Blue Note at 75
This morning’s Guardian carried a prominent story announcing a collaboration between the record producer Mark Ronson and the novelist Michael Chabon, accompanied by a photograph of the two men casually posing against a display of Blue Note album covers: a couple of early Hank Mobleys, Sonny Clark’s Cool Struttin’ and Dial ‘S’ for Sonny, and Kenny Dorham’s Afro-Cuban, all conferring a sense of impeccable cool. All very collectible, too, in their first-pressing incarnations. One of those Mobleys — this one — apparently went for $5,600 in an auction not long ago.
Blue Note albums always seemed like pieces of art as well as a delivery system for great music. Francis Wolff’s fine photographs and the brilliant eye of the designer Reid Miles were combined with the use of thick card for the sleeves and, for the pressings, what seemed like twice as much unadulterated vinyl as the label’s competitors in order to enhance the sound lovingly captured by the microphones of Rudy Van Gelder. Something like Joe Henderson’s Page One or Grachan Moncur III’s Some Other Stuff has a special charisma; you know it when you look at it and you feel it when you hold it; actually listening to it is almost a bonus.
I’m not obsessive about such things myself, but it never surprises me that others happily devote themselves to the minutiae of Blue Note’s label copy, inner sleeves and run-off groove inscriptions. These albums are beautiful and precious artefacts, demanding the appreciation of the eye and the mind as well as the ears. And that’s certainly how I feel about the half-dozen I’ve assembled above, each a personal favourite from the label’s golden age (and all but one, I think, a first pressing…). A list of others for which I harbour a special fondness would include Sam Rivers’ Fuschia Swing Song, The Prophetic Herbie Nichols Vols 1 & 2, Wayne Shorter’s Night Dreamer, Stanley Turrentine and the Three Sounds’ Blue Hour, Lee Morgan’s Tom Cat and Sonic Boom, Larry Young’s Into Somethin’, Tina Brooks’s True Blue and Back to the Tracks, Grant Green’s Street of Dreams, Horace Silver’s Blowin’ the Blues Away, Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music and Jackie McLean’s One Step Beyond. And about a hundred more.
Blue Note celebrates its 75th birthday this year, commemorating the initial success of Alfred Lion, a young German Jew who had recently left Berlin for New York, in persuading two great boogie-woogie pianists, Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons, to make the first recordings for the company whose name he had registered in March 1939. Before the end of the year Lion was joined by Francis Wolff, a friend from Berlin and another refugee from the Nazis. Together they gradually built a label that would become a pillar of jazz, a symbol of the music at its most fully realised.
Uncompromising Expression is Richard Havers’ illustrated biography of the label, published this week. The author — a consultant to the Universal group, the current owners of the catalogue — tells the story from boogie-woogie and Sidney Bechet through Thelonious Monk and Clifford Brown, Art Blakey and Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith and Lou Donaldson, Lee Morgan and Tina Brooks, Herbie Hancock and Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard and Wayne Shorter, Stanley Turrentine and Baby Face Willette, Jackie McLean and Andrew Hill, all the way to the present day of Norah Jones, Robert Glasper, Gregory Porter and Ambrose Akinmusire. If it’s not as deep and detailed as the late Richard Cook’s Blue Note history, published in 2001, its physical form is quite different from that modestly proportioned and text-dominated volume.
A Blue Note album has a special charisma, and Havers’ designer does a wonderful job of reflecting Reid Miles’s graphic genius in the large-format layout of the book. Among the most stunning pages are the early spreads consisting of dozens of sleeves, grouped together by some of Miles’s favourite visual themes: the moody combination of blue and green type against a black background, the use of brash typography and brutally cropped photographs against white, the occasional fondness for scarlet. There are also pages from Lion’s session notebooks and several of Wolff’s contact sheets.
Perhaps it’s not the book for people whose primary interest lies in tracking down copies of the original vinyl albums with the 47 W. 63rd Street address on the sleeve or the “RVG” stamp on the run-out. For the rest, including those of us happy to mop up this great music for £3 a time on CD at Fopp, it’s one of the treats of the year.
* Richard Havers’ Uncompromising Expression is published by Thames & Hudson (£48). Havers will be talking to Don Was, the label’s current president, on November 22 at the South Bank Centre as part of the EFH London Jazz Festival (tickets here). That night at the Festival Hall a celebratory concert features representatives of the label’s current roster, including Robert Glasper and Jason Moran.