Revisit: Blue Note: The Finest in Jazz
ABOUT THE EXHIBIT
On March 25, 2014, the GRAMMY Museum launched Blue Note: The Finest in Jazz, an exhibit that offered visitors an in-depth look at the record label, which celebrated its 75th anniversary that year.
Blue Note: The Finest in Jazz was displayed in the Mike Curb Gallery on the Museum’s fourth floor through January 2015. The exhibit included artifacts such as Thelonious Monk’s baby grand piano, an original tape box from Rudy Van Gelder’s recording sessions, Art Blakey’s snare drum, classic photographs by Francis Wolff, handwritten lyrics and sheet music from various Blue Note artists, original concert posters, handbills and other ephemera, and album artwork from Blue Note Records releases, among other items.
In conjunction with the exhibit’s launch, Blue Note Records President Don Was & five-time GRAMMY-winning artist and composer Terence Blanchard visited the GRAMMY Museum’s Clive Davis Theater to participate in a question-and-answer session as part of the Museum’s An Evening With series.
Watch the historic panel discussion now on COLLECTION:live, the GRAMMY Museum’s official streaming service:
For 75 years, Blue Note has been one of the most respected record companies in jazz. Founded in 1939 by German immigrants Alfred Lion, Max Margulis, and later, Francis Wolff, Blue Note initially released traditional jazz recordings. The label soon embraced the nascent sounds of bebop, as demonstrated by the brilliant early recordings of pianist Thelonious Monk, including the masterpiece “Round About Midnight.”
Blue Note’s distinctive sound was solidified in 1953 after the label formed a partnership with recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, whose New Jersey studio produced some of the finest jazz records in history, including those by Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, and Herbie Hancock. The label also influenced the look of jazz with graphic designer Reid Miles’ Bauhaus-inspired album cover art.
Despite playing a major role in the post-war development of jazz, Blue Note ground to a halt in the early 1970s after Lion retired and Wolff passed away. The label was revived in the mid-1980s under Bruce Lundvall’s leadership. In 2002, he signed an unknown singer/pianist, Norah Jones, whose debut album won a remarkable five GRAMMY Awards. Today, the label is run by noted producer and musician Don Was, whose vision is to broaden the legacy of the label in the 21st century and maintain its commitment to jazz excellence.
THE LION AND THE WOLFF
Alfred Lion, Max Margulis, and Francis Wolff came to America from Germany in the late 1930s with a deep interest in jazz. In 1939 they transformed their passion into a fledgling, New York-based record company they called Blue Note. Lion, an avid jazz record collector, was drafted in 1941, temporarily halting the young company’s growth. But the Blue Note catalog already boasted over two dozen mostly traditional jazz recordings by the time he entered the army.
Blue Note still had, as one jazz historian put it, “the feel of a collector’s indulgence.” Lion and Wolff began to broaden the label’s scope and increase its professionalism after Lion’s discharge from the army in 1943. Among the artists Blue Note recorded in the mid-1940s were pianists Art Hodes and Thelonious Monk, and sax player Ike Quebec.
THE BLUE NOTE SOUND
Recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder was a principal architect of the Blue Note “sound.” Working from his Hackensack, New Jersey home, where he created a small recording studio, Van Gelder was an optometrist, whose love of jazz and the radio led him to becoming a legendary jazz recording engineer.
According to music historian Richard Cook, “Van Gelder’s method was to secure a sound which respected both the timbre of the group and the singularity of its players.” Van Gelder didn’t work exclusively for Blue Note; he also engineered for other jazz labels like Prestige and Verve. However, Van Gelder’s best and most important work was done for Blue Note.
“Alfred (Lion) knew exactly what he wanted to hear,” recalled Van Gelder in the book Blue Note Records. “He communicated it to me, and I got it for him technically.”
THE COVER STORY
In 1948, when Columbia Records introduced the long-playing 33 1/3 rpm disc or LP—better known as the album—the 78 rpm disc of the past steadily became obsolete. The LP expanded the possibilities of how much music could be heard on one side of a disc and certainly influenced jazz recordings and composition.
In the mid-1950s Blue Note began issuing its music in the album format and hired graphic designer Reid Miles to create the label’s album art. Miles became a design leader in album art, and Blue Note had one of the most attractive “looks” in the jazz world. In all, Miles designed the cover art for hundreds of Blue Note albums, often incorporating the photographs of Francis Wolff.
FRANCIS WOLFF PHOTOGRAPHY
Although Alfred Lion was Blue Note’s driving force, Francis Wolff played a critical behind-the-scenes role at the label, overseeing its financial and business affairs. Before leaving Germany, Wolff was a commercial photographer, and he found a way to utilize his photographic skills for Blue Note. His images were often used for publicity purposes, album sleeves, and cover designs.
Wolff’s photographs are regarded among the finest in the jazz photo archive. He artfully captured many of Blue Note’s artists in the recording studio. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon and Grant Green are only a few of the Blue Note artists photographed by Francis Wolff.
HERE TO STAY: REVITALIZATION OF BLUE NOTE
Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff treated Blue Note like a family business, and they were eager to maintain the label’s integrity, especially with serious jazz fans and musicians. During the label’s early years, attention and profits were marginal, despite the presence of respected artists like Sidney Bechet, Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk.
Things turned around for Lion and Wolff when Blue Note grew increasingly interested in modern jazz, first bebop and then especially hard bop. With the addition of Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers and the Horace Silver Quintet onto the label, Blue Note became a powerful magnet, attracting everyone from Miles Davis to John Coltrane. Eventually, Blue Note became synonymous with great jazz recordings.
Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff relinquished control of Blue Note in 1965, selling the label to Liberty Records. Lion continued to work with Blue Note, producing his final session for the label with tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine in mid-1967 before finally retiring. Francis Wolff remained at Blue Note until his death in 1971.
Though Blue Note’s reputation in the jazz world was unquestioned, the label fell into dormancy after the departure of Lion and Wolff. In 1985, the Blue Note label was relaunched, and record executive Bruce Lundvall led the charge on re-issues, new recordings, and artist acquisitions. Lundvall expanded the label’s scope and signed new talent, including vocalists Bobby McFerrin, Anita Baker, and Dianne Reeves to the label, among others. In 2002, he signed an unknown singer/pianist, Norah Jones, whose debut album, Come Away with Me, sold millions of copies and earned Jones five GRAMMY Awards.
More recently, artists Gregory Porter, Brian Blade, Jason Moran, Derrick Hodge, and R+R=NOW have added new sounds and styles to the Blue Note tradition. Today, the label is ran by noted producer and musician Don Was.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Blue Note President Don Was began hosting in-depth virtual interviews with Blue Note recording artists, discussing their new albums, previewing tracks, and telling stories behind the music. Below, watch Don Was and singer-songwriter Gregory Porter chat about Porter’s 2021 GRAMMY-nominated album, All Rise.