concert by American pianist Sam Woodyard and His Chocolate Dandies. The experience was a musical epiphany for Lion and sparked a love affair with jazz that would burn throughout his life.
By 1938, Lion was living in New York, fine-tuning his jazz ear by frequenting record stores, bars, and clubs. He attended a Carnegie Hall concert featuring Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, two virtuoso boogie-woogie pianists, and realized a need to record their musical mastery. Within a few weeks, Lion, the consummate networker, arranged financing, convinced Ammons and Lewis to record for him, rented a studio, and produced 50 discs. Blue Note was born.
In 1941, Francis Wolff joined Blue Note as the business manager, leaving Lion to concentrate on producing sessions. Blue Note evolved over the next decade to reflect the latest sounds, from swing jazz to bebop to hard bop. By cultivating a tradition of listening to what musicians had to play and say, Lion and Wolff stayed on jazz’s leading edge, often getting first crack at new talent.
While not everyone achieved the same level of popularity and renown, the roster of artists who recorded some of their first albums on Blue Note reads like a jazz innovators all star team – Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Sonny Clark, Herbie Hancock, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins, Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham, Andrew Hill, and Ornette Coleman.
In 1953, saxophonist Gil Melle, introduced Alfred Lion to Rudy Van Gelder, who had long held an interest in radio and had built a studio in the living room of his parents’ house to record local artists. Melle had made an album there, which was ultimately released on Blue Note. Lion wanted to make a follow-up recording with that same unique sound and he soon found himself in Van Gelder’s living room – venetian blinds, floor lamps, funky curtains, couches, television set with rabbit-ear antenna and all.
Van Gelder can probably be credited with the distinctive “Blue Note Sound.” Although many have tried to describe it, the Blue Note Sound eludes words and must be heard to be understood. For some, it is a purely sonic experience characterized by a cavernous resonance and consistent placement of microphones and musicians, which would imply it was a product of Van Gelder’s living room. Yet in 1959, the Blue Note Sound successfully migrated to Englewood Cliffs where Van Gelder built a new studio.
How then could Blue Note cultivate and “own” such a unique sound even as other labels may have attempted to replicate it. The answer lies in Alfred Lion’s perfectionist attitude toward music.
Unlike other labels, Blue Note paid for rehearsal time prior to a recording session and the investment yielded handsome returns. Artists were more daring and willing to write new material for a Blue Note date, since they felt more familiar with the material when they recorded it, and more confident in their ability to improvise during sessions. Fresh, intricate arrangements could be heard on a Blue Note record while other labels more often recorded “blowing sessions,” a term used to describe a loosely assembled group of musicians often playing together for the first time.
If Van Gelder and Lion created the Blue Note Sound, Francis Wolff laid the foundation for the Blue Note Look. Wolff photographed recording sessions in a raw style that often showed musicians ruminating over chord changes or soaked in sweat amidst a solo. The photos became cover art when a shift in album formats from 78 RPMs to 33 LPs precipitated the need for record jackets.
Initially, Blue Note employed several designers to create covers but the responsibility fell solely on Reid Miles beginning in 1956. Miles, a graphic artist, designed almost 500 covers during his 15-year tenure at Blue Note and his influence is still readily apparent in album cover art of today.
What’s remarkable is that Miles didn’t even like jazz, preferring classical instead. In fact, he never actually listened to the recordings, instead drawing his inspiration from conversation about the music with Alfred Lion.
Amazingly, this process worked and as Felix Cromey, editor of Blue Note: The Album Cover Art, writes: “Reid Miles made the cover sound like it knew what lay in store for the listener: an abstract design hinting at innovations, cool strides for cool notes, the symbolic implications of typefaces and tones.”
Another defining detail of the Blue Note brand was the trust it fostered among listeners. In his book “Blue: the Murder of Jazz,” Eric Nissenson writes, “Jazz fans came to realize that Blue Note records constantly had such high standards that many would buy a Blue Note album even if they had never previously heard of the musician who was the leader.”
In what would today be termed a “mission statement” or “brand platform,” Lion’s wrote: “Blue Note Records are designed simply to serve the uncompromising expressions of hot jazz or swing, in general. Any particular style of playing which represents an authentic way of musical feeling is genuine expression. By virtue of its significance in place, time and circumstance, it possesses its own tradition, artistic standards and audience that keeps it alive. Hot jazz, therefore, is expression and communication, a musical and social manifestation, and Blue Note records are concerned with identifying its impulse, not its sensational and commercial adornments.”
However that may be, Lion understood the need to make money and often milked mainstream material to subsidize more daring works from lesser-known artists. It was a practice that would garner criticism, especially in the early 1960s when many Blue Note albums began to feature at least one “boogaloo” or song characterized by a funky beat. “Soul Jazz” with its fondness for organ trios also gave Blue Note an entrée into the wallets of those with more pop-music tastes and often overshadowed works from emerging talents like Ornette Coleman and Herbie Nichols.
Even with crossover successes, Blue Note remained a small label often finding it difficult to retain artists once they gained notoriety. When Liberty Records offered to buy the company in 1965, Lion and Wolff, just steps ahead of creditors and fatigued after 25 years at the helm of the company, agreed to the sale. By 1971, Lion, Wolff, and Miles would all be gone from Blue Note. Although the label still produced records, many of them fusion-oriented, Blue Note had lost its sound, its look, and its wellspring of new talent. Blue Note was dead.
A reissue program of back releases began in 1975, but it was not until 1985 that Blue Note was truly reborn. By then, Capitol Records had acquired rights to the label, and another duo, Michael Cuscuna and Bruce Lundvall, took the reigns of the label.
According to Cuscuna, now President of Mosaic Records, he and Lundvall shared a common philosophy for the new Blue Note. The two aimed to re-sign many of the original Blue Note artists, seek out new talent, and develop crossover records that could essentially pay the bills of the operation.
Nowhere in the plan, however, was an attempt to relive the past. “It was never our intent to try and make a new record sound like an old record,” says Cuscuna when asked about the temptation to recreate the famous Blue Note Sound. “The consistency of sound and the consistency of look were two of the things we loved about Blue Note but we knew we couldn’t have.”
In many ways, Lundvall, currently President of Jazz and Classics at Capitol, concedes that it would not be possible to recreate the Blue Note of the past. Gone are the days when a single man could dictate a recording venue, play list, and cover art for an album. And the advent of digital technology makes it difficult to produce a bad-sounding if not distinguishable recording. “Times have changed. The artist has far more say in these matters and I think that’s only right. But what you end up with then is that you do not have a look. And you don’t have a sound that is the same as the old days. It’s not necessarily a negative but that’s the way it is.”
Still several pieces of Blue Note’s brand essence remain intact. Most notably a pronounced commitment to music itself and the consequent financial struggle of being a jazz label.
Saxophonist Joe Lovano, currently an exclusive Blue Note artist, told us that Blue Note gives him the artistic freedom he wants – freedom that is unavailable on other labels. Yet, without mentioning any artists in particular, Lundvall conceded that artistic integrity comes with a price. “I have many acts on the label that do not make money,” he said.
“It’s hard to sustain these artists and grow their market base,” says Cuscuna. “A lot of the jazz infrastructure is gone. One of the most frustrating things is recording a good album knowing it’s only going to sell 4,000 copies.”
The key to growing that audience might involve alternative venues for featuring the music. In 1995, Blue Note developed a partnership with Starbucks. In an event reminiscent of the early days of Blue Note, David Goldberg, a marketing executive at Capitol, was sitting at a Starbucks as a compilation tape of Blue Note songs played on the store’s sound system. Goldberg watched customers – mostly those in their late 30s and older – ask for information about the music. The observation led to the creation of Starbucks’ very first specially produced Blue Note CD, exclusively distributed in its rapidly growing chain of stores.
Although no sales benchmark existed at the time, Blue Note sold 75,000 units and Starbucks launched “Blue Note Blend” coffee. According to Tim Jones, responsible for Starbucks’ music program, “When the two held hands, I think it was an introduction for some. And for others who knew Blue Note and maybe knew Starbucks, they found the pairing interesting and maybe kind of a natural.”
Whether the Blue Note of today has the same relevance to jazz as its predecessor is a matter of debate for jazz fans. Not only do artists have more power over the music they record, but industry conglomerates and megastores also firmly control distribution. The new Blue Note has been able to meet its goals of developing new and, at times, crossover talent, but it remains to be seen how far it can stretch without losing its consumer and artist base and fading into the memories of a few.