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Book Reviews

Blue Note Records: The Biography

By Published: May 15, 2003
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

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