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When it comes to the ongoing experiment that is modern jazz, there have been few cooler laboratories than Blue Note Records. For 75 years and counting, Blue Note has put the recording of innovative, authentic, uncompromising jazz above other measures of success.
The label’s formula has gathered innovators—Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones, to name an all-star lineup—and encouraged them to take their music to new places in the studio. And sliding their records inside album covers that double as eye-loving art added another element of cool to the Blue Note brand.
Building Blue Note
Blue Note Records was the brainchild of Alfred Lion. A German Jew, he had escaped Nazi persecution in the early 1930s and eventually made his way to New York City. Lion had been a jazz fan since childhood, and on January 6, 1939, he rented a small studio and recorded a pair of boogie-woogie pianists—Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. It was a modest start—they pressed only 50 copies—but the first Blue Note record was spinning. Lion was soon joined by Francis Wolff, a childhood friend who added his business sense—and eventually his photographic talents—to the brand new label.
Those first years proved lean, and the label’s limited resources required a strong strain of Do-It-Yourself. But Blue Note had an ethic that set the label apart from other record companies: It treated musicians with respect. They were paid for rehearsals as well as the recording sessions. Food and drink were waiting for them at the studio. And Lion scheduled sessions around their paying gigs, often starting after midnight. Most importantly, he encouraged teams of the day’s jazz greats—saxophonist Sidney Bechet, pianist Art Hodes, drummer Sid Catlett among them—to play from the heart and soul rather than chaining them to some notion of what the public might buy.
Word spread in the New York jazz scene: You could trust Alfred Lion and Blue Note Records. At the heart of that trust was Lion’s faith and joy in the experimental nature of jazz—specifically bebop, then hard bop, and beyond. “[W]hen the groove was right in the studio, [Alfred] used to start to jump up and dance to the music in the studio,” recalled record producer Michael Cuscuna. “And a lot of the musicians said that’s when they knew they had the right take, when Alfred got out of his chair and started dancing.”
Blue Note Hits Its Groove
In the mid-1950s, Blue Note Records entered a uniquely creative period. Musically, the charge was led by a who’s who of ensemble leaders, including Horace Silver on piano, Art Blakey on drums, and The Incredible Jimmy Smith on jazz organ. The flow of creativity was occasionally spiked by the likes of trumpeter Miles Davis and sax-man John Coltrane.
Behind the microphone, Blue Note recruited another kind of talent: Rudy Van Gelder as recording engineer. An optometrist by profession, Van Gelder was a jazz fan who had built his own New Jersey sound studio. He was passionate, exacting, yet intuitive about the process of recording, mixing, and blending the various instruments while capturing the interplay between them. His work contributed greatly to what became known in the industry as “the Blue Note sound.”
Blue Note Records also took on a distinctive “look” during this period. Artist Reid Miles designed album covers for the label featuring bold text treatments and memorable images. The covers were often built around the tinted black-and-white photographs of in-studio performers snapped by Francis Wolff. Like the music they represented, the cover graphics and Wolff’s photos played with lines and curves, reflection and shadow, mood and space.
For many fans of modern jazz, the first 30 years of Blue Note became synonymous with living, breathing, striving forms of the music—styles willing to experiment and innovate as well as entertain. Its catalog of classic albums remains a testament to the vision of Alfred Lion, who retired in 1967. It was a shining era for the label, deep and unique enough to secure its place in jazz and music history.
What is a “blue note”?
Technically, a blue note is a flattened third, fifth, and seventh note of a scale sung or played at a slightly lower pitch from the major scale. Musically, blue notes have the power to weave a sense of worry, sadness, and loss, into songs. This makes them essential ingredients in jazz and the blues, musical genres that put a premium on emotional expression.
The Experiment Continues
Blue Note Records changed ownership several times in the years that followed, and the label began a slow fade. Occasional reissues from its catalog gave way to random recordings in the mid-1980s. But as the 1900s ended and the 2000s made their entrance, Blue Note found new life. It recorded jazz-influenced stars like Van Morrison and Norah Jones, as well as jazz heavyweights Wynton Marsalis, Jason Moran, and Terence Blanchard.
In true Blue Note style, the label also has built experiments around Hip-Hop (for example, Madlib’s 2003 Shades of Blue that samples from Blue Note’s past) and music that moves easily between categories (Robert Glasper’s Black Radio). The future promises more of that brand of innovation under the leadership of producer and visionary Don Was, who was named president of Blue Note in 2012. Says Was: “The music of Blue Note is about change, it’s about constant change.”