Richard Havers’s book about Blue Note records, with its details of the inspirations and excesses of the label’s major talents, amounts to a history of jazz itself
A blue note is a flattened or – in the terminology of jazz – a “worried” note, which dips below the major scale to vouch for the intensity of an emotion; Blue Note is a record label which, since its foundation 75 years ago, has recorded the bluest and most worried jazz performers. Shaded by nocturnal melancholy, blue is the preferred tonality of their music. A classic album by Miles Davis was called Kind of Blue, and Blue Note later recorded the guitarist Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue, attuned to the mood of a moonlit sky seen through the glare of urban streetlights.
Uncompromising Expression, the phrase from Blue Note’s mission statement that Richard Havers applies to his lavishly illustrated history of the label, also serves as a definition of jazz. Duke Ellington actually proposed renaming the music played by his band, because “jazz” to him was a smutty synonym for having sex. He preferred to describe his repertoire as “the American Idiom, or the Music of the Freedom of Expression”.
In Hitler’s Germany, jazz was reviled as Negermusik, a savage un-Teutonic din. Escaping to America, Lion heard in bop, boogie-woogie and honky-tonk a rowdy proof of his adopted country’s impromptu, endlessly self-renovating energy. That faith persisted at Blue Note even after he gave up control of the label, and it was proclaimed all over again in 1986 by Spontaneous Inventions, a collection of “vocal gymnastics” in which Bobby McFerrin teamed up with the manic Robin Williams, who scatted, rapped and wordlessly burbled through a track called Beverly Hills Blues. The result was not so much spontaneous invention as demented free association.
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. Like the pianist Andrew Hill, Havers enrols Monk’s later followers in a holy order that Hill himself punningly entitled the New Monastery. Many Blue Note musicians played at a triangular den in downtown New York called the Village Vanguard; with the same sense of jazz as a sacred calling, the pianist Jason Moran has called it “the place where Mohammed and Moses and Jesus walked!”
Blue Note was so confident, so good at doing the right thing, that the co-proprietor could see his famous photos shrunk to postage stamps – with designer Reid Miles popping some hip typographics in their place. Guitarist Kenny Burrell beautifully balanced soul power and elegance in this sensuous session.
A sorry conclusion comes with the fate of the trumpeter Lee Morgan, who dispensed “soul jazz to the max” until in 1972 he was unsoulfully gunned down at the age of 33 by his commonlaw wife during a gig at Slug’s Saloon in the East Village. His wounds were superficial; Havers primly omits to mention that he bled to death on the floor because the ambulance was reluctant to venture into the lawless no-go area where Slug’s was located. Not all jazz clubs were as stylishly avant garde as the Village Vanguard.
Blue Note: Uncompromising Expression is published by Thames & Hudson.
That Francis Wolff shot of John Coltrane – pensive, self-absorbed, maybe imagining an elusive sound yet to be made on a saxophone – showed how Blue Note artwork could bring a musician’s interior journey into view. Blue Train, from 1958, foresaw the breakthroughs Coltrane would make in the 1960s.
Jazz listeners expect their heroes to play the long game, so a box of 75 singles tracks from jazz’s most famous label might sound almost frivolous. But for all its memorable (and memorably designed) albums, Blue Note has always been in the singles business – heavyweights like Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and John Coltrane released them, and creative idiom-colliders like Robert Glasper and Derrick Hodge reach out to new audiences via downloads today.
Pianist Glasper calls Blue Note a “unique and very special family”. The appeal of his deep jazz awareness to the cognoscenti, and his direct line to a 21st-century hip-hop audience, reflects Blue Note’s legacy and its enduring instinct for keeping a finger on the pulse.
Herbie Hancock was the biggest star Blue Note launched, his 1962 debut, Takin’ Off, showing he was a rare blend of improv genius and hitmaking songwriter. Empyrean Isles came two years later, with the 24-year-old boldly mingling hard bop, funk and free-jazz on just four long tracks.