Blue Note Records is a jazz record label, established in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. It derives its name from the characteristic "blue notes" of jazz and the blues. It is principally associated with the "hard bop" style of jazz (mixing bebop with other forms of music including soul, blues, rhythm and blues and gospel). Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith and Art Blakey are the artists most closely linked to the label, but almost all the important musicians in postwar jazz recorded for Blue Note on occasion.
Lion was a German who first heard jazz as a young boy in Berlin. He moved to New York in 1937, and in 1939 recorded Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis in a one-day session in a rented studio. The Blue Note label initially consisted of Lion and Max Margulis, a writer who funded the project. The label's first releases were traditional "hot" jazz and boogie woogie, and the label's first hit was a performance of "Summertime" by Sidney Bechet. Musicians were supplied with alcoholic refreshments, and recorded in the early hours of the morning after their evening's work in clubs and bars had finished. The label soon became well known for treating musicians well - setting up recording sessions at congenial times, and allowing them to be involved in all aspects of the record's production.
Francis Wolff, a professional photographer, emigrated to the USA at the end of 1939 and soon joined forces with Lion, who he had known as a boy in Germany. In 1941, Lion was drafted into the army for two years. Milt Gabler at the Commodore Music Store offered storage facilities and helped keep the catalog in print, with Wolff working for him. By late 1943 the label was back in business recording musicians and supplying records to the armed forces.
Towards the end of the war, Ike Quebec was among those who recorded for the label. Quebec would act as a talent scout for the label until his death in 1963. Although belonging to a previous generation, he could appreciate the new bebop style of jazz, largely created by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.
In 1947 Thelonious Monk recorded several sessions for the label. These were his first recordings as a leader, and also saw the Blue Note debut of Art Blakey. Monk's recordings for Blue Note between 1947 and 1952 did not sell well, but have since come to be regarded as amongst the most important of the bebop era. Other bebop or modernist musicians who recorded for Blue Note during the late forties and early fifties were Tadd Dameron, Fats Navarro, Howard McGhee (featuring J.J. Johnson), James Moody and Bud Powell. The sessions by Powell, like those his close friend Monk recorded for the label, are among his best. J.J. Johnson and Miles Davis both recorded several sessions for Blue Note between 1952 and 1954, but by then the musicians who had created bebop were starting to explore other styles.
Hard bop and beyond
1951 saw the first vinyl 10" releases by Blue Note, and the label was soon recording new talent such as Horace Silver (who would stay with Blue Note for a quarter of a century), the Jazz Messengers (originally a collaborative group, but soon to become Art Blakey's band), Milt Jackson (in what would soon become the Modern Jazz Quartet), Clifford Brown and Herbie Nichols. Rudy Van Gelder recorded most Blue Note releases from 1953 until the late sixties, and his deft engineering was, in its own way, as important and revolutionary as the music. Another important difference between Blue Note and other independent labels (for example Prestige Records, who also employed Van Gelder) was that musicians were paid for rehearsal time prior to the recording session.
Organist Jimmy Smith was signed in 1956, and was responsible for the first 12" album of original material released by the label. That year also saw the employment of Reid Miles, an artist who worked for Esquire magazine. The cover art produced by Miles, often featuring Wolff's photographs of musicians in the studio, was as influential in the world of graphic design as the music within would be in the world of jazz. A few mid-fifties album covers featured drawings by the then little known Andy Warhol.
The late fifties saw debut recordings for Blue Note by (amongst others) Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Sonny Clark, Kenny Dorham, Kenny Burrell, Jackie McLean, Donald Byrd, Lou Donaldson, the return of Bud Powell (by then past his prime), John Coltrane's Blue Train, and Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else (featuring Miles Davis in a rare supporting role). Blue Note was by then recording a mixture of established acts (Rollins, Adderley) and artists who in some cases had recorded before, but often produced performances for the label which by far exceeded earlier recordings in quality (Blue Train is generally considered to be the first significant recording by Coltrane as a leader). Horace Silver and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers continued to release a series of artistically and commercially successful recordings.
The early sixties introduced Dexter Gordon to the label. Gordon was a saxophonist from the bebop era who had spent several years in prison and dealing with drug addiction, and he made several albums over a five year period. Gordon also appeared on the debut album by Herbie Hancock - by the mid sixties, all four of the younger members of the Miles Davis quintet (Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams) were recording for the label, and Hancock and Shorter in particular produced a succession of superb albums in a variety of styles. Carter did not actually record under his own name until the label's resurrection in the 1980s, but played bass on many other musicians' sessions. Many of these also included Freddie Hubbard, a trumpeter who also recorded for the label as a leader. One of the features of the label during this period was a "family" of musicians (Hubbard, Hancock, Carter, Grant Green, Joe Henderson, Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley and many others) who would record as sidemen on each other's albums without necessarily being part of the leader's working group.
In 1963 Lee Morgan scored a significant hit with "The Sidewinder", and Horace Silver with "Song for My Father" did the same the following year. As a result, Lion was under pressure by independent distributors to come up with similar successes, with the result that many Blue Note albums of this era start with a catchy tune intended for heavy airplay.
The avant garde
Although many of the acts on Blue Note were recording commercial jazz for a wide audience, the label also made some attempt to document the emerging avant-garde and free jazz movement. Andrew Hill, a highly individual pianist, made several albums for the label, some with Eric Dolphy. Dolphy's Out to Lunch (featuring a famous cover by Reid Miles) is perhaps his most well-known album. Ornette Coleman released two albums recorded with a trio in a Stockholm club, and three studio albums (including The Empty Foxhole, with his ten-year-old son on drums). Cecil Taylor recorded two albums for Blue Note during the early part of his career, and Sam Rivers, Bobby Hutcherson and Larry Young also recorded albums which diverged from the "hard bop" style usually associated with the label.
Lion and Wolff retire
Blue Note was acquired by Liberty Records in 1965 and Lion retired in 1967. At this point most albums were produced by Wolff or pianist Duke Pearson; Wolff died in 1971. Despite some good albums, the commercial viability of jazz was in question. Reid Miles's services were dispensed with and more borderline and outright commercial records were made (often by artists who had previously recorded "straight" jazz for the label - Bobby Hutcherson, Lou Donaldson, Donald Byrd, Grant Green, Horace Silver).
When EMI purchased Liberty in 1979, it phased out the Blue Note label until 1985, when it was relaunched as part of EMI Manhattan Records, both for re-issues and new recordings. Some artists previously associated with Blue Note, such as McCoy Tyner have made new recordings, while younger musicians such as Joe Lovano have established notable reputations through their Blue Note albums.
The Blue Note catalogue and trademark are now owned by Capitol Records, who have pursued an active reissue program in recent years. Bruce Lundvall was appointed to oversee the label at the time of the revival and Michael Cuscuna has worked as freelance advisor and reissue producer. Some of Blue Note's output has appeared in CD Box sets issued by Cuscuna's Mosaic Records, and there has been a series of reissues of older material in the "RVG series", remastered by Rudy Van Gelder.
Today's Blue Note has notable names signed to its roster, such as young vocalist Norah Jones and veteran R&B/jazz singer Anita Baker.