During its illustrious 80-year career, the Blue Note label has had its fair share of heroes and heroines – everyone from the estimable hard bop pioneers Horace Silver and Art Blakey to modern-day icons Norah Jones and Robert Glasper. But though many of its artists became jazz icons that helped to bring the label recognition, a number of underrated Blue Note musicians slipped through the net into obscurity. This doesn’t mean they didn’t have the talent to succeed – Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff never signed a bad musician – but rather that circumstances conspired against them, preventing them from taking their careers further.
We’re going to shine a spotlight on 12 underrated Blue Note musicians. Some of them are cult heroes, especially to those who consider themselves a member of the jazz cognoscenti, but for the casual jazz fan and the wider public, most of them are completely unknown.
Johnny Coles (1926-1997)
This New Jersey-born trumpeter only made one album for Blue Note, 1963’s Little Johnny C. A hidden gem in the label’s catalog, the LP features tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson and six ace tunes by pianist/arranger Duke Pearson. Short in stature, Coles was big in terms of talent and, prior to joining Blue Note, had played as a sideman with James Moody as well as serving in the Gil Evans’ orchestra, with whom he played on Miles Davis’ Sketches Of Spain LP. Before that, he served his musical apprenticeship with R&B horn blowers such as Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson and Bull Moose Jackson. He also played with Charles Mingus and, in the late 60s, joined Herbie Hancock’s band.
Essential track: “Hobo Joe“
George Braith (born 1939)
Perhaps Blue Note thought that this New York soul jazz saxophonist would be the label’s answer to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who could blow several horns at once. His 1963 debut for Blue Note, Two Souls In One, featured Braith playing soprano and alto saxes simultaneously. Though Braith was no match for the outrageous, flamboyant Kirk, he made three albums for Blue Note, his final one, 1964’s Extension, being arguably his best. Though his career didn’t take off at Blue Note, Braith continued to record as a bandleader after leaving the label but never reaped the accolades his unique style warranted.
Essential track: “Boop Bop Bing Bash“
Jack Wilson (1936-2007)
A Chicago-born soul jazz pianist and occasional organist, Wilson paid his dues working with Gene Ammons and Eddie Harris. Before landing at Blue Note in 1966, he recorded as a bandleader for Atlantic and its subsidiary label Vault, and remains one of the most underrated Blue Note musicians from the late 60s. His psychedelic-tinged debut for the company, Somethin’ Special, was released in 1967 and featured vibraphonist Roy Ayers, while his two other records for Blue Note (Easterly Winds, featuring trumpeter Lee Morgan, and Song For My Daughter) were more straight-ahead soul jazz offerings. A terrific musician whose music deserves to be better known.
Essential track: “Do It“
Charlie Rouse (1924-1988)
A tenor saxophonist who could also play flute, Washington, DC-born Rouse is best remembered as a sideman, particularly for his contributions to Thelonious Monk’s music. He stayed with the maverick pianist’s band for 11 years (1959-1970), appearing on a plethora of classic albums. Rouse was three years into his tenure with Monk when Blue Note offered him the chance to record as a bandleader. The end result was the delightful though much-overlooked one-off LP, 1962’s Bossa Nova Bacchanal, which aimed to capitalize on the US public’s then interest in Brazilian music. The saxophonist also embraced Caribbean music on an album that features oodles of percussion. Rouse only made a handful of solo albums in his career, and this one for Blue Note – the complete antithesis to what he was doing with the more avant-garde Monk during the same timeframe – is arguably the best of the lot.
Essential track: “Velhos Tempos“
Gil Mellé (1931-2004)
As well as being a talented baritone and tenor saxophonist, Gil Mellé was also a noted sculptor and painter whose drawings during the 50s appeared on covers of albums by Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk. He joined Blue Note in 1952 after Blue Note’s boss, Alfred Lion, was impressed by some tracks Mellé had made at engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s Hackensack studio, which from that point became Blue Note’s recording home. Between 1952 and 1956, Mellé recorded five LPs for the label, showcasing sophisticated compositions and novel arrangements that created a mellow, cinematic style of jazz. Mellé eventually left the jazz world and branched out into film soundtracks and TV scores. He composed the music for Hollywood movies such as The Andromeda Strain (for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe award) and small-screen shows the likes of Columbo. Despite a prodigious work rate, Mellé remains one of the more underrated Blue Note musicians, and his 50s sides for the label, though rare and hard to find, are worth tracking down.
Essential track: “Under Capricorn“
Louis Smith (1931-2016)
The cousin of fellow trumpeter Booker Little, Memphis-born Smith was a hard bop exponent from the Clifford Brown school of horn playing and cut two sensational albums for Blue Note in 1958 (Here Comes Louis Smith, featuring a cameo from Cannonball Adderley under the pseudonym “Buckshot La Funke”, and Smithville). After an auspicious start, Smith quit the jazz life, preferring to settle down and become a teacher. He returned to recording in 1978, but though he tried to make up for lost time and recorded up until 2004, Smith couldn’t eclipse the brilliance of his first two Blue Note offerings. The trumpeter also featured on three late 50s Blue Note albums by guitarist Kenny Burrell, while his short stint with Horace Silver’s group, replacing Donald Byrd, can be heard on the 2008 Blue Note release Live At Newport ’58.
Essential track: “Brill’s Blues“
Dizzy Reece (born 1931)
Hard bop trumpet maestro Alphonso “Dizzy” Reece was born in Kingston, Jamaica, but moved to England as a teenager in 1948 and plied his trade in the UK. He also traveled to Europe, where he encountered American musicians such as Don Byas, Thad Jones, and Kenny Clarke. He joined Blue Note in 1958, recording Blues In Trinity in London with a group that included Donald Byrd and noted UK saxophonist Tubby Hayes. It was the first of four album sessions for Blue Note and two of them (Starbright and Comin’ On, the latter not released until 1999) featured jazz luminaries Hank Mobley, Wynton Kelly, Stanley Turrentine, and Art Blakey. Reece also played as a sideman on Blue Note sessions for Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, and Andrew Hill. Despite his status as one of the more underrated Blue Note musicians, Reece’s work for the label will reward those who take the time to investigate it.
Essential track: “The Rake“
Tina Brooks (1932-1974)
Sometimes, lifestyle choices conspire against a musician finding fame and fortune. Take tenor saxophonist Harold “Tina” Brooks, whose career was cut short by drug addiction. Tipped as a future jazz star, North Carolina-born Brooks started out at Blue Note as a sideman for organist Jimmy Smith in 1958, and quickly convinced Alfred Lion that he had the talent to lead his own sessions. Though he recorded five albums’ worth of material for Blue Note between 1958 and 1961, only one session was released in his lifetime: True Blue, now acknowledged as a hard bop classic. At Blue Note, Brooks also played on sessions for Kenny Burrell, Jackie McLean, and Freddie Hubbard, though, after 1961, he didn’t record again, as drugs began to take his life in a downward direction.
Essential track: “Back To The Tracks“
Fred Jackson (born 1929)
This Atlanta-born tenor saxophonist had an early association as a sideman with rhythm’n’blues artists, including singers Little Richard and Lloyd Price. Jackson made his Blue Note debut as a sideman on the album Face To Face, by organist “Baby Face” Willette, in 1961. A year later Jackson recorded Hootin’ And Tootin’ for Blue Note, which proved to be his only album as a bandleader. He also appeared on two album sessions for the label by Hammond hero “Big” John Patton.
Essential track: “Southern Exposure“
Duke Pearson (1932-1980)
This more-than-capable Atlanta-born pianist, trumpeter, composer, and arranger – whose real name was Columbus Calvin Pearson, Jr – took over from Ike Quebec as Blue Note’s A&R man in 1963. He’s the only artist on our list of underrated Blue Note musicians who had a long and steady run of recording at the label, for whom, between 1959 and 1970, he cut a dozen sessions as a leader (including the brilliant Wahoo, recorded in 1964, which is arguably his best Blue Note LP). Pearson also played piano on Blue Note sessions by Donald Byrd, Grant Green, and Bobby Hutcherson, and his arrangements were featured on albums by Lou Donaldson, Stanley Turrentine, and Lee Morgan. Despite his fairly ubiquitous presence at Blue Note during the 60s, Pearson remains a largely underappreciated cult figure worthy of greater attention.
Essential track: “Make It Good“
Sam Rivers (1923-2011)
A versatile instrumentalist who could play saxophone (soprano and tenor), flute, bass clarinet, piano, and harmonica, Rivers hailed from El Reno, Oklahoma, and came on the radar of the wider jazz community when he briefly joined the Miles Davis Quintet in 1964. Deemed too outré for Miles, Rivers was replaced by Wayne Shorter, whom, ironically, he joined on the Blue Note roster later the same year. Rivers made four albums for the company, which ranged from adventurous post-bop (Fuchsia Swing Song) to more overtly avant-garde offerings (Dimensions & Extensions). Rivers’ presence on Blue Note showed that Alfred Lion was keen for his company to showcase trailblazing musicians at the cutting edge of jazz. Like fellow 60s Blue Note recording artist Andrew Hill, Rivers’ music isn’t always accessible or easy to digest, but with time, patience, and repeated listening, it reveals a hidden, otherworldly beauty.
Essential track: “Beatrice“
Tyrone Washington (born 1944)
This little-known New Jersey tenor saxophonist is one of jazz’s mystery men. As a sideman, he played with Horace Silver’s quintet, appearing on the group’s 1966 Blue Note album, The Jody Grind, and organist Larry Young’s Contrasts LP a year later. That same year he recorded Natural Essence for Blue Note, a striking debut featuring Woody Shaw and James Spaulding. It was his only release for the label (though another session is supposed to exist) and, after two more LPs for different labels, released in the early 70s, Washington became a Muslim, changed his name to Bialar Muhammad, and gave up music for a life of religious devotion. Though taking his place among the most underrated Blue Note musicians, Natural Essence is a gem that finds Washington moving between modal jazz and a freer, more exploratory, Coltrane-esque style.
Essential track: “Soul Dance“
Follow the Blue Note: The Finest In Jazz Since 1939 playlist for more essential Blue Note.