Reflections On The Blue Note Years

 A soulful funky time in the Sound of Jazz!


Coltrane, Cannonball and Miles: The Greatest Horn Line Ever” 


  Although Blue Note records was founded by European immigrants it is  very American story.  The story of this company intersects with broader historical trends in our society: the rags to riches immigrant saga, and the propensity of European artists and intellectuals to recognize and celebrate Afro-American arts that their Euro-American cousins had devalued or ignored.  And among those early American whites who did support black art, especially jazz, they were disproportionately left wing; which is to say alienated from the racist status quo.  These themes are so ubiquitous in the history of American civilization that they can be considered representative anecdotes of American life.

Founded by in 1939 by Alfred Lion, a jazz aficionado and entrepreneur who immigrated to the US from Berlin two years earlier, and financed by Max Margulis, a white American communist writer, Blue Note record’s first recorded product featured two seminal pianist of the Stride/Boogie Woogie style: Albert Ammons and Mead Lux Lewis.  Later in 1939 Lion and Margulis were joined by the German photographer and boyhood friend of Lion, Francis Wolff, and it was this triumvirate that guided Blue Note records to a place peerless prominence in the field of Jazz recording. 

 The label first made a splash in the record business with their hit recording of “Summer Time,” the popular aria from Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin’s path breaking America opera based on black southern folk culture, performed by the great New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet, whose lush woody sound bewitched Duke Ellington.  Blue Note records soon developed the reputation for treating jazz musicians like the great artist that they are; and the greatest artists in the Jazz field found their way into Blue Note’s studios during the forties and fifties. 

 Their roster reads like a massive all star band, and their string of hit jazz records during the “Hard Bop” period was unequalled.  And although Be-bop records didn’t sell as well, Blue Note made some classic recordings with seminal musicians from that splendid era of musical invention, which some musicians and critics believe represents the apotheosis of instrumental virtuosity in improvised music. Between 1947 and 1954 Blue Note released recordings by such luminaries of Bop as the path breaking pianist composers Thelonious Monk, Tad Dameron and Bud Powell; trumpeters Fats Navarro and Howard McGhee and a young Miles Davis; Trombonist J.J. Johnson, Saxophonist James Moody and drummer Art Blakey added to the excitement. 

 As the popularity of Bop began to recede among musicians – the technical difficulties of the music and its failure to attract the kind of audiences that swing bands had enjoyed contributing mightily to its demise – a new sound known as “Hard Bop” emerged and the Blue Note label recorded most of it.  Hard bop is distinguished by the willingness of musicians to incorporate more popular forms of Afro-American music such as gospel and rhythm and blues into their sound; creating a musical style which speaks to the soul and makes you want to move with the groove without sacrificing technical virtuosity: A music that appeals to the Dionysian and the Apollonian sides of human character.

 Jimmy Smith: Master Of The Hammomd Organ

Jimmy Smith

 Jimmy was one of blue note’s best selling artist


 Among the seminal artists in this style recorded on Blue Note were pianist Horace Silver; king of the Hammond organ Jimmy Smith; Trumpeters Lee Morgan, Kenny Dorham and Donald Bird; Drummer Art Blakey, Vibraphonist Milt Jackson, pianist Herbie Nichols, and the alto saxophonists Jackie McClean, Julian “Cannon Ball” Adderly and Lou Donaldson: three of the most original voices on the instrument in the post bird period. Tenor saxophonist John Coltrane launched his revolutionary sound from the Blue Note label, and eventually transported the tenor sax to new artistic heights, eventually replacing Bird as the supreme icon of the saxophone.  Guitarist Kenny Burrell and drummer Art Blakey – two of the greatest on their instruments – were also staples of the Blue Note Label.  And, of course, Miles Davis continued to grace the label with his unique sound.

Art Blakey: A Virtuosso of the Jazz Drum Kit

 Art Blakey - Master Drummer

  His Band was a university for jazz virtuosi

 Among the records released by Blue Note during this period are some of the biggest hits in post-swing instrumental Jazz music – as opposed to jazz singers.  Soulful records like Lou Donaldson’s Blues Walk, Horace Silver’s Song for My Father, Bobby Timmon’s Moanin – which was recorded by Art Blakey’s seminal hard bop band The Jazz Messengers;  Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man; Jimmy Smith’s Back at the Chicken Shack, Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue and Cannon Ball Adderly’s lyrical and magisterial performance of Autumn Leaves, with miles sitting in as a sideman in the trumpet chair, all flowed from the Blue note label and blared from the juke boxes of soul food restaurants and “beer gardens” in black American neighborhoods all over the nation. 

 These records were enjoyed right along with rhythm & blues and other pop songs of the time.  I remember it well because those were the years when I first discovered jazz and it became the sound track for my rite of passage into manhood.  So I must confess that I’m biased towards the music of that period. The musicians have a splendid repertoire to select from tonight, and I’m betting, as always, they will make the most of it.  So chill out and have a funky good time!


Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New York

Janurary 2009










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