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Blue Note Records: The Biography

Victor L. Schermer By

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Blue Note Records: The Biography
Richard Cook
Justin, Charles, and Co.
2003
ISBN: 1932112103

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..."

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