Sounds of success: The history and legacy of Blue Note records

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Jazz was born in America, and helped create a new America.

An upstart art, this revolutionary music didn’t come from old European capitals but from Southern cities and Northern slums. A hot, hip rallying cry, it created a multiracial, multigenerational movement of outsiders and outcasts – Black performers, Jewish emigres, aging intellectuals, and young bohemians.

And it was able to do that because New York’s Blue Note records was there, getting everything down on disc.

Richard Havers’ “Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression” chronicles its story. In 400 oversized pages, it documents decades of concerts and recording sessions. Dozens of classic jazz albums from the label receive detailed histories. Tracks and session musicians are cited.

But it’s not the notes that make up jazz; it’s the people playing them. And what carries this history forward are the lives of those involved.

Although jazz started in America around the turn of the century, the beginnings of perhaps its most famous record company, Blue Note, were in Berlin. That’s where Alfred Lion was born in 1908, anyway, into a rich and artsy Jewish family. By the 1920s, his hometown “was becoming the most jazz-oriented – and, by definition, the most exciting — city in Europe,” Havers writes.

Once the Nazis came to power, however, liberal music fans became easy targets. In 1933, the Reich outlawed the playing of all non-Germanic music. Jazz was demonized as “obscene.” Eventually, some young enthusiasts — the “Swing-Jugend,” or “Swing Youth” — were sent to concentration camps.

By 1933, though, Lion had left Germany – for good. Eventually, he ended up in New York, which was enjoying a jazz renaissance, much of it centered around W. 52nd St.

“Brownstone buildings housed basement clubs where the music people heard was very different from the jazz played on the radio,” Havers writes. “Performers such as Sidney Bechet, Art Hodes, and Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines played ‘hot jazz’ in the small, smokey interiors.”

To a young jazz fan, it seemed like the world was full of possibilities and great music demanding to be preserved. Impetuously, Lion decided to get involved. After hearing Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons perform at a nightclub, Lion immediately offered to record them.

“The pianists only had one question: Would they be paid?” Havers writes. “Of course, he’d pay them, (Lion said), and pay them well. The deal was sealed.”

That first recording session, on Jan. 6, 1939, showed Lion’s approach and priorities. He worked around the musicians’ performing schedules, booking time when they were free. He brought whiskey to “lubricate the pianists’ fingers.” He offered advice, suggesting they play up the “hot stuff” but didn’t give orders. And, when they finished, he paid them.

Unfortunately, it was also all of his money. Unable to pay for the studio rental, Lion had to leave the recordings as collateral. He retrieved them a few weeks later, once he could settle the bill, and after listening to them, “I decided to make some pressings and go into the music business.”

A jazz-loving Marxist activist, Max Margulis, contributed the startup money. Another refugee, and childhood friend, Francis Wolff, helped with the business side of things. Lion dubbed their new enterprise Blue Note, announcing its dedication to “the uncompromising expressions of hot jazz, or swing.”

They pressed 50 records and sold them through the mail for $1.50 each. It was a small start for what would become the most fabled label in jazz.

It was also premature. When America entered the war in 1941, the shellac used to make records suddenly became a vital military resource needed for airplane parts. Record production slowed. Then Lion was drafted. The company went more than two years without a new release.

It came back slowly, but by the 1950s, “Blue Note found its style, its natural rhythm, and truly began to deliver on its original founding principles,” Havers writes. “Alfred Lion’s vision had become a dream, his dream had become reality, and with the company’s single-minded approach, jazz was reinventing itself.”

Quality was top-notch, with albums featuring gorgeous photographs, stunning typographic designs, and smart liner notes. Still, the music itself was paramount. The Blue Note roster was extraordinary – Bud Powell, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk. And their freedom to record what they wanted, the way they wanted, was absolute.

Some were boldly ahead of their time, which was exactly where they wanted to be. “Anybody can play a composition and use far-out chords and make it sound wrong,” Monk said. “It’s making it right that’s not easy.”

It was a golden era. Then, like everything else, music began to change in the 1960s, particularly after the Beatles hit. Music fans were shifting allegiances, and the tide only seemed to run in one direction. “There were no 12-year-old girls trying to decide whether to buy ‘Love Me Do’ or the new Archie Shepp record,” remarks Blue Note producer Michael Cuscuna. “There was no crossover.”

And as the years went on, popular music exploded – Motown, progressive rock, Latin – “that sucked away part of the jazz audience.” Cuscuna says. “There was a lot of avant-garde jazz music that was extremely militant or angry or both. That scared a lot of white kids away from the music. It also alienated a lot of middle-aged, black, urban-area people.”

In 1966, Blue Note was bought by another company, Liberty Records. Lion, closing in on 60, just had a heart attack; it seemed like a good time to slow down. He stayed on for a while, then retired.

The label continued, though, stubbornly redefining jazz. It released challenging albums like Cecil Taylor’s “Unit Structures.” It released funky ones like Donald Byrd’s “Black Byrd.” And it released failed experiments like “Robbie Krieger and Friends,” a record from the former Doors guitarist and “an album that had no idea what it was other than a bunch of tracks recorded over a week in a North Hollywood studio,” Havers writes.

Blue Note wasn’t quite what it was, though, and there was worse to come. In 1971, Liberty was bought by United Artists Records; in 1979, they were bought by EMI Records. The new owners announced plans to phase out the 40-year-old label.

But then, in 1985, Blue Note not only received an unexpected corporate reprieve but an encore. A celebratory, all-star concert was held at Town Hall, featuring a tremendous lineup from Herbie Hancock to McCoy Tyner. The label began to reissue much of its backlist and sign new artists. And although EMI was eventually bought by Universal, those efforts continue.

Sometimes that’s meant surprises. In 2002, the jazz label shocked purists by releasing the Norah Jones album, “Come Away With Me.” “I don’t know if the music can be classified as jazz or even pop,” acknowledged Jones, who had been eager to work with the legendary company. The Grammy-winning disc became Blue Note’s biggest hit, selling more than 25 million copies.

Was it jazz? Was it pop? Well, it was a Blue Note record, and maybe that was enough. As Ray Charles once observed, when someone tried to pigeonhole him, “There’s only two kinds of music – good and bad.” And Blue Note has always been, and remains, dedicated to the good – in everything.