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Lee Morgan and his trumpet are pictured on the cover of Blue Note Records, The Biography. Morgan's "Sidewinder," released in 1964, provided the label's first big commercial hit.
Blue Note Records
German immigrants Alfred Lion, left, and Francis Wolff, founded Blue Note, a label that was devoted to a quintessentially American art form.
Francis Wolff, Blue Note Records
Thelonious Monk's "Criss Cross" is "an almost perfect record," author Richard Cook says. "It's almost as if the whole thing was written out from start to finish and yet it is basically a piece of improvised music."
Francis Wolff, Blue Note Records,
Alfred Lion was so taken by Bud Powell's "Un Poco Loco" that he took the unusual step of releasing two versions of the song on the album, The Amazing Bud Powell, Vol. 1 Cook says.
It's a bit of an irony that the Blue Note label — synonymous with jazz, the seminal American music form — was created by two German immigrants. In Blue Note Records, The Biography, author Richard Cook tells the story of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, who formed the label in 1939.
In an interview with NPR's Liane Hansen on Weekend Edition Sunday, Cook discusses Lyon's ability to capture the special nature of jazz music by giving artists like Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell room to operate despite their eccentricities.
Some critics blasted Monk's classic "'Round Midnight," upon its release in 1947. They didn't know what to make of it. "When it first comes out, any music is going to seem strange if you're not used to it," Cook says. "That was certainly the case with all the bebop. When Mr. Parker and Mr. Gillespie began making waves on the New York scene, people found it pretty far out... Today we think of ["'Round Midnight"] as such a standard piece of music that every jazz fan knows and none of us find it very peculiar at all..."
Cook says the Blue Note sound was due in large part to engineer Rudy Van Gelder, who set up a studio in his parents' living room in Hackensack, N.J. "There's just something about Blue Note's mixes, the way Van Gelder manage to balance loud instruments and soft instruments in such a way that for the first time, in many cases, you're hearing the bass on jazz records and you're hearing the different levels of drum work between the drums and the cymbals. For their time, they are remarkable sonic documents."
Below is an excerpt from Cook's Blue Note Records, The Biography:
The period defined by 1953-4 is one of the most critical in Blue Note's history, since so many of the characteristic qualities which define, for many, the Blue Note style, were set in place. The company was beginning to record with a regularity which would have surprised the two young German émigrés [co-founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff] back in 1939. After only six recording dates in 1951 and eight in 1952, there were fifteen in 1953 and thirteen in 1954. The leaders involved included Bud Powell, J.J. Johnson, Miles Davis, Art Blakely, Clifford Brown and — a nod to the old hot music once more — Sidney Bechet and the New Orleans clarinettist George Lewis. It was an experimental period as much as one of achievement. Along with the names listed above, there were also dates for guitarists John Collins (eight rejected titles), San Salvador and Tal Farlow, the trombonist Urbie Green, and the pianists Kenny Drew, Elmo Hope and George Wallington. There was even a session made under the leadership of Julius Watkins, one of the few jazzmen to try and make a go of the French horn as a bebop instrument.
Lion's curiosity for new music was enthusiastic and wide-ranging. As Blue Note's business began to grow, he and Wolff realized that they had to have a regular turnover of new material if the label was going to keep its place in the newly expanding world of jazz microgroove records. They were still stuck with their 78 rpm and ten-inch LP formats, still reluctant to go over to twelve-inch albums; but at least, at the beginning of 1954, they released their first 45 rpm seven-inch single, BN 45-1626. Bizarrely, it featured two titles from a Horace Silver session, 'Message From Kenya' and 'Nothing But The Soul', which were features for Art Blakey's drumming: on the first title he duetted with percussionist Sabu Martinez, but the other was all Blakey (a nice tribute, though, to the drummer's importance in the Blue Note hierarchy). As jukeboxes began to go over to the new seven-inch format, singles would assume an increasingly important place in Blue Note's visibility in the marketplace
Quality control, which was a preoccupation of Lion's, saw to it that there were very few duds among Blue Note's release schedule, even as the pace of their recording increased. Among the 1953 sessions, the two led (or, in the case of the first one, co-led) by Clifford Brown stand out as exceptional, even as they hint at greater things which were not to be realized on Blue Note. Brown is one of the great 'lost leaders' in jazz. Killed in a car accident in June 1956, he didn't live long enough to fulfil a widely held conviction that he was becoming the pre-eminent trumpeter in the music. Rather than offering anything much in the way of innovation, he pacified the influences of Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro into a beaming, exceptionally lucid style of playing. His playing blended both the staccato — the way he hit notes, with a rather slow and even vibrato — and the curvature of the long, flowing phrase. He was one of the key musicians in the mollification of bebop: he liked to swing, in a way which might even have seemed old-fashioned to some of the hardcore boppers, but which had its own kind of fiery beauty. There are few better examples of Brown's greatness than the three choruses he throws off on 'Brownie Speaks', the fourth title cut at the 9 June 1953 date, which the trumpeter is accredited as co-leading with Lou Donaldson (Elmo Hope, Percy Heath and Philly Joe Jones in the rhythm section). While full of bonhomie, the solo shows acute control, a good deal of thinking ahead — at the end of it, the alert listener can seem to see back to where Brown had decided to set out from to get to this point — and enough of the daredevil element to remind us that the soloist was still taking plenty of chances. Yet it was a first-take performance.
Next to Brown, the other players on the date — even the oddball pianist Hope — seem merely proficient, yet here and there are hints that he was helping them to play above themselves, particularly in Donaldson's solos on 'Dee-Dah' and the altered blues 'Cookin'. Still, Brown's later session achieved a finer result. With the saxophonists Gigi Gryce and Charlie Rouse, he formed a particularly interesting front line, with the tonal colours of the horns offering a range of pastel hues as well as the expected brilliance. 'Hymn Of The Orient' is a handsome setpiece for the ensemble; 'Cherokee', the old test piece for a player's executive powers, dazzles with Brown's improvisation. But the ballad 'Easy Living' suggests how Brown still had development left in him: graciously done, but not moving or even especially feelingful, it hints at areas he had yet to master.
These were not Brown's only Blue Note dates, although the music he made for Mercury/EmArcy, with Max Roach and others, offers the fullest picture of his talents. He also figured on the first of three outstanding sessions by J.J. Johnson, the trombonist who more than any other had made that instrument a plausible part of bop's landscape. Johnson had quickly established his eminence in the forties on 52nd Street, his sober, deliberately gloved tone partnering a rapid-fire execution that allowed him to hold his own with the trumpets and saxophones of the bebop small group. He was also a thoughtful composer. At the time of this date — 22 June 1953 — he was feeling the downturn in bebop's fortunes as much as anybody, having spent much of the previous year as a blueprint inspector in a factory on Long Island, yet the music has a surprisingly finished and accomplished quality. The originals, 'Turnpike' and 'Capri' (the latter by Gigi Gryce), are a bit clipped, but the sound of the group is individual, and it derives from the simpatico pairing of Brown and Johnson. They both enjoy the very quick rush through 'Get Happy', but seem equally at home in the far less congenial setting of John Lewis's piece 'Sketch 1'. Lewis, who went on to mastermind the music of the Modern Jazz Quartet for much of the next forty years or so, was only just starting his experiments with baroque and other classical forms, and this piece is probably well enough titled. Yet it had a serene tranquility which both Brown and Johnson appear to relate to, a reflective side in opposition to all the energy playing elsewhere. Their improvisations throughout the date seem joined to each other, a matter which the saxophonist on the session, Jimmy Heath, never intrudes on.
Brown also appears on one of the most significant occasions in Blue Note's fifties catalogue: the live recording of the Art Blakey Quintet, from Birdland, one of the leading clubs in New York. Birdland was just north of 52nd Street, at 1678 Broadway, and had opened in 1949, soon assuming a position as one of the premier bebop locations. Broadcasts from the club were frequent and recording there was straightforward, but Lion decided to capture an entire evening's work — five sets — by Blakey's band, and he hired Rudy Van Gelder to make it happen. Van Gelder by this time had done half a dozen studio dates for Blue Note from his Hackensack location, but nothing yet of this importance.
The original edition of A Night At Birdland With The Art Blakey Quintet Vol. 1 (BLP 5037) starts with the voice of Pee Wee Marquette, Birdland's diminutive MC for many years:
Ladies and gentleman, as you know we have something special down here at Birdland this evening... a recording for Blue Note records... when you applaud for the different passages, your hands go right out over the records there, so when they play them over and over, throughout over the country, you may be some place and say, well, uh, that's my hand on those records there, that I dug down at Birdland... We're bringing back to the bandstand at this time, ladies and gentlemen, the great Art Blakey and his wonderful group featuring the new trumpet sensation Clifford Brown, Horace Silver on piano, Lou Donaldson on alto, Curley Russell is on bass... Let's get together and bring Art Blakey to the bandstand with a great big round of applause here, how about a big hand here for Art Blakey! Thaank yaoow!
From Blue Note Records, The Biography by Richard Cook, published by Justin, Charles & Co., Copyright ©2003