Blue Note Records: A Short History Of A Jazz Institution

Founded in 1939 by Alfred Lion, Blue Note is loved, respected, and revered as one of the most important record labels in the history of music.

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Stanley Turrentine and The Three Sounds which was the cover image for their album Blue Hour, taken by Francis Wolff
Photos: Francis Wolff, Copyright: Blue Note Records, Courtesy of Blue Note Records

Blue Note is loved, revered, respected, and recognized as one of the most important record labels in the history of popular music. Founded in 1939 by Alfred Lion, who had only arrived in America a few years earlier had fled the oppressive Nazi regime in his native Germany, Blue Note has continually blazed a trail of innovation in both music and design. Its catalogue of great albums, long-playing records, and even 78rpm and 45rpm records is for many the holy grail of jazz.

The beginnings of Blue Note Records

It all began when Alfred Lion went to the “Spirituals to Swing” concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall a few days before Christmas 1938. A week or so later he went to Café Society, a newly opened club, to talk to Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, who Lion had seen play at Carnegie Hall. He proposed the idea of recording them, assuring the two pianists that they would be paid, and when they agreed, Lion booked a studio for January 6, 1939, at a location thought to have been radio station WMGM on the West Side of Manhattan. Besides Ammons and Lewis, the engineer and Lion were the only people to witness this moment of history.

In addition to paying Ammons and Lewis, Lion brought whiskey to lubricate the pianists’ fingers and it worked as they completed nineteen takes that night. When the session ended and Lion had paid their fees, he didn’t have enough money to cover the cost of the studio time. The would-be entrepreneur left empty-handed, returning a few weeks later to pay for the masters. Later while listening to the discs at his apartment, he knew this music deserved to be more widely heard. According to Lion, “I decided to make some pressings and go into the music business.”

The first Blue Note record

Friday, March 3, 1939, was the release date for the first two recordings on the label Lion and two fellow travellers decided to name Blue Note. On BN 1 were two slow blues tunes, “Melancholy” and “Solitude”: BN2 was two up-tempo numbers by Ammons, “Boogie Woogie Stomp” and “Boogie Woogie Blues.” With no real distribution in place, Lion offered the records by mail order at $1.50 each, double the standard retail price for a ten-inch record, having initially pressed twenty-five of each disc – it was hardly an ambitious release schedule. The initial Blue Note 78-rpm recordings, instead of the usual ten-inch discs, were twelve-inch records, the format normally reserved for classical artists. In Lion’s view, “Ten-inch records were so short. People could do maybe two or three choruses and the record was over. I always figured, my gosh, those guys need more room to stretch out.”

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Alfred Lion later recalled the huge challenge Blue Note faced: “There was nothing in ’39. No {music trade] books where you could check out things. Nothing. You had to go by your wits.” Through his friendship with Milt Gabler, Lion persuaded Commodore Music Shop in Manhattan to sell Blue Note’s records and several other record stores followed suit.

Alongside Lion at the dawn of Blue Note were Max Margulis, a writer and later voice coach and Emanuel Eisenberg – poet, theater critic, and writer for the New Yorker. Blue Note’s status among jazz lovers was increased by the way the label presented its music. Lion and Margulis intuitively understood the importance of good marketing at a time when it was barely a recognized concept. In May 1939, Max Margulis wrote the label’s manifesto, and although there are shades of his communist leanings, the statement perfectly sums up what Blue Note was trying to achieve in 1939. Its message has been at the heart of the company ever since and is still held dear by Don Was, the label’s president in the 21st century:

Blue Note Records are designed to serve the uncompromising expressions of hot jazz or swing. Direct and honest hot jazz is a way of feeling, a musical and social manifestation, and Blue Note records are concerned with identifying its impulse, not its sensational and commercial adornments.

Blue Note in the 1940s

Two releases do not make a record label, and five weeks after their first two records came out Lion was back in the studio for Blue Note’s second session. Sidney Bechet, who Lion had briefly met in Berlin, was there and he recorded a version of George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” This was a pivotal moment in the history of the fledgling label as Bechet turns in one of the most beautiful readings of this most beautiful song. Issued as BN6, this was not only a fabulous record; it also became the label’s first hit with as many as thirty copies a day sold at Commodore Music Shop alone. Soon Blue Note began recording more sessions, but the war soon intervened and Lion joined the US Army where he was stationed in Texas until medical discharge in 1944 allowed him to once again start recording.

In July 1944, Blue Note took its first tentative steps towards modernity when a new name appeared on a studio log: that of twenty-five-year-old tenor saxophonist, Ike Quebec. Ike Quebec’s Swingtet, as the name suggests, a swing-based band but there are shades of something new creeping in. In one of the magazine’s very earliest mentions of the label, Billboard acknowledged that Lion and Blue Note recognized “across the tracks jazz as a coming force.”

Be-bop was the latest craze in jazz and for a while Blue Note’s recordings seemed out of step with fashion, being more firmly rooted in traditional jazz. Quebec had become something of an unofficial A & R man to the label. The first of the “new” artists to record was a singer (and Errol Flynn’s former chauffeur) Babs Gonzales, who embraced the basics of bop when he recorded “Oop-Pop-A-Da,” as 3 Bips and a Bop in 1947.

Quebec also helped introduce Lion and Francis Wolff, another exile from Germany who became Alfred’s partner and took the wonderful photographs which graced so many of the Blue Note albums, to the music of Thelonious Monk. Monk recorded for Blue Note for the first time at WOR Studios on 15 October 1947 and his first 78-rpm release from that session, BN 542, was, appropriately, “Thelonious.” DownBeat gave the record two stars, commenting, “From the Monk, we expect better.” A few months later Art Blakey and His Messengers made their first recording for the label; Blakey would remain a stalwart of the label for the next 15 years.

Before long other Bopsters began recording for Blue Note – there were trumpeters Howard McGhee and Fats Navarro, pianist Bud Powell and Wynton Kelly and in 1952 Miles Davis recorded for the label. Also in 1952, 24-year-old Horace Silver was recorded by Blue Note; he would remain with the label for the next three decades. Another star name was Clifford Brown who tragically died very young, but not before releasing a string of classic recordings on the label.

Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, Blue Note found it tough going competing with major record companies who were starting to release long-playing records on the 33 1/3 rpm format; while the 45 was becoming the new format for singles. It was during the 1950s that Blue Note found its style, its natural rhythm, and truly began to deliver on the original founding principals. It was a decade of “uncompromising expressions” by young musicians who were on the cutting edge of jazz. 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 through every facet of Blue Note.

The arrival of Rudy Van Gelder

On the last day of January 1953, there was a seismic shift in the recordings issued by the label. Tenor saxophonist Gil Melle had caught Lion’s interest by playing him four sides he had recorded at a studio in Hackensack, New Jersey. As a result, Lion agreed to release the records as singles and offered Melle a recording contract. The recording studio belonged to Rudy Van Gelder – for the next 12 years, virtually everything was recorded by Van Gelder. Initially, his studio was located in his parent’s living room and according to Blue Note producer and archivist Michael Cuscuna, the concept of a studio in Van Gelder’s parent’s living room was not as outrageous as it sounds: “They were building a new house. Rudy had been doing some recording with a makeshift set-up, and he said he really wanted to build a recording studio. So, in the living room, they built all kinds of alcoves, nooks, and little archways that they designed because Rudy had ideas for them acoustically. At the end of the living room, he built a control room with soundproof glass. So it was professional.”

In 1955 “The Preacher,” a 45 by Horace Silver was a big seller for the label, and shortly thereafter organist Jimmy Smith signed to Blue Note selling well on the album, in part through the exposure his singles were getting on jukeboxes. Throughout the 50s the list of artists releasing Blue Note records was impressive – Lou Donaldson, J.J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, Kenny Burrell, Hank Mobley, Curtis Fuller, and John Coltrane who’s one Blue Note album, Blue Train is one of his finest. The Blue Note logo appeared on albums by Sonny Clark, The Three Sounds, Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Reece, Jackie McLean, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Dexter Gordon, Tina Brooks, and Grant Green during the latter years of the 50s and early 60s.

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Blue Note in the 1960s

For Alfred Lion, Blue Note Records was never about making his fortune. Like so many other pioneers in the music business, he did what he did because he loved the music. Granted, he found success and made money, but nothing like the kind of return achieved by others operating in a more mainstream field. Alfred, by his own admission, felt that there was “room for everything,” musically speaking, a philosophy that led him to continue recording work that even he knew would not sell in large numbers. His ethos was to allow the better-selling records to subsidize those with less commercial appeal. Come the 1960s, however, and his unique combination of intuition, nurturing, single-mindedness and, most of all, his innate sense of class resulted in Blue Note releasing some of the greatest jazz records ever made.

In 1962, just as Jimmy Smith was about to leave Blue Note for Verve Records, he had a hit on the Billboard bestseller list when “Midnight Special parts 1 & 2” went to No.69 on the pop charts, several more records also made the lower reaches of the chart, all of which helped introduce more people to his sound. In 1964 trumpeter, Lee Morgan also had a hit with “The Sidewinder.” Other names that joined the label’s impressive roster included Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill, Tony Williams, Don Cherry, Larry Young, Grant Green, and Ornette Coleman. If it all sounds like a who’s who in jazz, it’s because it is.

The Sidewinder (Remastered 1999/Rudy Van Gelder Edition)

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In May 1966, Liberty Records purchased what Billboard referred to as “the Cadillac of the jazz lines.” Alfred Lion had decided to sell his 26-year-old record label to one that had been in business for just about a decade. Liberty was smart enough to sign Francis Wolff and Blue Note’s founder to 2-year exclusive contracts to run the label. Lion by his own admission had not gone looking for a buyer, but Liberty came along at the right time, particularly as Lion had suffered a minor heart attack, which worried his second wife, Ruth. However, Lion did not last long at the new corporate Blue Note and quit the following year.

Blue Note in the 1970s

By 1970 Blue Note had gone through many changes, jazz, in general, was finding it tough. The “British Invasion” spearheaded by The Beatles may not have affected jazz directly but it was part of the heady mix that gave rise to alternative cultures and ideas. Those dubbed the “Woodstock Generation,” following the 1969 Festival did embrace some jazz artists, but in the main, they had their own music – progressive music. Jazz needed to find a new direction home and once it did it was not to everyone’s liking.

Donald Byrd, who had been recording for Blue Note since 1956 began taking his music in something of a new direction, and while many did not like it, there was definitely acceptance from the public for his award-winning album Black Byrd, which made the Billboard charts, as did the title song that made the lower reaches of the singles chart. In a similar vein Bobbi Humphrey, Ronnie Laws, and Marlena Shaw made records that sold well enough to make the R&B charts – although some will tell you this is not jazz it helped keep the company alive and able to ride out the tough times – many records from this era inspired the acid jazz and hip-hop movements that came later.

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Blue Note in the 80s and beyond

In the early 80s, after a period of hiatus in which Blue Note lay dormant, the company was resurrected under new boss Bruce Lundvall. An experienced record company man, and most importantly for Blue Note a jazz lover, Lundvall set about making records that would sell. One of his earliest signings was Bobby McFerrin; Lundvall’s instincts were proved right, especially when two years later McFerrin had a worldwide smash hit with “Don’t Worry Be Happy” – although it was on the EMI label rather than Blue Note (EMI had purchased Blue Note by this time).

In 1993 Us3’s debut Blue Note album, Hand on the Torch featured eclectic sampling from, among others, Thelonious Monk, Donald Byrd, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and Horace Silver. In January 1994 the album entered the Billboard chart and made it to No.31, with “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” making the US singles chart top ten and selling a million copies in the process.

Three years into the label’s seventh decade, along came an artist who took even Lundvall and other Blue Note executives by surprise with a record that was both controversial and brilliant – but was it jazz? To some, sitar player Ravi Shankar’s daughter, Norah Jones, was anything but, yet according to Michael Cuscuna: “I was absolutely thrilled when Bruce signed Norah Jones. She was a jazz artist, playing piano and singing standards with acoustic bass and a jazz drummer. When her demos started to show more pop and country directions, Bruce, with his whole concern about the integrity of Blue Note, offered to sign her to the Manhattan label, which was more pop-oriented. But Norah said, ‘No. I want to be on Blue Note. That’s who I signed with. I love that label. I grew up with that, and that’s where I want to be.’” Her single, “Don’t Know Why” made No.30 on the Billboard chart and later won a Grammy and her album Come Away With Me marked the beginning of a shift in emphasis for Blue Note Records.

Norah Jones - Don't Know Why

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In the summer of 2003, Otis Jackson Jr, who worked as a producer under the name Madlib, released Shades Of Blue, an album of remixes of tunes from Blue Note’s classic era. In Blue Note terms, this is arguably the pinnacle of the remixer’s art and another of those albums that encouraged many fans to set off on a journey into the label’s richly rewarding back catalogue.

The arrival of Don Was

By the second decade of the 21st century a man who admits, “I’ve spent all my life avoiding having a job, which is why I became a musician,” was invited to take up the newly created role of Chief Creative Officer at Blue Note. But this was no ordinary job and Don Was, musician, songwriter, and Grammy award-winning producer, was an inspired choice. Having worked with artists including Bob Dylan, Iggy Pop, Bonnie Raitt, Al Green, B.B. King, and the Rolling Stones, Was’s rock credentials were impeccable. Yet at the time of his appointment, few people realized just what a jazz-head Don Was is, and has been for all his life.

Under Was’ leadership, Blue Note has entered a new era of “uncompromising expression.” Any label that can comfortably release Robert Glasper, Jose James, Jason Moran, Gregory Porter, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson, Rosanne Cash, Gregory Porter, and Derrick Hodge alongside one another has to be taken seriously.

New additions to Blue Note’s roster in recent years have contributed more diversification to the label as well as cementing its relationship with jazz musicians who are steeped in the ways of R&B and hip-hop. Representing the latter are saxophonist Marcus Strickland and his band Twi-Life; drummer extraordinaire Chris Dave And The Drumhedz, who made their self-titled debut in 2018; and Nashville chanteuse Kandace Springs, who melds classic soul with jazz and a touch of hip-hop swagger.

Blue Note is also home to two supergroups – Blue Note All-Stars and R+R=NOW – which both feature Robert Glasper. The former ensemble also has trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire in its ranks and plays cutting-edge post-bop jazz, while the latter’s lineup includes producer/saxophonist Terrace Martin, whose presence helps to blur the boundaries between jazz, R&B, and hip-hop. More home-grown US talent comes in the shape of an exciting new Houston pianist called James Francies, whose debut Blue Note album, Flight, released in October 2018, caused huge ripples of excitement in the jazz world.

As well as young guns, Blue Note’s roster is balanced by the presence of two old masters, octogenarian saxophonists Wayne Shorter and Charles Lloyd, who both released strong albums in 2018 (Shorter produced an epic, comic-book-inspired triple-album called Emanon, while Lloyd explored the intersection of jazz and Americana in the company of singer Lucinda Williams and his band The Marvels with the exquisite Vanished Gardens).

The label also became a home for legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen – famed for his work with Fela Kuti in the 60s and 70s – who has released two radically different albums, The Source (a mash-up of hard bop and Afrobeat) and Tomorrow Comes The Harvest, a collaboration with techno DJ Jeff Mills. More adventures in electronica-inspired sound come from Blue Note’s British connection, a Manchester trio called GoGo Penguin, who have broken new ground with their albums for the label.

Blue Note may be decades old at this point, but its roster, comprised of both new and older faces, displays a healthy vigor and sense of intrepid musical adventure that has been its hallmark since the label’s inception. There’s no doubt that Don Was still adheres to its original mission statement, which emphasized the need to capture and document what Lion and Wolff described as “uncompromising expression.”

If “uncompromising expression” needs further definition, then this is it: “Just do it. You don’t have to describe it.” For Don Was, “It’s a great contribution to society to make great records.” And that’s exactly what Alfred Lion, Francis Wolff, Bruce Lundvall, Michael Cuscuna, and the others that have been so closely involved with Blue Note have all done.

Can you dig it?

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Greg Blunt

    March 17, 2019 at 5:46 pm

    Yes, but when will we get to experience the uncompromising expression of another Was (NotWas) recording? I’m missing Pee Wee and the gang. Hope it will be on Blue Note.

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