Uncompromising Expression – Blue Note

Richard Havers

Thames & Hudson, $95

Blue Note resIn its heyday the Blue Note jazz label was just like a great band: a fortuitous combination of disparate skills and personalities. Its founder, Alfred Lion, produced the albums, and his partner, Francis Wolff, took the moody, evocative photographs gracing covers designed by the graphic art trendsetter Reid Miles, whose bold, brand-defining ideas would have fitted neatly into a Don Draper portfolio in Mad Men. The final member of the quartet was the brilliant recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder.

This lavish book celebrates the 75th birthday of the label that has covered the broadest sweep of jazz, and that was once the benchmark for artistry, innovation, recording quality and cover art.

With 600 illustrations squeezed into 400 pages, it is as much a browsing book as a cover-to-cover read, and given the quality of Wolff’s photographs (many never previously published) and Miles’ album covers it is hard to dispute the priorities.

Richard Havers is at his best documenting Lion and Wolff’s pre-Blue Note lives and the label’s early years. The pair were German Jews who fell in love with jazz, and, like jazz, fled Nazism. The Nazis considered jazz an obscenity, their propaganda including a poster of a cartoonish African American wearing a Star of David.

BlueNoteCovers.inddLion founded Blue Note a mere two years after arriving in New York, releasing his first 78 rpm discs by the great boogie-woogie pianists Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons in 1939. His sixth release, soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet’s Summertime was a hit. Lion’s forte, however, was having the ears and acumen to embrace the angular sound of bebop that exploded in New York during the war. Reid Miles joined in 1953, and a house graphic style rapidly emerged that was as distinctive as Rudy Van Gelder’s audio-verite sonic approach. Bold colour-use in sans-serif fonts contrasted with Wolff’s character-defining black-and-white photographs. Many titles incorporated the word “blue”, and many covers the colour.

If the 1950s established Blue Note (with such artists as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Art Blakey), the ’60s was the golden era, with classics by the likes of Lee Morgan, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. Confirming his openness to the new, Lion championed such pioneers as Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy and Don Cherry.

Besides his decade-by-decade history, Havers also offers reviews of many albums, and here his writing quickly palls, littered as it is with such ineffectual adjectives as “appealing”, “excellent”, “stellar” and “top-notch”. In reviewing Cecil Taylor’s adventurous Unit Structures (1966), his winking subtext seems to be that he knows the music is important, but that doesn’t mean we have to enjoy it. At the very least critics must be able to articulate reasons behind their likes and dislikes.

Cool resLion retired in 1967 and Wolff died in 1971. In 1965 Blue Note was purchased by Liberty, which was, in turn, bought by the Orwellian-sounding Transamerica Corporation, and committee decision-making began to rob the label of its identity. It ceased to use Van Gelder exclusively, and inevitably profit-lust shouldered aside Lion’s pursuit of artistic excellence. Corporate take-overs of anything from publishers to wineries too often result in people with passion, knowledge and the taste to make the brand distinctive being replaced by managers in the thrall of bean-counters.

In 1979 EMI acquired Blue Note, and it hit rock bottom until ground-breaking albums by the likes of John Scofield and Cassandra Wilson restored its reputation in the 1990s. Then, too, the sampling of ’60s Blue Notes for dance mixes was rife, so the label jumped on the bandwagon and actually had a hit with Us3’s Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia), based on Hancock’s ITAL Cantaloupe Island ITAL. Into the new century commercial successes continued thanks to a diluted catalogue with more remixes, the decidedly non-jazzy Nora Jones and even Van Morrison.

While rightly criticising asinine decision-making that afflicted the label in the 1970s, Halvers is less inclined to fault the current regime. Two years ago Universal acquired Blue Note and Don Was became president. Although he has already made some astute decisions it is too early to endorse Havers’ zeal. Nonetheless Havers’ research is thorough and his enthusiasm unfeigned. Perhaps the book may have been better served by a specialist writing the reviews, but the real treasure lies in Wolff’s photographs and Miles’ timeless covers, anyway.