Blue Note Records: The Biography
Justin, Charles, and Co.
The early development of modern jazz owes a large debt to a handful of idealistic entrepreneurs who worked in the background with a love of the music and a desire to promote and support genuine talent that far transcended financial ambition. One thinks, for example, of Norman Granz, who catapulted artists like Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, and many, many others into fame; and Orrin Keepnews, who helped Bill Evans and others into the limelight. One assumes that Granz and Keepnews ultimately acquired some wealth of their own by this process, but, more importantly, they genuinely loved the musicians, and stood by them under trying circumstances. When we refer to the modern jazz musicians of the bebop and hard bop eras, we are, after all, talking in many instances about disenfranchised African Americans who were victims of our own apartheid and drug trade, not infrequently unemployed remainders of the defunct big bands, and often troubled within their own souls, which is, after all, what much of jazz is about. In many instances, they were in no position to advance their own careers. Without unflinching support, the newly emerging music could easily have died on the vine.
One of the magnificent forces which played a key role in the evolution of this art form was a fledgling recording company that self-consciously furthered the "new music" emerging in the late 'forties and early 'fifties, and whose recordings documented in an unparalleled way the transition from swing and boogie-woogie to bebop and then hard bop in such a manner as to make manifest both the continuity and disparity between the old and the new. This record company started out in an unimaginably improvisational way. Symptomatically, the color of the label on the early 78's was the result of a printing error! Some of the early album cover designs, which themselves became icons for the then new LP vinyl format, were supplied by a musician, Gil Melle. Memorable, even timeless, album photos were taken by one of the owners, Frank Wolff. Many of the recordings beginning in the 1950's were made in the living room of a New Jersey optometrist, Rudy Van Gelder . And the two founding fathers, Albert Lion and Francis Wolff, were unlikely German immigrants who grasped a purely American idiom better than Americans themselves! Out of this bizarre concatenation, there was born Blue Note Records, the name itself eventually coming to symbolize the essence of recorded jazz. The only thing about this mystical and mythic birthing process that was not uncanny was the fact that it took place in mid-Manhattan, not far from 52nd Street, where, for a short burst of time there was more creative jazz per square block than anywhere else in the entire universe. And, also not coincidentally, the Blue Note label came into its own a few short years after World War II, when the big bands broke up, and there were so many gifted musicians looking to express themselves and, if possible, earn a living.
In his new book, Blue Note Records: The Biography, Richard Cook documents this strange birth process, and the immensely productive brain child that emerged from it, with a finesse and fidelity rivaled only by the recordings that are its subject matter. Like the recording company, the singular virtue of this book is that it is virtuous, that it strives for accuracy and truth rather than sensationalism and popular consumption. As co-author of The Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD, Richard Cook is no stranger to jazz and jazz fans. His well-honed skills listening to and synoptically describing jazz recordings have led him to "do the right thing," namely to focus on the music itself, while at the same time carefully documenting the "facts" about Blue Note's evolution from its incorporation in 1939 to the present.
In addition to its striving for historical accuracy, the outstanding feature of this "biography" is its description of the music as it comes through in the recording medium. Cook's verbal "snapshots" of any given recording are like the Chinese and Japanese haiku paintings that capture a flower or a scene in nature in a single, rapid, Zen-like brush stroke. Consider this description of Bud Powell in a 1949 recording:
"Where Monk's bebop was always elliptical, Powell's was headlong... the two trio titles [with Timmy Potter on bass and Roy Haynes on drums] are in comparison almost gentle performances, with a plush reading of 'You Go To My Head,' and two takes of 'Ornithology...' The tempo of the latter isn't actually all that fast, but it's sent skywards by Powell's quicksilver right hand. While his touch is light, contributing to the atmosphere of reflection, the detail in his long lines can intoxicate, if the listener follows closely..."
You can almost picture Powell at the piano and see his hands moving rapidly over the keys so freely and independently of one another. The book frequently made me want to find the recordings and listen to them, which I did, going to the point of locating some vinyl recordings of Powell's incredible "takes" at Van Gelder's home studio. As a reviewer for the London Sunday Herald wrote, "Cook has a beautiful way of describing the characteristics of the musicians that will have you scurrying back to the original recordings again and again." Indeed, since many do not have ready access to these records, I would like to see some of the finer and scholarly jazz histories such as this one offer an accompanying CD-ROM with audio and video clips. Blue Note's is a history that is truly multi-media in every respect.
Cook also writes about the key events in Blue Note's development, and some of those "meetings with extraordinary people" that occurred therein, such as Bruce Lundvall's early contact with Alfred Lion that led nowhere for twenty-four years, but eventually culminated in Lundvall taking over the helm, and Lion's visit to Van Gelder where he had the peculiar but prophetic epiphany that the latter's home was a better venue than the WOR studios in New York. Cook tells us precious little about the many musicians who recorded for Blue Note, perhaps leaving that task to their biographers, but he provides an excellent discography of Blue Note's recordings during the "classic" Wolff-Lion period as well as anecdotal vignettes that lend color to the documentation of the history, such as Lion's disobeying his wife's orders regarding his health and flying east to attend the 1984 Town Hall concert celebration of Blue Note. This book, however, will not satisfy some readers' appetite for "inside dope" and/or gossip about the musicians. It has too much integrity for that. Perhaps a more of an intimate glimpse at moments in the recording studio and back offices would, however, have lent excitement and a sense of "being there" to the narrative. One also wished for more comparison and contrast with the other labels, such as Prestige, Impulse, and Columbia, etc., which also played a seminal role in promoting modern jazz. This era in jazz was truly kaleidoscopic in the excitement and rapid evolution of the art form, and it is almost impossible to separate any part from the whole without losing the energy that propelled it.
Ultimately, however, Blue Note Records: The Biography lives up to its purpose of being a powerful and plaintive elegy to the contemporary recording business. Noting in his Postcript that "The record industry was suffering in 2002," Cook reiterates his concern for a troubled enterprise that has become almost totally focused on financial gain, thus depriving many serious musicians of recording opportunities. He sees Bruce Lundvall as a rare exception to this norm, using his "stars" to provide the financial base to support recordings by lesser-known musicians who keep the jazz idiom going and growing. We would add some of the European and Japanese companies who are willing to take still greater risks with the aspiring makers of the creative jazz. But we sadly agree with Richard Cook and Robert Frost that "Nothing gold can stay," when "gold" refers to musical mettle rather than fame and the almighty dollar. But jazz greatness has always been about Billy Strayhorn's ephemeral "passion flower" that makes the corporate world seem like Ozymandias' temple: "Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair." The antidote to that despair is the deep and sincere expression of the horn of a dedicated jazz musician. In that sense, this book is a social commentary on today's cynical business mentality and a praise of "small wonders" like the early Blue Note days.
Blue Note Records: The Biography is going to become a classic reference work that belongs on the shelf of every serious jazz connoisseur and scholar. Until it ages sufficiently to attain that status, I heartily recommend it to any jazz fan who craves another glimpse into that heady firmament of a time when jazz was not merely an interesting form of music but a string of unforgettable creative moments and experiences never quite to be relived in its four dimensions of real time and space (and the Coltrane-ian fifth dimension of the spirit), but thankfully saved in part on tape and disk for us to savor again and again in our mind's ear.
Originally published in the United Kingdom in 2001 by Secker and Warburg, an imprint of Random House; First U.S. Edition 2003
Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data: HV5449.E5 D55 2003