1959, not even objecting to an adjoining room being turned into a control room. As Blue Note grew commercially, it eventually funded a professional studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey where 400 Blue Note records were made.

We also hear from Lou Donaldson, a 92-year old alto saxophonist who was one of Blue Note’s best known musicians. Donaldson has a great command of the Blue Note story and relates it with relish and great humor. Listening to him is a treasure for jazz fans and one of the film’s biggest selling points.

The heart of the documentary is devoted to reviewing the body of work that most people associate with the label, namely hard bop. In the late 1950s, many jazz musicians began to dig deeper into the blues and soul heritage of Black America and synthesize it with bebop that was focused more on harmonic innovation. Musicians like Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Donald Byrd, Bobby Timmons, Lee Morgan, John Coltrane and Hank Mobley all expressed this latent Black nationalist tendency. Within a few years, as the civil rights movement failed to fulfill the Freedom Now aspirations of the early 60s, jazz became much more consciously political and musicians like Archie Shepp set the tone for the New Thing with songs like “New Africa” on the 1969 album “Kwanza”.

The final fifteen minutes of the film is an attempt to connect the hard bop style with hip-hop that seems like a stretch to me, despite the fact that some hip-hop groups like A Tribe Called Quest sampled Blue Note musicians from the 50s and 60s. Historically, hard bop ran its course over forty years ago and jazz as an art form struggles to keep an audience. I have been attending “Highlights in Jazz” concerts organized by Jack Kleinsinger at the Borough of Manhattan Community College this spring that reflect Kleinsinger’s love of classic jazz. The audience consists mostly of elderly white people like me and probably reflects the market for straight-ahead jazz nowadays.

Blue Note no longer exists. It has mutated into something called Blue Note/ArtistShare that is based on crowdsourcing, something the documentary does not even mention. Most of the artists have little to do with jazz.

Probably the best outlet for the kind of music Blue Note made popular is WBGO, a jazz station in Newark that is the best in the country. It mixes hard bop with both older and newer sounds, all selected with impeccable taste. For my readers who are not familiar with jazz, I invite you to listen to the station here. Couple that with a trip down to the Metrograph, a movie theater devoted to great film art in the same way that WBGO is devoted to great music, and you can’t go wrong.


1 Comment »

  1. Blue Note is often (understandably) linked to hard bop in most recollections, but I also think that in the early-60s, they were also one of the best avant-garde labels. All of Andrew Hill’s early-to-mid 60s releases are fantastic, Alfred Lion considered him to be his third great piano discovery after Monk and Herbie Nichols. I also love all the albums done by the members of Miles Davis’s “Second Great Quintet”: Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams. Sam Rivers entire Blue Note catalogue is essential. Cecil Taylor’s two Blue Note releases, Unit Structures and Conquistador, feature the classic Jimmy Lyons and Andrew Cyrille band, with the neglected great Henry Grimes on bass.

    Blue Note’s take on the avant-garde was unique because they put out releases that managed to incorporate the innovations of the avant-garde while still remaining in a recognizable post-bop idiom (can’t believe I forgot to mention Joe Henderson).

    Comment by Angelus Novus — June 14, 2019 @ 2:29 pm

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