[JPL] New Book Tells History Of Blue Note
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Thu Aug 14 09:04:37 EDT 2008
RIFFS JAZZ NOTES
New Book Tells History Of Blue Note
August 14, 2008
Once upon a time, a Lion and a Wolff founded a fabulous kingdom called Blue
Note, a now-legendary record label that became the El Dorado of the jazz
world's Golden Age in the '40s and '50s.
Although that might sound like something out of a hipster's "Aesop's Fables"
or, maybe, Steve Allen's "Bebop's Fables," the story of Blue Note Records is
a real-life, triumphant tale recounted with narrative skill in a documentary
released on DVD by NAXOS of America.
Using rare archival footage, classic Blue Note recordings, still photographs
and the recollections of musicians, critics and other observers, "Blue
Note-A Story of Modern Jazz" (list price: $24.99) colorfully recounts the
story of the label and its prime movers, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff.
Made in 1996, Julian Benedikt's documentary in this new DVD edition is a
reworking of the original two-part television documentary and includes
As it was in the beginning with Blue Note in 1939, so it is with this video
homage, which puts the innovative label's music and musicians at the heart
of the matter.
There are rare clips of performance footage of such immortals as Norwalk
native Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Smith, John Coltrane
(his one Blue Note release was the masterwork, "Blue Train"), Dexter Gordon,
Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, Herbie Hancock and Freddie
Hubbard. Clips run right up to the present with Junko Onishi and Cassandra
As a taste of Blue Note's initial traditional bent years before it became
a bastion of the then new avant-garde of bebop and later hard bop, funk and
soul jazz there's priceless 1939 footage of the boogie-woogie kingpins
Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson rocking and rolling boogie-woogie thunder on
twin grand pianos.
Among the many knowledgeable talking heads are critics Joachim-Ernst
Berendt, a German writer, jazz historian and producer; Ira Gitler and the
scholar/producer, co-founder of Stamford-based Mosaic Records; and grand
master preservationist of Blue Note classics, Michael Cusuna.
A variety of voices come to praise Lion and Wolff and their label for its
groundbreaking artistry. Among these are: Lorraine Gordon, the witty,
amusingly crusty Queen of the Village Vanguard; French film director
Bertrand Tavernier ("Round Midnight"); classical/jazz maven Andre Previn;
recording, mixing and mastering maestro Rudy Van Gelder; jazz photographer
William Claxton; and French writer Francis Paudras.
Among the many musicians who speak are Silver, Hancock, Max Roach, Gil
Melle, Tommy Turrentine, Lou Donaldson, Johnny Griffin, Carlos Santana, Taj
Mahal and Bob Cranshaw.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the basketball legend and lifetime Blue Note fan, cites
Hartford's Jackie McLean as a favorite Blue Note artist. In cool, direct but
trenchant remarks, the former NBA superstar scores a slam dunk against the
rabid racism of early 20th century America that fueled resistance to jazz by
stereotyping African-American artists as intellectual and moral inferiors,
subhuman mass purveyors of "bordello music."
What emerges from the collective recollections is a loving portrait of Lion
and Wolff. The two Jewish émigrés, who fled Nazi Germany, are praised here
as visionaries who, to the delight of their stable of musicians, put
integrity and artistry first and foremost, rather than commercial concerns.
Both are equally lionized for the respect, artistic freedom, fairness and
even familial love they lavished on their Blue Note musicians.
Without pause, Lion and Wolff set a rare, morally lofty standard for
employer-employee relations in the music industry then notorious for
management's exploitation of its labor force and, most egregiously, for
ripping off black artists.
Wolff and Lion were close friends bonded by a passion for jazz and a common
or even uncommon sense of human decency and the will to do the right
thing by people.
Although non-musicians themselves, they had uncanny intuitive instincts
about what swung and what didn't, committed not to what would sell but what
would swell the human heart.
When they heard music that moved them, they were willing to take risks, as
with the early, financially problematic Blue Note recordings of Powell and
Monk, all of which are now sanctified in the modern jazz canon.
Their standards of uncompromising excellence, right down to the most minute
production details, fostered the unique sense of sound and image that became
the artistic hallmarks of the style-setting label.
Even Blue Note's simple yet striking blue-and-white logo has become a
universal icon, a symbol that can release Proustian remembrances of anything
from Horace Silver's cooking "Song for My Father" and Lee Morgan's soulful
"Sidewinder" to Jackie McLean's bold experimentations of the 1960s and
Andrew Hill's cerebral, evocative meditations.
Blue Note's distinctive style was reflected not only in its blue-chip music,
with its vibrant mix of intellect and feeling, but also in its compelling,
then quite innovative album cover art.
Lion, who emigrated to the United States in 1938 with a only a handful of
Deutsche marks in his pocket, had as a young man in Germany already
developed a sharp eye for spotting jazz talent, especially for African
American performers who were then the rage in Europe, particularly welcome
in the bohemian art and cabaret world of the Weimar Republic of pre- Hitler
Lion's lifelong love affair with jazz began in Berlin in 1925 when the then
16-year-old heard the African American pianist Sam Wooding leading his
orchestra. Wooding was the first black musician the instantly jazz-smitten,
young German had ever seen.
Just a year after taking refuge in the States, Lion, who was broke but rich
in people skills, founded Blue Note, one of the first independent labels
devoted entirely to jazz.
Wolff, who followed Lion into exile from Hitler's Germany in 1941, was an
expressive photographer with a keen intuitive sense of how to use light and
shadow to capture fleeting images. With the advent of the LP era, his
compelling black-and-white portraits shot against a dark background became a
central element in Blue Note's album art.
Designer Reid Miles, a graphic artist who had become bored with the
button-down mentality of Madison Avenue, used Wolff's photos in his creative
mix of poster-like graphics, images and words for covers and other album art
to go with liner notes on the back of the album.
Even Reid's typefaces swung, a visual analogue of bebop's creative flaunting
Among the warmest recollections are Hancock's account of the support and
artistic license he was granted when he made his first album as a leader for
Blue Note. His widely hailed maiden voyage included the future mega-hit
maker's first hit, "Watermelon Man."
But, by far, the best quote comes from Previn. The pianist, conductor and
author recalls an anecdote about a classical pianist who once remarked to
him, patronizingly, that playing jazz piano required so little talent and
effort that he "would pick it up next year."
Previn explained to his classical colleague that becoming a jazz musician is
far more demanding.
Asked then what it takes to become a jazz musician, Previn replied in
perhaps the greatest, most succinct summation ever:
"It takes a lifetime."
Herbie loves Joni
With a little bit of help from his talented friends, jazz-fusion-funk- pop
wizard Herbie Hancock plays selections from his Grammy Award-winning album
of the year, "River: The Joni Letters," Friday at 8 p.m. at Bridgeport's
Klein Memorial Auditorium.
Part of Hancock's national tour celebrating his award-winning homage to the
great singer- songwriter Joni Mitchell, the concert features the
keyboardist- composer performing with his band, featuring Chris Potter,
saxophone; Lionel Loueke, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; and Vinnie Colaiuta,
drums. Guest vocalists Sonya Kitchell, a Massachusetts native, and Amy Keys
The auditorium is at 910 Fairfield Ave. Tickets: 203-259-1036.
Jammin' at Integrity
Ed Krech, owner of Integrity 'n Music, continues his series of free jam
sessions with the crème de la crème of young area jazz musicians Saturday at
2 p.m. at his shop, 506 Silas Deane Hwy., Wethersfield.
Krech's latest live music matinee presents the Jovan Alexandre/Jason Fitch
Quintet, with the frontline featuring Alexandre on tenor saxophone and Fitch
on alto. The rhythm section is comprised of Chad Selph, piano; Zwelakhe
Duma, bass; and Jake Goldbas, drums.
Jazz digs gardens
Trumpeter Stephen J. Haynes and his Pea Pod Trio join the celebration
Wednesday of the community gardens flourishing in Hartford thanks to The
Knox Parks Urban Community Garden Program.
The event starts with a bus tour of four community garden sites, departing
from the Niles Street Garden at 5:30 p.m. Returning to the Niles Street
grounds, the urban garden party continues with food, featuring fresh produce
harvested from the community gardens, and jazz served by the aptly named Pea
Haynes' co-celebrants are tuba player Bill Lowe and drummer Billy Arnold.
For information and to reserve a seat on the garden site tour bus, call
Charmaine Craig at 860-951-7694. The event is free. Donations are accepted.
The Dave Mack Band entertains tonight at 7:30 at Szechuan Tokyo Restaurant,
1245 New Britain Ave., West Hartford. Vocalist Carol August and keyboardist
John Brighenti and combo perform there Friday at 8 p.m. Information:
Send information to jazz at courant.com or call 860-241-6345.
Copyright © 2008, The Hartford Courant
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