A Label Beyond Convention: Blue Note Records Documented by Matthew Allen
April 29, 2018
A Label Beyond Convention: Blue Note Records Documented
by Matthew Allen
The goal for a record label, one would understandably assume, is to get a monetary return investment from each of its artists in their stable. The label foots the bill for production, recording, touring and marketing cost, and the artist is responsible recouping that money via record sales. American Jazz label Blue Note Records, however, expects a different type of reciprocation, which is of meaningful, honest music that often tends to transcend its time. The biggest takeaway from the film Blue Note Records: Beyond The Notes is that this label is a living and breathing contradiction.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, artists like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Art Blakey were making classics from the stable of Blue Note. It actually wasn’t until the company scored two hits (Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder” and Horace Silver‘s “A Song For My Father”) that things started to get bad.
Swiss filmmaker Sophie Huber (Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction), grew up taking in the amazing performances of the annual Montreux Jazz Fest. The initial love and curiosity for that music manifested at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival with the debut of her latest film, Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes. It’s a remarkable look at the past, present and future of the record company. She and her team dive deep into the origins of founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, two German men who grew up fans of Black American jazz and blues and created the company to give musicians an opportunity to make the music the two of them enjoyed most. The sincerity of the founders was captured affectionately by both Hancock and Shorter. Hancock began doing a stiff but spirited shimmy in the recording studio and Shorter, with a hearty laugh, was able to guess that he was imitating Wolff. “If you played, and Frank was dancing, that was the take,” Hancock recalled of his former boss. These men inadvertently gave opportunities to men and women that other labels would not – Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, etc – and thus were an incubator for music legends.
An incredible revelation from the film was the discovery of the artists’ social commentary in their music, best exemplified by Art Blakey‘s album “Free For All,” which was a double entendre of his excitable drumming style as well as voting rights for African-Americans and Martin Luther King Jr.,’s march on Selma.
As previously mentioned, when they scored crossover success with Morgan and Silver, both in 1966, it turned out to be the worse thing that could have happened for Blue Note, as parent company Liberty Records and distributors pressured them to make more, leading to Wolff’s departure in 1967, and the demise of Blue Note in the 1970s. The film did a good job using this series of unfortunate events to speak to the rare commitment to the creative freedom that artists were afforded at the label, as Hancock would say, a lack of “pressure” from the bosses, that gave allowed classic albums like Herbie Hancock‘s “Maiden Voyage,” Wayne Shorter‘s “The Soothsayer” and John Coltrane‘s “Blue Train” to be born and countless others.
Blue Note re-emerged from the oblivion in 1985 with Bruce Lundvall, who also appeared in the film, and slowly rebuilt the art over profit principle that was laid by Wolff and Lion, with artists like Cassandra Wilson, Joe Lovano and Jason Moran. Huber also made sure to highlight how Hip-Hop music played a major role in Blue Notes return to public consciousness, as numerous rap artists of the 1990s were sampling much of the past catalog to reintroducing the music to a new generation of fans.
When Lundvall signed pianist and singer Norah Jones in the late 1990s and she achieved a multiple success with “Don’t Know Why,” single, Lundvall was able to weather the storm of commercial benefits. One of Huber’s best decisions during this film was to juxtapose archival footage with a chronicle of current, and literal, Blue Note All-Stars – pianist Robert Glasper, bassist Derrick Hodge, drummer Kendrick Scott, guitarist Lionel Loueke, trumpeter Ambrose Amiroshire, and saxophonist Marcus Strickland – during recording sessions for their 2017 debut album, “Our Point of View.” Right from the first frame, you notice the young lions letting their form shine and pushing the boundaries of conventional jazz, just as the legends before them did.
“I knew pretty much from the very beginning that I wanted to do something that starts from today’s perspective,” Huber explained, “How do you show the influence more than these young guys today talking about how they’re inspired by this music still and how it resonates today. I wanted the story told as much as possible through the musicians and not as much from historians and journalists.”
Glasper told a story that sums up how the ideal of Blue Note remained intact for decades. After he was signed in 2005, he held a meeting with executives with a detailed plan of attack for his campaign, they stopped in mid-sentence and told him, “Go make the album you want to make; it’s our job to sell it.” Three Grammy Awards since then, he has been leading the new pack of stars.
Today, Don Was is president and has forged on with a more hands-on approach, by producing numerous of the label’s projects over the past five years, but as the boss, keeps the same style of yesteryear. “From what I see,” Huber spoke of Was, “he’s very true to the philosophy of the founders Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, in the way that he respects the musicians and sees the label as a platform to do music.” The sight of Was swaying and vibing to the recording session with the All-Star band, with Shorter and Hancock as guest players, was a small but powerful look on how in tune he is with his artists, their music and the bridging of the gap between legends and new jacks.
During one of the biggest film festivals in the world, in a year so rich with music documentaries like Mr. Soul!, United Skates and Studio 54, it’ll be difficult not to include Blue Note Records: Beyond The Notesas one of the best documentaries released in 2018.