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Blue Note

Celebrating Blue Note

A look at Blue Note Records on its 75th anniversary

The Birth of a Legend

Blue Note

Good for: Ages 13 and up.

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Imagine creating a place where you and your friends spent half of every day listening to the kind of music you love best, and the other half convincing everybody else in the world how amazing that music is. Then imagine if at the end of that, they called you a legend. Well in 1939, a man named Alfred Lion created a place exactly like that. The place was a record company called Blue Note, and 75 years later, both it and he are considered legendary.

“Blue Notes was totally what you would call an ‘Indie Label,’” says the company’s current leader, the legendary music producer Don Was. Blue Note, he points out, “was started by these two guys who came over from Germany in 1939 and just loved American jazz.” Alfred Lion was the principal one of those “two guys from Germany.” He and his partner, Frank Wolff, fell in love with music like the Boogie-Woogie piano playing of Meade “Lux” Lewis. Alfred especially thought that this was the essence of jazz – the most essential version of the music, and he was determined to get everyone in America to think the same thing.

Getting everyone to think his way wouldn’t be easy for Alfred. When he opened Blue Note in 1939, the kind of music he liked – the original forms of jazz, created by African-American artists in Chicago and New Orleans in the 19-teens and 20s – had gone out of fashion. They were not what people were playing on the radio or dancing to, according to Richard Havers, who is writing a book about Blue Note called Uncompromising Expressions. “By the time the 1930s had come along,” Havers says, “jazz wasn't just being played in the black community. It was equally being played by many white bands, the American big band scene in the 1930s, which had people like Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and the beginning of the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

The older music, the music Alfred liked, had been freer. Artists made things up as they went along. Late-1930s jazz wasn’t like that at all. “It was more formulaic than the original kind of jazz,” Havers says. “What Alfred Lion really loved was the jazz that he saw as being from the fountainhead. He loved the jazz from New Orleans. He also loved the kind of boogie woogie piano that was played particularly in Chicago.” According to Michael Cuscuna, helped run Blue Note in the 1970s and 80s, Alfred, “just loved these original piano players, that just, just wrote in their own world.”

Lion had first encountered this music in 1938 when he went to a concert called "Spiritual Swing.” The show, Michael Cuscuna says, “covered lots of forms of Black American music and what excited Alfred the most was the boogie woogie piano playing of Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis and Pete Johnson.” Two weeks later, Alfred had raised enough money to go in the studio with those artists, and Blue Note was born.

To give a modern-day sense of what Albert was doing back then, Cuscuna says that, “the major labels were recording bands like One Direction. And people going to clubs heard singers like Adele.” Lion and Wolf, he says, “felt like the major labels weren't capturing the music in its truest essence and form, and that's what Blue Note was started on.” Lion’s thinking was that, “"The world really needs to hear this music,” according to Dan Ouellette who has written a book about Blue Note called Playing By Ear. “’The only way the world can hear it is if I make records,’" he says Lion thought. According to Ouellette, Lion’s approach was more like a museum operator than a record producer. He wanted to take the older music – what he saw as the pure form of the music, and preserve it. “He wanted to document this music,” Ouellette says, “He wanted to give these artists an opportunity to have their music be heard. His whole philosophy is that jazz is an art form.”

That attitude carried over to the people who played the music too. Alfred Lion, Ouellette says, thought, “I want to have people who are artists, not just musicians, but artists, people who really had a vision for where they wanted their music to go.” This way of thinking, which became the Blue Note Philosophy, was different from every other record company in business at the time. The way it works at most record companies, Ouellette says, is the label will, “sign someone because they are really excited about this really great talent. Then they sit down and they – this is is the record executive – he’ll say, ‘OK. Here is what we want you to do on your first album.’ The artist, he says, may ask, “’What do you mean?’ ‘Well, this is what your first album is going to sound like. I'm going to pick the songs. I'm going to rehearse you and I want you to play these songs.’ At Blue Note, that never happened.”

At least one performer who was there at the time agrees. Dr. Lonnie Smith is a jazz organist who was on Blue Note in the 1960s and 70s. “It very different. Very different than all the other labels I have been with,” he said of Blue Note. There, he said, “the artist was the artist. They weren’t like just – like a puppet or something they were using just to make a hit.”

There was an important way that Alfred demonstrated this attitude and this philosophy to his artists. It seems kind of simple or obvious, but Richard Havers says it wasn’t. At Blue Note, Havers explains, “they were encouraged to go in and be paid to rehearse, which was almost unheard of back at the time.” That simple thing – giving musicians time to rehearse – made all the difference in the world, according to Don Was. “Something incredible happens when you get a group of musicians in a room at the same time playing together and interacting with each other,” he says. “I liken it to talking to yourself. You can sit in a room alone with yourself and talk, but eventually you’re gonna get sick of listening to yourself and it’s much nicer to have a conversation with somebody else.”

Lonnie Smith suggests there were other ways Blue Note let its artists know they mattered. “They had the best engineer that they could get,” he said, referring to long-time Blue Note engineer Rudy Van Gelder. “You couldn’t top that. And they would have – like – a banquet table. Food and things like that and people would be sittin’ there. It was so beautiful man. They cared about me, man. I was special.”

The word “artist” gets thrown around a lot, so it’s worth taking a minute to stop and think about what that really means in the context of playing music. According to one of Blue Note’s 21st century artists, piano player Jason Moran, “Even after I had made two or three records with Blue Note Records, I wasn't even sure I was an artist.” According to Jason, being an artist begins when you find that you truly have a passion for doing any one particular thing. “Once you get out of school and you have your own schedule to make up,” he says, “You don't have to go to first period, second period, you just have the rest of your life to do whatever you like. In that moment, what will you do?” This is where you start to know if you’re an artist or not, Moran says. “Where is the drive? Is the drive to wake up – if you're a painter, is the drive to get up and get your charcoals out, and then just get a sketch pad and just start drawing? That's when you start to find your pathway. You start to find your 'voice' is what we call it, finding your voice.”

This is what Blue Note Records always looked to support. There was something else too. According to Michael Cuscuna, another vital part of treating artists like artists was listening to their opinions about what other artists to hire. “Alfred Lion always told me, he said, ‘You know, the way you find new talent is you listen to musicians because they're always looking for new talent because they need people to play with,’" Cuscuna says.

Blue Note was well respected and had some financial success, but as Michael Cuscuna says, “It wasn't commerce, it was passion.” By the 1960s, Dan Ouellette says, things were not looking good for Alfred Lion. “Rock music, and the beginnings of funk were coming around,” he says. “People started saying, ‘Wow. We got to really do something different here. We got to kind of make jazz into something that's palatable for people, because people are running away in droves because of rock music.’" Things got so bad that in 1967, Alfred sold Blue Note to another record company. His health was failing and he left the company soon after that, and without Alfred around to keep an eye on things, the Blue Note Philosophy was allowed to fade. The new owners wanted money, and they rubbed a lot of people the wrong way in their push to get it. Blue Note was hanging by a thread. It basically went dormant in 1981 and stayed that way for four years. Then the owners – looking for a savior turned to one of most important names in music, Bruce Lundvall, who at the time was the president of Columbia records, which Dan Oulette says was, “The Cadillac record company at the time.” Oulette’s book is a biography of Bruce Lundvall, who he says was responsible throughout his career for signing some of the biggest names in music including Norah Jones, Richard Marx, Bobby McFerrin, Willie Nelson and Amos Lee.

For Bruce Lundvall, restoring Blue Note didn’t just mean bringing back the label. It also meant bringing back the Blue Note Philosophy – taking the label back to the days when artists were treated like artists. He succeeded, according to jazz trumpet player Wynton Marsalis, who says, “Musicians loved him, which was not always the case with musicians and business people.” He said that jazz stars like Art Blakey and Herbie Hancock all said, “’Bruce's about the music.’ Any musician who knew about the music,” Marsalis say, “when Bruce's name comes up, ‘He's not like the rest of them. He's somebody who's about the music. He loves the music. He knows about the music.’”

Lundvall had proved his devotion to the greats of jazz a few years earlier when Columbia Records wanted to dump Miles Davis. Here he said of the people at Columbia, “They didn't want me to sign him -- re-sign him. Why not, you crazy? Would you drop Johnny Cash? Would you drop Aretha Franklin when she was here? Would you drop Barbara Streisand? Would you drop Leonard Bernstein? Are you crazy? This is Miles Davis, man. No one like him in the world.”

In showing his devotion to talent, Lundvall brought in brought a whole passel of new stars to Blue Note including guitar player Stanley Jordan, flute player James Newton and piano player Michel Petrucciani. Under Lundvall, the label had another great run through the 80s and 90s, but then – once again – its fortuned declined. A few years ago, according to Don Was, “There was a lot of talk about closing the label down, making it a website that sold catalogue and blue t-shirts.” Instead – as they had done before – the managers of the label brought in a director who embodies a return to the old time Blue Note Philosophy. That’s Don Was, who – according to pianist Jason Moran – runs the place in a way that would make Alfred Lion proud. Today, he says, it’s just like “the old Blue Note Records from the '50's, and '60's, and '40's, and '70's and '80's.” There, he says, “people just went in and they make their music. You follow the intuition of the artist and the artists that they work with, and you come together to make a recording.” The people at Blue Note, Moran says, “Consider me crazy enough to just go into the studio and make whatever I wanted to make.” That’s the key to creating a legend.

Finding Jazz...

It is fair to say that young people today who like jazz tend to be the kind of people who like things that are a little out of the ordinary. Take Jason Moran, a jazz piano player, the winner of a 2010 MacArthur “genius” award and a jazz artistic adviser to the Kennedy Center. He says, “I don’t want to be attracted to the most obvious things in the world.” Jason’s love of jazz came out of that desire to stay away from the same things everyone else is listening to, even though he found his way in through about the most popular music there is. That’s something jazz can do, according to jazz writer Dan Ouellette. “The cool thing about jazz,” Ouellette, says, “is that it can take any kind of music – whether it’s African music, whether it’s Chinese music, whether it’s roots music – and incorporate it into the music itself.”

There are a lot of young people who just brush off jazz – calling it “old peoples’ music.” Before taking that attitude, though, it is worth realizing that you can find plenty of jazz in the samples of your favorite hip-hop songs. To give one example, according to Richard Havers, who is writing a book about the jazz label Blue Note Records called Uncompromising Expressions, the Blue Note albums of Donald Byrd and Grant Green from the 1970s “are very heavily sampled.” Kendrick Lamar, sampled Grant Green playing the song "Maybe Tomorrow," and in the dance tune “Feel So Good” by Hott 22 and Greg Bahary, you can hear samples of Donald Byrd's song “Love Has Come Around.” They sample this music,” Havers says, “It gets recognized by modern artists, and they go, ‘I wonder where that comes from?’”

Jason Moran came to jazz in exactly that way – through samples in hip-hop. He says coming to jazz that way makes total sense – mostly because jazz can be so difficult to understand. “The appeal,” he says, “was to be able to listen to the music, not to think like, ‘I have to understand all 12 minutes of this song.’” Instead, “There might be something so beautiful in that song that might last four seconds, that if I put that four seconds on a loop, it would be like, ‘Aw, this is the groove of the century! I can make the sample of the century.’”

Moran says that when a hip-hop artist or a DJ takes a great jazz song and breaks it down, it can lead you – if that’s where you’re inclined to go – into a deep exploration of the history of jazz. “Through those creators’ prism,” he says, “you could see the history of music in a very different way. In its way, it was freeing, because they just wanted to extract what they wanted to extract.” Hop-hop allowed him to do this with jazz because the artists, “were digesting four measures of music at a time.”

The realization came for Jason when he was 12 or 13, he says, a time when he and his friends, “Were into bikes, skateboarding and hip hop.” But Jason was also part of a jazz-loving family. He was playing classical piano when he was really little. And then when he was 13, “My very first record that I got, it wasn’t even a record – it was two tapes that I got for Christmas from my older brother, who gave me The Genius of Modern Music, Volume One and Volume Two – these little cassette tapes of Thelonious Monk, and I was like, ‘Aw, man, my brother really loves me. He got me Thelonious Monk for Christmas.’”

Their parents had a huge collection of jazz records and about the same time, Jason says, “One of my good friends, who became a DJ, he got into record collecting a lot.” Jason would listen to his friend’s hip-hop records and the jazz records at home, and that’s when he made the connection – “Oh, this was sampled, this sample is taken from such and such. I’d go look and you find – like – this this Horace Silver record and you find the song and say, ‘Oh, wow. Hey, that’s the little song that’s in this Q-Tip’s, like, record or whatever.’”

The most noticeable example, he says, was “this group called Diggable Planets, and they sampled an Art Blakey song. It started making jazz actually cool to my generation. It was OK to understand who Horace Silver was and who Art Blakey was, because they had relevance in this brand- new music coming out called hip-hop.

All of this was happening at that, Jason says, his relationship to piano was changing. “I played the piano as a chore, and I got a check mark if I did my lesson. At a certain age, right around puberty, that changed. My relationship with the instrument changed.” Now he had an interest. And he had an inspiration. “One of the first things I would try to do is just try to figure out how to play that sample on the piano,” he says. He remembered, for instance, “somebody sampling a Bud Powell introduction. I was like, ‘Oh!’ I wasn’t even thinking, ‘Oh, I should get the Bud Powell, record,’” he says. “I was thinking, ‘I should try to play it like this hip-hop song.’”

Also, in an odd way – Jason says learning this connection between Jazz and Hip-Hop helped him mature – helped him understand the world in a way that let him know he was growing up. When he was younger, he says, “When I would get in the car and we wanted to listen to the hip-hop station, my father was like, ‘No. We’re not listening to that. We’re listening to the jazz station.’” When that would happen, Jason says, “my ears would just turn off.” As he came to know and appreciate the connection between jazz and Hip-Hop, though, he says that he found himself saying, “’Oh, man, this hip-hop history is actually on these records too.’ It wasn’t just by itself.” This, he says, made him think about his parents in a very different way, “which was valuable for our relationship as kids. I had a different relationship with my parents from that point on, when we could start listening to the same music and find different levels of enjoyment in it,” he says.

Jason used his curiosity to keep exploring. Today he’s a certified star on Blue Note Records – playing concerts all over the world and serving as a musical adviser for jazz to the Kennedy Center. And – Jazz writer Dan Oulette, who has written a book about Blue Note called Bruce Lundvall Playing by Ear says – he’s not the only star on Blue Note who’s tying jazz to hip-hop. “The music that you are hearing today with some young artists like Robert Glasper and Jason Moran, the music is evolving, it's not staying put, it's not dying.” According to Don Was, the head of Blue Note, Glasper “was totally rooted in the traditions of jazz,” and yet, “He’ll quote J-Dilla’ in the middle of that song because that’s what’s inside of him.” Glasper, Was says, is “young enough so that it’s not possible to grow up and not be cognizant of hip-hop culture. So he reflects that in jazz. You couldn’t have Robert Glasper’s music without Art Blakey.

The key is exploration – taking the music you like and looking inside of it, seeking out what it’s made of and – maybe – finding a type of music you didn’t even know existed before.

How Jazz Has Changed

For a lot of people, when they say “jazz,” what they’re talking about is the kind of jangling, improvisational, small-group sound from the late 1950s and early 1960s. There was a name for this kind of jazz. They called it “Bebop.” Blue Note Records is the label that’s most closely associated with Bebop. Bebop can be jarring to listen to. Where’s the melody? Which instrument should I pay attention to? Where’s the music going next? According to jazz writer Dan Ouellette, for bebop players, that was the whole point. “Their focus,” Ouellette says, “was, #1, playing fast and #2, expressing themselves on their instruments. The people who were involved in bebop wanted to have an individual expression where they as artists could speak through their horns, speak through their pianos et cetera,” he says.

With a lot of music, people are content to hear it while it’s on in the background. With bebop, though – to really know what’s going on – you have to listen. If you do, Ouellette says, “you can start to hear how maybe the piano player is playing some notes and the bass player is having a conversation with him. You can start hearing those conversations which is pretty cool.” The exciting thing about jazz,” says Ouellette, who has written a book about Blue Note called Bruce Lundvall Playing by Ear, says is that, “there’s an element of surprise, surprise and mystery. One person will play something and then all of a sudden the other person responds. They respond in surprising ways that surprise each other.

Jazz wasn’t always like this. In the years right before bebop, it was smoother and more predictable. When the change-over came and jazz shifted to bebop, however, Ouellette says, “It’s really similar to what happened during the rap generation where people broke out of the forms of just singing pretty songs and they started to express themselves vocally, and with an incredible cadence, an incredible rhythm.” That is not the only connection between bebop and rap. Because bebop was new and untested, there were people who had to take a chance in order to bring it to the public. The people at Blue Note Records did that in the early 1950s, which makes Blue Note a lot like another record label, Def Jam, that first took a chance on rap in the 1980s. Jazz piano player Jason Moran says he thinks of the two labels as serving similar roles. “I think of it like the same way that maybe Def Jam was once it first started,” Moran says, explaining that Def Jam was, “this hip hop label that kind of was really defining the newest, most vibrant community of hip hop music and giving them the platform and them putting it out, and then watching it blow up.”

While Blue Note quickly became known for its bebop recordings, it was actually not the first record label to catch on to the trend. In fact, it came to it kind of late. Richard Havers is writing a book about Blue Note called Uncompromising Expressions. He points out that, “Other record labels recorded Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the beginning of bebop. This kind of music was not something that Blue Note’s founder, Alfred Lion was particularly interested in at the time, Havers says. While Lion was slow to get on board with bebop though, Havers says, “Lion quickly realized that jazz was moving in a different direction, and the first of the new wave of artists that he recorded was Thelonious Monk, who he absolutely adored.

Thelonious Monk played music that a lot of people just didn’t understand. And according to Michael Cuscuna, who helped run Blue Note in the 1980s, Alfred Lion took an enormous risk by putting out Monk’s music. “He signed Monk, in 1947,” Cuscuna says, “and he did three sessions. He recorded like 18 tunes before he even put out one 78, so he was really going out on a limb financially, because it was a little label, and had no money.” Monk, today is recognized as a musical genius. And he’s not the only one Alfred Lion found a promoted on Blue Note. There was drummer Art Blakey, who Cuscuna says was “one of the most exciting, swingingist, most exciting musicians in the world.” Blakey stretched musical boundaries on the drums while – according to Dan Outlette – Clifford Brown did the same thing on the Trumpet. Brown, he says, “was very important, because he was playing the trumpet in a different way than anybody had ever heard it before.” And there were other radicals who Alfred Lion brought on-board. Don Was mentions Larry Young, who he says, “completely reinvented organ playing with an album called ‘Unity.’”

All of these pioneers contributed to bebop’s popularity. Then, Michael Cuscuna says, “The phenomenon really exploded when, when Lee Morgan came back to music actively in the end of 1963.” Morgan had been recording with another record label, but he came over to Blue Note that year and made an album, where, Michael Cuscuna says, “One of the tunes was this 24 bar blues called ‘The Sidewinder.’” That song, he says, “exploded. The day it came out, it exploded. The 45 of it was in jukeboxes everywhere. It was on TV commercials. It was all over the place.”

Even though this music was at its most popular during your grandparents’ era, there are still plenty of young people who are re-discovering and playing it today. Godwin Louis is a saxophone player. He came to jazz from listening to Charlie Parker’s great 1949 bebop version of “White Christmas.” When he heard it, he says his reaction was, “was sort of like ‘Wow! The liberties! It’s not quite the melody but it’s following some kind of shape that’s – it goes with the melody and it’s – it makes sense, but I just don’t know what it is. I want to be able to play like that.’” It is the complexity of bebop, added to that feeling of “I want to be able to play like that” – that’s what keeps attracting young musicians to the music. Jason Moran says that’s what did it for him, and he says it would work for any aspiring musician. “If you had to practice piano as a kid, OK. So now we’re going to put on Bud Powell, and listen to this guy play piano. ‘Oh, wow! OK.’ If you play drums in the marching band, ‘OK. Now I’m going to give you Art Blakey.’ ‘Oh, wow!’ If you play clarinet or saxophone, ‘OK. So now I’m going to give you Wayne Shorter to listen to.’ ‘Oh, wow! That sounds crazy,’” you know?

Moran says, “I appreciate excellence,” and he says that’s why this approach will work not only to teach young people to stretch their talents, but to get them to understand that bebop musicians did the same thing. “I think if we want to teach a kid anything about excellence than they have to be able to recognize it,” Moran says, and “not only within the things that they’re interested in, but the things that they don’t understand as well. If they’re able to pick that part up of their brain, if they’re able to get that inline, then they’ll be OK.”

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