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.
AAJ: It is generally agreed that Rudy Van Gelder, the sound engineer, has played a major role in the evolution of recorded modern jazz, especially on the Blue Note label. Yet, on the surface, he seemed to have approached it as an avocation, utilizing his own home as a recording studio. Given the improvisational nature of it all, what was he able to accomplish that was revolutionary? How was he able to achieve such objectives, and what should a listener notice when comparing Van Gelder's recording quality with that of other sound studios and engineers?
RC: The point about Van Gelder's recordings is that they sound like nobody else's. Nobody recorded pianos like Rudy, for one thing. He found an impeccable balance within a jazz ensemble - remember that this was in the days before things like bass amplifiers and whatnot. He managed to distil the essence of quiet instruments and loud instruments with equal clarity. And he just seemed to be right in tune with what Lion and Wolff wanted. In a way, he still is - he doesn't much like associations with major labels and prefers to keep his own counsel in such matters. The fact that he basically did all this from his own home lets you know how comfortable he felt with everything!
AAJ: In the early development of the Blue Note venue, pianists and piano style appear to have played a central role. You indicate that the very first Blue Note recordings were of boogie-woogie piano, exemplified by Albert Ammons, and then there are the likes of Art Hodes, Todd Dameron, Earl Hines, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly. Why do you think the founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff were drawn to the piano, when most others considered the innovators and stars to be found in the brass and saxophone sections?
RC: Piano was certainly crucial for Blue Note, but I don't think the label especially placed it ahead of the rest of the band. Alfred was much inspired by the boogie pianists and that was how he got his start as a producer, but I think once the label had momentum they were just interested in whatever had the right feel. They were lucky to pick up on Monk as early as they did, and Powell too - but these two were difficult characters who needed the kind of special relationship which Lion had with his musicians. I don't think they would have found as much in the way of a sympathetic environment elsewhere at that stage. Besides, Blue Note had a lot of signature musicians who weren't pianists - Art Blakey, Hank Mobley, Wayne Shorter, and on and on.
AAJ: Among the marvels of the book are your remarkable capsule descriptions of various recordings, which provide an amazing 'feel' for the musicality and strivings of the performers in a very few words, being purely descriptive and without exaggeration or sensationalism. Do you have a sense of how you acquired this ability, and what would you recommend to aspiring jazz writers in terms of the way they listen to the music, what they should be listening for, and what they should strive towards as writers and critics?
RC: Well, I'm blushing! If I have any talent in this direction, it's probably been acquired through many years of picking the wrong words first! I think writing about music is one of the hardest things you can do. Describing a piece of music in a way which isn't either cliche-ridden or merely fanciful is desperately difficult. I suppose if I have any advice to offer, it's the simple truth that you have to listen properly, and hard, and ask yourself what's going on and why - like, what are these guys doing? Technical knowledge helps, but remember that the majority of your audience are unlikely to be technically-minded. I think if I have an approach, it's impressionism tempered by a backbone of accurate reportage. The beautiful thing about this music is that you can have five hundred versions of blowing on "I Got Rhythm" changes and each one will be different from the other - not merely as a matter of interpretation, as in the classical canon, but in the very marrow of the music, in the rhythm, the interaction, the harmony, the improvisation, the inscrutable equation of feel, form and content. The challenge for the writer is to go some way to figuring out that equation - and, indeed, celebrating it - for his or her audience.
AAJ: It is sometimes held, and to some extent your book reinforces the idea, that the 'Golden Age' of modern jazz occurred in the nineteen-forties through the seventies, and that everything since that time is a mere postscript. Do you agree with this assessment? Do you think that new life is being or can be breathed into jazz as both entertainment and as a genuine art form?
RC: No, I don't agree at all. Jazz is alive. It may have ended the seemingly straightforward cycle of evolutionary change which characterizes the period you mention, but there's still so much to say and do. I have the peculiar belief, for instance, that there is still a tremendous amount to say with two horns and a rhythm section, certainly enough to fill up the rest of my lifetime. Maybe we're going through a period of consolidation, taking stock, transition or whatever, but I still hear exciting new music in what I would continue call the idiom of jazz every day. It's become fashionable to describe jazz as being `over', that other musics are fresher and more exciting, that hip hop is the new jazz, Wynton Marsalis has killed everything, blah, blah, blah....these are judgments from people who don't do their homework, I'm afraid. I bet Alfred and Frank would be finding plenty of new music to record now which they'd be excited by.
AAJ: David Liebman, the saxophonist, is in agreement with the legendary classical pianist, Glenn Gould, that the recording studio is really the quintessential place to make music, partly on account of the control it gives to the artist regarding the sound that comes out. On the other hand, a recording studio would seem to be such a cold, un-stimulating place to perform. What is your own opinion about the rewards and hazards of the recording venue for jazz artists?
RC: A good producer and engineer both help! Let's face it, most of the great jazz records, from King Oliver's Dipper Motuh Blues to Kind Of Blue and beyond, have been made in studios. A few musicians have fared badly in the studio, but not many: and is it really more `stimulating' to play in front of a noisy crowd, in a dingy venue, with an indifferent PA, an out-of-tune piano and an under-rehearsed band? These are the sort of conditions which many jazz musicians have been obliged to work in. My only caveat would be to beware the temptation to embrace studio `capabilities' too warmly, because in that direction lies smooth jazz.
AAJ: On a personal note, what do you do with your time besides writing about jazz?
RC: Probably not enough! I like horse racing and, like any proper Englishman, cricket. I still collect records of many kinds - our house is groaning under the weight of them now. I'd like to be a good cook but I have no technique. I'd also like to drink first-growth clarets every day, but hey, I'm a jazz writer, you have to make some sacrifices!
AAJ: Do you write about subjects other than jazz?
RC: Other music, I suppose - I still write about popular music here and there. I used to review films in the 1980s. And now I am waiting for some kind editor to commission me to write a book about the English music hall, another of my great loves. Don't hold your breath.
AAJ: Your book itself ends on somewhat of a 'blue note.' You are critical of contemporary record labels for their commercialism and lack of support for jazz as an art form. Do you have any suggestions for recording executives to support jazz creativity while being able to maintain the business side of the enterprise? Is this still possible? Are there current record companies, perhaps in Europe, which you feel provide good role models for jazz recording?
RC: The trouble jazz has got itself into at the major labels is that it's being treated like everything else - it has to compete as a kind of pop music. Classical music has the same problem. I'm not quite sure how it's happened, but too many of the majors have built up this culture where turning a modest profit - which jazz records can easily do - is not seen as `enough'. Maybe some accountant somewhere is saying, gee, look at Diana Krall's sales - why can't all our jazz artists do that? And so it goes on. There is also this idiotic obsession with `crossing over' jazz artists, as there is with classical virtuosi. Then there's the politicking which goes on at most of the majors, where you get Europe competing with America, and other bunfights which may be important to the executives involved but which do artists (and the music, and the audience) no good at all. I admire Lundvall's resistance to many of these forces, but it helps that he's had the occasional big hit to sustain an otherwise `difficult' catalogue.
All the real work is being done by independent labels now. I can think of many, but Criss Cross, Steeplechase, hatOLOGY, Palmetto, Enja, Nagel Heyer, Lake, Emanem and Thirsty Ear are some I especially like. I'd say they were all in Blue Note's tradition. Out of them all, though, Manfred Eicher's ECM remains the benchmark. Whatever you think about the music, Eicher has conducted his label and his business along absolutely principled lines. Nobody else has done that so well for so long.