Book Review — BLUE NOTE: UNCOMPROMISING EXPRESSION + VERVE: THE SOUND OF AMERICA, by RICHARD HAVERS (Thames & Hudson)
By Bradley Bambarger <2014>
Describing the sonic immediacy of Cannonball Adderley’s 1958 Blue Note album Somethin’ Else, British author Richard Havers writes that the label’s distinctive sound, even more than a half-century later, “makes you feel as if it were recorded just a few minutes before you hear it, almost as though the musicians were next door.” How Blue Note Records documented jazz on disc was both a science and an art: “part technology… part architecture… part alchemy.”
Blue Note made its first recordings in 1939, achieving an initial hit with New Orleans-bred soprano-saxophonist Sidney Bechet’s version of Gershwin’s “Summertime.” But it wasn’t until label founder Alfred Lion met optometrist and recording enthusiast Rudy Van Gelder that the famous Blue Note sound was born in 1953, first in the Hackensack, N.J., living room of Van Gelder’s parents and then in his purpose-built studio in nearby Englewood Cliffs, where some of most enduring records in history would be made (and not only for Blue Note, but also for Prestige, Riverside, Impulse and other labels). Van Gelder — who, as an octogenarian still devoted to the improvisations of musicians long gone, would eventually remaster his initial tapes for definitive CDs — captured a sound that remains a sonic ideal for jazz, thanks to an enlightened grasp of acoustics, a taste for high-quality microphones and the penchant for getting a “hotter” sound on tape than others. Lion thought of Van Gelder as not just a technical expert but also a “soulful” person, one with insights into the psychology of sound and the artists making it.
But recorded sound isn’t the only element of Blue Note Records that made it the gold standard of independent jazz labels, as Havers documents in the deeply researched, beautifully produced coffee-table book Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression, published for the label’s 75th anniversary. Artistic freedom and a modern outlook on everything from LP-cover design to race relations characterized Blue Note in its halcyon era, which lasted until the late ’60s. Blue Note — with artists-and-repertoire leader Lion joined by business partner Francis Wolff — also excelled in the visual presentation of jazz. Wolff, a great artist himself, took photographs of the label’s recording sessions that are among the 20th century’s iconic images. And graphic designer Reid Miles created leading-edge LP covers that haven’t aged a day. Such prolific Blue Note artists as guitarist Grant Green live forever in aquamarine hues on their covers; yet even one-offs for the label, such as John Coltrane’s Blue Train, stand as especially potent pairings of sound and image. A subsequent holistic, art-first label like ECM Records would find a template in the Blue Note ethos.
The overarching spirit of the Blue Note enterprise is encapsulated in saxophonist-composer Wayne Shorter’s preface to the Havers book: “Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff came to America as immigrants, escaping terrible oppression in Nazi Germany… By capturing authentic musical expression in a place of freedom, a place where music, art and poetry could freely flourish, they demonstrated the true meaning of democracy… These two men were passionate about music, but they were operating in areas that Madison Avenue wanted to ignore… born out of a strong belief in doing things the right way.”
Doing things the right way went for the big things — like hewing to social egalitarianism — but also not stinting on the small stuff: Unlike most other indie jazz labels of the day, Blue Note paid musicians for rehearsals prior to recording, meaning that the music of its LPs has a more finished quality, less of an ad-hoc “blowing session” feel. Musicians also noted that Lion was an interpersonally astute producer, laying on a spread of food and beer, maybe even a taste of the harder stuff, to help loosen up the players for the task at hand. And when it came to a troubled artist like Bud Powell, Lion would have the pianist stay with him in his home prior to a recording session, so that he could keep a watch over his impulses.
The title of Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression comes from a founding manifesto that one of Lion’s early associates wrote: “Blue Note records are designed to serve the uncompromising expressions of hot jazz… Direct and honest hot jazz is a way of feeling, a musical and social manifestation, and Blue Note records are concerned with identifying its impulse, not its sensational and commercialized adornments.” Critic Leonard Feather extolled Lion’s “outstanding integrity,” adding: “Everything he did in recording was because he believed in the music.” To that end, Lion documented extensively musicians who didn’t make him hits, but whose material would eventually be regarded as priceless, including such pianist-composers as Thelonious Monk (early on, starting in 1947), Herbie Nichols and Andrew Hill.
Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression offers sidebar rundowns of many classic albums: from the famous — Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers’ Moanin’, Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue, Dexter Gordon’s Our Man in Paris — to the relatively unsung, such as Don Cherry’s Complete Communion and Grachan Moncur III’s Evolution. Classic LP cover designs are detailed: Horace Parlan’s Speaking My Piece, Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles, Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. Contact sheets from Wolff’s photos allow you to see more deeply inside sessions by the likes of Powell and Miles Davis. The book is full of historical tidbits, such as the model for Sonny Clark’s eye-catching Cool Struttin’ cover — where a photo is cropped to focus on a woman’s lower legs as she walks on a Manhattan street — being Lion’s wife. Also, when Reid Miles farmed out LP covers, one of the young artists he turned to was Andy Warhol.
When Lion retired and sold Blue Note in 1966 just as jazz was facing the challenge of a rock-oriented marketplace (and he faced his own ill-health), it sowed the seeds of the label’s decline and descent into a corporate rabbit hole. Yet, while owned by Capitol/EMI in the 1990s, Blue Note enjoyed a resurgence; producer Michael Cuscuna oversaw the remastering and reissue on CD of the vintage catalog, as well as — vitally — much previously unreleased material from the archive. Singer Cassandra Wilson and groove-jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood were among the astute ’90s signings, and pop-crossover star Norah Jones made the company a mint. Now the label is owned by Universal Music Group and run by rock producer Don Was, who was a Blue Note fan as a teen; he has reissued classic titles on vinyl, even as the label’s current roster treads a fine jazz-pop line with Grammy-winning artists from dulcet-voiced singer Gregory Porter to hip-hop-influenced keyboardist Robert Glasper. Billboard once described Blue Note as “all modes and moods of jazz,” a line to which Was would surely subscribe.
Unlike Blue Note, Verve Records — another historic imprint now owned by Universal — seems moribund these days. In addition to his Blue Note tome, Havers wrote Verve: The Sound of America, an equally wonderful coffee-table book on the history of the company founded in 1956 by jazz impresario Norman Granz (absorbing his earlier labels, Clef and Norgran). Through his Jazz at the Philharmonic swing-to-bop package tours, the Los Angeles-raised Granz was a pioneer of Civil Rights, in the 1940s. His tours stubbornly presented integrated lineups for integrated audiences, and he lost money in the South rather than give in to segregationist impulses. In Houston, he had to say: “You sit where I sit you. You don’t want to sit next to a black? Here’s your money back.”
Along with releasing live discs from his tours and recording the likes of Charlie Parker with strings, Granz made stars out of Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, two Verve artists he also managed. He invented the modern concept album with Fitzgerald’s hit series of albums devoted to the Great American Songbook. (Ira Gershwin said that he didn’t know how good the songs he and his brother wrote were until Fitzgerald recorded them.) Granz’s company also kick-started the bossa-nova craze in the 1960s, recording saxophonist Stan Getz’s ever-popular pairings with guitarist Charlie Byrd and then singer Astrud Gilberto. Like Blue Note, Verve had a distinctive visual flair, led by artist-designer David Stone Martin. Cover designs are reproduced lovingly in the book, and there are bio essays on Stone and such Verve artists as Lester Young, Billie Holiday, Johnny Hodges, Roy Eldridge, Sonny Stitt, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans and Anita O’Day.
As a companion for the book, Universal compiled a five-CD boxed set of Verve’s jukebox singles, encompassing Parker’s “Just Friends” (1949) and Getz/Gilberto’s “The Girl from Ipanema” (’63), as well as funky organist Jimmy Smith’s Aretha Franklin cover “Chain of Fools” (’68). The well-annotated set also includes a long string of vocal hits by Fitzgerald and nods to contemporary times with Diana Krall’s “Look of Love,” from 2001. The Blue Note book has its own companion five-CD boxed set of singles; even if this makes less sense for an LP-driven label, there are treasures: among them, stride-pianist Meade Lux Lewis’s “Melancholy” (’39), hard-bop trumpeter Lee Morgan’s jukebox-smash “The Sidewinder” (’63) and such new-era items as Us3’s “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia),” a certified-gold single from ’93 that irresistibly sampled Hancock’s groovy 1964 Blue Note track “Cantaloupe Island.”
The Havers books and the boxed sets underscore the impact of jazz not only as a homegrown art form but also as a broadly creative and, ultimately, deeply moving subculture — one that has reflected the best of wider American society. Granz’s words bear remembering: “Jazz is America’s own. It is the music that grew out of… a melting-pot nation… It is played and listened to by all peoples — in harmony together. Pigmentation differences have no place… As in genuine democracy, only performance counts.”
(Review originally published in the fall 2014 issue of Listen magazine.)