Blue Note Records: The Biography
“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.