Richard Cook, Author Of 'Blue Note Records: The Biography'
“ Blue Note Records...set the standard for jazz recording... The result was the most coherent and consistently high-quality jazz catalogue there's ever been. ”
Richard Cook is an Englishman who resides in West London. He is the author of the recently-published Blue Note Records: The Biography and the co-author of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD. Although he frequently comes to New York, it was necessary for practical reasons to conduct the interview via email correspondence. As one more sign of his artistry with words, Cook provided such a finely crafted response to my questions, that the interview reads like an 'in person' conversation. Thanks, Richard!
All About Jazz: As a warmup, here is the infamous 'desert island question.' Since, as co-author of The Penguin Guide To Jazz On CD , you must, I would imagine, have listened to thousands of recordings, our readers would certainly like to get a sense of what your own musical preferences might be. If you were going to a desert island, and could take only five recordings (entire CD's or vinyls) with you, what would they be?
Richard Cook: Everyone plays this game! And I imagine everyone changes their mind about what they'd take, every time they think about it. So here's today's choice: Sonny Rollins, A Night At The Village Vanguard (Blue Note); Oliver Nelson, Blues And The Abstract Truth (Impulse!); Sarah Vaughan, Sarah Vaughan With Clifford Brown (Emarcy); Scott Walker, Scott 3 (Philips); and Adrian Boult conducting Vaughan Williams's London Symphony, to remind me of home.
AAJ: How did you yourself first become interested in jazz? What are your early memories of the jazz scene?
RC: Mainly through 78 records. There wasn't much jazz on the radio when I was growing up in the 60s (and there still isn't today), although my father used to listen to a BBC programme called Jazz Record Requests. But I began collecting 78s from a very early age (alright, I was a strange kid) and one that I picked up early on was Jelly Roll Morton's "Dr Jazz". After hearing that, I began investigating the whole spectrum of early jazz. I always count myself lucky in that I started with the earlier music and worked my way forward. Most people arrive at the other end, and find it a discouraging task working their way back, which is one reason why so much pre-LP era jazz is scarcely listened to now. Still, we have a long-standing affection for the music here - remember that the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) sat in on drums when Ellington first came over to England!
AAJ: Have you resided or 'done time' in any of the 'jazz capitals of the world' other than London? E.g. New York, Amsterdam, Paris, Chicago, San Francisco, Tokyo? Which are your favorite places to live in, both from the personal standpoint and with respect to the music being available in clubs, concert halls, etc?
RC: My wife's a New Yorker and I've been there many times, so I feel pretty much at home in the jazz capital of the world. But I'm a life-long Londoner. It's not a terrifically good place to hear jazz, at present - very few dedicated venues and relatively few major concerts or significant jazz visitors. It's not helpful that many American musicians have priced themselves out of gigs in the post-Marsalis era. If I could live anywhere else, it would probably be Norway, which is another strong jazz country and the last unspoiled country in Europe, I reckon. Besides, I have a kind of Nordic look about me. People tend to ask me the way to places when I'm over there. I'm a northern European!
AAJ: As I'm sure you know, the history of recording companies rarely attract public attention. What interested you in writing the story of Blue Note Records? Why should a jazz listener want to read such a book ?
RC: Well, it set the standard for jazz recording. The best players they could get, in the most sympathetic environment, with the most skilful engineer of his day. The result was the most coherent and consistently high-quality jazz catalogue there's ever been. They didn't have all the major artists: Davis, Coltrane, Coleman, Rollins and others all did most of their work elsewhere (even though all of those names were on Blue Note at some point). But Alfred Lion's vision of `hot music' drove the label, and even though he and Frank Wolff were businessmen too, the music came first. The only other label of any longevity which even approaches that ethic is Manfred Eicher's ECM. I thought it would be interesting to try and figure out what made such an operation tick. But the book is mostly about the music, which is as it should be: Blue Note documented a particular strain of American music so handsomely that it deserves a proper celebration. I hope readers might want to share in that celebration.
AAJ: In a nutshell, what major difference would you say that Blue Note Records has made to the development of jazz in the last half century? Why does the label stand out in your mind in contradistinction to other labels that have modern jazz venues, like Verve, Impulse, Prestige, Columbia, etc.?
RC: It certainly documented hard bop better than any other label. As I said above, Lion had a vision about his music, and while labels like Verve (Norman Granz) and Prestige (Bob Weinstock) were based around the taste of their respective bosses, I think they and virtually every other jazz label was compromised in some way by business rather than music. Alfred and Frank ran a tight ship financially, but their idea of a successful session was one which worked musically - they allowed for rehearsal and `feel', and their underlying philosophy was that if the music was good enough, that was `enough' - no need for gimmicky concepts. Bruce Lundvall has had to be a man of business in his subsequent stewardship of the label too, but I think he's made a fist of doing that without surrendering Blue Note's fundamental integrity.