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Blue Note at 75

Blue Note favouritesThis 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.

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7 Comments Post a comment
  1. I also liked the little import stamps on the versions of US jazz albums you could buy in England at that time. Extra caché. I think all American albums were pressed on thick vinyl unlike the a English ones which were thin and miserable sounding. I nearly cried when I heard the cut of the very first LP I made in 1969 in London as so much of the original studio sound was lost. You have to admit to admit the Americans knew what they were doing and we didn’t.

    November 10, 2014
  2. Richard Harris #

    You are right about the weight and heft of the original albums. In emotional terms also. To look at that spread is to take a time shift. I remember buying Kenny Dorham’s “Whistle Stop” on its release as an import in the early 60s from City Radio in Cardiff, one of the very few places outside London that it then was possible to do so. A stunning record and whenever I now play the RVG CD “substitute” and again see Kenny’s coin cufflinks on the cover shot I am right back there in Churchill Way clutching it like I had enterered a very select society. Which of course I had.

    November 10, 2014
  3. Peter Brown #

    Fascinating stuff, of which I knew nothing, though I’ve always been intrigued by the mechanics of the blue notes, both in jazz and in folk music. Anyone who’s tried to tune a B on a guitar knows that equal temperament is just a compromise: best think through what you’re going to play before you twist the peg. I shall now listen to some Blue Note classics, perhaps starting with Fuchsia Swing Song.

    November 10, 2014
  4. Bill White #

    When I first started buying LPs it was pre decimalization and they were relative to what money I had at my disposal, really expensive: Blue Note, especially. I think generally albums on other labels were around 30 shillings or less but Blue Notes were around 42 shillings. Not only that, they were in a place like Cheltenham where I was living, not generally available anyway. The only place they could be found was in a musical instrument shop, Ken Watkinson’s. One of the employees was a jazz bass player and he would order a few in from time to time. I remember picking up the Clifford Brown Memorial Album there. It was my first Blue Note. Later when I made a visit to London I was overwhelmed when visiting Dobell’s record shop to see probably over a hundred in two big sections of the huge selection of jazz on sale. I bought Andrew Hill’s Point Of Departure. Blue Notes were by far and away the most exotic and desirable LPs for me at that time. The strange import stamps affixed to the reverse of the album and the wonderful inner sleeve showing the covers of other Blue Notes available all added to the appeal. I’ve already ordered the book even though I have two books dedicated solely to Blue Note record covers and the Richard Cook volume. More money these days!

    November 10, 2014
  5. Matthew Wright #

    Anyone who is interested in the art, design & photography of the label should try to get hold of “The Cover Art of Blue Note Records” by Glyn Callingham (former colleague at Ray’s Jazz Shop) and Graham Marsh (graphic designer). Don’t know if it’s still in print. They did 2 volumes then went on to collections of West Coast (Pacific Jazz/Contemporary etc) labels, “Californian Cool”, and Riverside/Atlantic/Prestige labels, “East Coasting”. Walk down Memory Lane. Blow the dust off the stylus and put on McLean’s “Destination Out”.

    November 10, 2014
  6. Richard Harris #

    Btw, France Musique ran a two part tribute to Bluenote this week. The usual overview of tracks but worth it to be reminded just how good (and adaptable as a sideman) Freddie Hubbard was in his prime. From Doing Alright to Bluesnik to Out to Lunch is quite a stretch.

    November 11, 2014
  7. just amazes me that the most incompetent producer i ever worked for (Longing in Their Hearts-Bonnie R.) is now head of Blue Note…WTF !!!!

    May 28, 2016

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