There was still a fortnight to go when the postman handed me an early Christmas present. Out of the blue, and unprecedented, I was the lucky winner of a competition. The prize was a copy of Uncompromising Expression by Richard Havers, a massive, magnificent and beautifully-illustrated book published by Thames and Hudson (who awarded me the prize) to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the coolest and best-known label in the history of jazz. With the book came a poster and a 5-CD box set of 75 singles released by Blue Note in the past 75 years.
The genesis of one of the most important and influential record labels lay not in the ‘Cradle of Jazz’ – New Orleans – nor in the jazz clubs of New York, but in Germany. The Weimar Republic and the coming of the Nazis played a significant role in the creation of Blue Note Records.
Those are the arresting opening words of Richard Havers’ book, alluding to the fact that Blue Note was founded in 1939 by Alfred Lion, the son of a Jewish architect, who had settled in New York in 1936, a city in which he had first sought work and the music he loved in 1928. Then, Lion had started out sleeping rough in Central Park. Then, when he could afford to rent a room, bought a Victrola gramophone to play the jazz records he bought on excursions uptown to Harlem.
Teenagers Alfred Lion (2nd from right, with dog), and Francis Wolff with friends in Berlin, c 1930
Born in 1908, Lion came from an affluent yet bohemian Jewish background in Berlin. As a teenager, his passion for jazz was sparked when he saw American jazz performed live in Berlin by pianist Sam Wooding and his 11-piece band – one of the first African-American jazz bands to perform in Europe. Lion saw them at the Admiralspalast in Mitte, near to his home. It was at this time that Lion met Francis Wolff, who was a year older and lived in the same neighbourhood. Francis’s parents, like Alfred’s, were part of the intellectual, bohemian crowd; his mother had encouraged his love of photography – something which would prove crucial in the development of the Blue Note style.
Otto Dix, Metropolis, central panel
One nightclub sure to have been visited by Alfred and Francis was the Eldorado, which featured regular performances by the likes of Marlene Dietrich and German jazz bands such as the Weintraub Syncopators. The Eldorado became immensely popular, attracting homosexuals, transvestites, transsexuals and open-minded people generally, including numerous artists and writers such as Christopher Isherwood, who celebrated the Berlin scene epitomised by the Eldorado in Goodbye to Berlin, and Otto Dix, whose triptych Metropolis shows in its central panel the prosperity of the city in the during the German ‘Golden Twenties’, influenced by American jazz and dance.
The first two chapters of Richard Havers’ book are packed with fascinating details of the jazz scene in Berlin and New York at this time – illustrated by numerous well-chosen photographs. Amongst them are two telling images of the Eldorado taken only a few years apart. The first shows the club as it appeared in its heyday.
But, as Havers points out, while Alfred and Francis and their bohemian friends were drawn to the nightspots where jazz was played, the rising Nazi Party considered this music played by blacks to be ‘degenerate’ and a threat to German cultural and racial superiority.
In the 1928 German election, the Nazis won 12 seats in the Reichstag and began to exert increasing influence over cultural policies. In 1930 the Nazi Wilhelm Frick, on becoming Minister of Culture in a right-wing coalition in Thuringia, issued an Ordinance against Negro Culture that banned performances ‘of jazzband and percussion music, Negro dances and Negro songs’ in the interests of preserving the German spirit. It also identified Jews as playing a prominent role as agents and managers for jazz musicians. In July 1932, Berlin’s new Chief of Police Kurt Melcher announced ‘an extensive campaign against Berlin’s depraved nightlife’. By January 1933, when Hitler was appointed Chancellor of a coalition government, it was the end for clubs like the Elorado. By March it had been shut down by the Nazis and turned into their new local headquarters.
The Eldorado in April 1933, after it had become the local Nazi headquarters
From 1933 the Nazi State Music Bureau began requiring German musicians to be registered. On registration, a musician’s race, religion, and the type of music they wrote or performed were recorded. Jazz was labelled as Entartete Musik, ‘degenerate music’, and banned.
Entartete Musik, ‘degenerate music’: Nazi poster, 1938
So while two young men from Jewish families were seeking out American jazz bands in Berlin’s nightclubs, the tolerance and bohemianism of the Weimar years was coming under attack and the Nazis were advancing towards power. Alfred Lion left Germany for New York in 1928, a 20-year old sleeping rough in Central Park to begin with, before seeking out the Harlem jazz dives and playing his treasured jazz discs on a newly-bought record player. He returned to Germany for a while, but after Hitler came to power in 1933 Alfred and his mother moved to Santiago in Chile, where he worked for a while on a tramp steamer. In 1936 he was back in New York, eventually finding a job with an export company.
Lion soon became a familiar face in the famous jazz clubs along 52nd Street, where he saw some of the greatest names in jazz. He began to make valuable contacts in the music publishing and promotion world. It’s unclear from Havers’ book whether Lion attended John Hammond’s celebrated ‘From Spirituals to Swing’ concert celebrating black music in December 1938 – though it seems highly likely. The concert featured a host of blues, gospel and jazz musicians, but according to Havers the star turns were the pianists – Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson and Meade Lux Lewis.
Alfred Lion’s next move suggests that he did attend the concert. Because a week or so later, having saved some money, he approached Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis and invited them to make a record for his new and as yet unnamed record label. The two pianists agreed, Lion booked studio time, and Blue Note Records was born. On 6 January 1939, at a location thought to be a radio station in west Manhattan, Ammons and Lewis recorded 19 takes. On 3 March 1939 the first two Blue Note records were released – BN1 featured two slow blues, ‘Melancholy’ and ‘Solitude’ played by Lewis, while BN2 offered the more up-tempo ‘Boogie Woogie Stomp’ and ‘Boogie Woogie Blues’ played by Ammons.
BN1: ‘Melancholy Blues’ by Meade Lux Lewis
Despite an extremely limited distribution network, Lion knew that in making this gamble he had a fighting chance of success: he wasn’t the only one who loved boogie-woogie. It was all the rage at the time. Though only 25 copies of the first two discs were pressed, by BN6 he had a hit on his hands. It was Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ played by soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet who turns in what Richard Havers rightly calls ‘one of the most beautful readings of this most beautiful song’.
The Port of Harlem Jazzmen recording ‘Summertime’ on 8 June 1939
Lion had met Bechet a decade earlier in Germany after being introduced to him by his mother at the Haus Vaterland in Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz, where Bechet was appearing in the fifth-floor Wild West Bar with the MacAllan Black Band, led by William ‘Willi’ MacAllan, whose father was a British Somali and mother German. Supporting Bechet’s powerful and emotional solo was Blue Note’s first studio ensemble, consisting of trumpeter Frankie Newton (who Lion had first heard performing at a skating rink in Berlin with Sam Wooding’s Chocolate Kiddies in 1925), trombonist J.C. Higginbotham, pianist Meade Lux Lewis, guitarist Teddy Bunn, bassist Johnny Williams, and drummer Sidney Catlett.
Meanwhile, back in Germany, Francis Wolff had left it almost too late. But, though the Nazis had invaded Poland, Wolff managed to obtain an exit visa. Havers quotes Alfred Lion:
Frank was there until he got caught in this Hitler thing. The Gestapo came to his apartment. I was working feverishly to get Frank out. His brother and sister got out to England. I got him out on the last boat.
Wolff reached America via Sweden, arriving in New York at the end of October 1939. He moved in with Lion, who still worked at the import-export company, and went in search of work as a photographer, whilst also becoming more involved in the day-to-day running of Blue Note.
Mention the name Blue Note and what comes to mind immediately is that distinctive label design and the many memorable, crisply-designed record covers. The design that adorned all Blue Note records from those first 78s in 1939 was the work of artist and sculptor Martin Craig who lived on the floor below Blue Note’s first office on Seventh Avenue. Asking Craig to come up with a design, all Lion specified was’Make me a nice label, something modern’. He certainly did that, producing something that still looks modern 75 years later.
Album cover for Sonny Clark’s Cool Struttin’ (1958)
Another crucial contribution to the stylish look of Blue Note albums was made by Reid Miles, the designer who began to shape the look of Blue Note from 1956, creating almost every sleeve for the next decade and ensuring that Blue Note’s reputation rested on the beauty of the packaging – as well as the high standard of the music and the technical quality of the recordings (the latter down to legendary recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, who is quoted by Havers as saying, ‘When I achieved what I thought the musicians were trying to do, the sound sort of bloomed. When it’s right, everything is beautiful.’
The final ingredient in the Blue Note mix was down to Wolff, who took the brilliant photographs that graced the record sleeves. During Blue Note’s great period from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Sixties Reid Miles took Wolff’s photos and added that bold, Bauhaus-inspired typography. The results were often works of art in themselves.
Miles Davis by Francis Wolff
John Coltrane by Francis Wolff
The core of Richard Havers’ book is a luxurious amble through the music created during Ble Note’s heyday, the 1950s and 60s. That was when Blue Note produced some of the greatest jazz albums, principally in the ‘hard bop’ style that mixed bebop with other forms of black American music such as soul, blues, rhythm and blues and gospel. The albums are lavishly documented and illustrated with their iconic covers and photography by Francis Wolff.
Although it’s extremely difficult to select a list of personal favourites from a label so central to jazz history, there can be little doubt about the following:
- John Coltrane: Blue Train (1958), the only Blue Note album by Coltrane as leader
- Cannonball Adderley: Somethin’ Else (1958), really a Miles Davis album and part of a surprisingly short history he had with Blue Note. Foreshadows Kind of Blue.
- Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers: Moanin’ (1959), originally a self-titled album, but quickly took the name of its leading track, one of the most instantly recognisable in jazz.
- Kenny Burrell: Midnight Blue (1963), Burrell’s bluesy guitar arrangements generate a cool jazz, late night atmosphere.
- Lee Morgan: The Sidewinder (1964), another album with an instantly memorable title track. A definitive example of early soul-jazz.
- Horace Silver: Song for My Father (1965), I came to this via Steely Dan’s ‘Rikki, Don’t Lose That Number’, inspired by its title track.
- Thelonious Monk: Genius of Modern Music (1947), compositions such as ‘Round Midnight’ that would become standards, despite their abstract angularity.
- Dexter Gordon: Go! (1962), full of energy and exuberance, definitely on of the highlights of Gordon’s career.
- Eric Dolphy: Out to Lunch! (1964), a pinnacle of avant-garde jazz that still sounds far out.
Some of these key albums are singled out for special attention by Richard Havers in Uncompromising Expression – there are six pages on Blue Train alone, for example – with details of performers, accounts of the recording, cover shots, and lots of session photos. The book is an avalanche of images – club flyers and posters, programme notes and press releases, session notebooks, historical photographs of places and recording equipment, portraits of great jazz musicians in action, and those album covers.
McCoy Tyner and Alfred Lion
Alfred Lion had a heart attack in 1966, and sold his label. Wolff carried on until his death in 1971 but, by that time, the distinctiveness of the label had largely faded, both visually and musically. Since then, a number of excellent recordings have made under the revived Blue Note – as well as some not so distinguished. If you’re looking for ‘uncompromising expression’ (the phrase comes from Blue Note’s mission statement), you’re best going back to the golden years of the 50s and 60s.
Peter Conrad, reviewing Uncompromising Expression for the Guardian, wrote that Havers’ details of the inspirations and excesses of the label’s major talents, ‘amounts to a history of jazz itself’:
Lion became, as Havers says, an ‘evangelist’ for America’s home-grown music, with jazz as his gospel. Among the bands he recorded was Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, who adapted the ‘funky church stuff’ of black religion to preach on behalf of the blues. Another Blue Note pianist offered a mystical revelation: Lion regarded Thelonious Monk as ‘the holy grail of jazz’, and said he was proud to be ‘the first to put his radical and unorthodox ideas on wax’, which makes it sound as if recording was a way of trapping spirit in material form.
A History of Blue Note Records with Richard Havers
Blue Note: A Story of Modern Jazz (full-length documentary)
One Night With Blue Note
The film One Night With Blue Note documents the reunion of 30 jazz greats from the Blue Note label filmed at Town Hall in New York City on 22 February 1985.
Blue Note Records: The Covers
- Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression: review by Peter Conrad (Guardian)
- Blue Note: 75 years of the coolest visuals in jazz: the history of Blue Note told through its album covers (Guardian)
- Blue Note Records: timeline (official website)
- Blue Note Records: artists (official website)