Blue Note Records at 80: a look at their lasting legacy in music

They were known as the Lion and the Wolff, fled the Nazis in 1939 – and went on to change jazz forever

NEW YORK - CIRCA 1965:  The owners of Blue note Records Alfred Lion (left) and Francis Wolff in the Record Company offices circa 1965 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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What would jazz look like today without Blue Note Records? "Look" is the operative word, because while the beloved label's sonic contribution to jazz is beyond dispute, the influence of the imprint's famous imagery is immeasurable.

For most people, the brand's moody photography and hip typography ­define the very idea of jazz, and ­especially those who have neither heard of Blue Note, nor have listened to a bar of its music. And "brand", too, is a prescient word. Most listeners buy a record for the artist, not the little logo in the bottom right corner. But for jazz fans, the Blue Note stamp alone is often enough to provoke a purchase; it is a consumer relationship more akin to that which exists between discerning shoppers and designer fashion houses, and is a mark of Blue Note's singular sound and consistent quality.

In 2017, Variety polled more than 300 "critics, influencers, music industry veterans and vinyl enthusiasts" about their favourite record label of the 20th century, and Blue Note came ­second, behind Atlantic Records. Not bad for a brand devoted to jazz, a historically niche genre, which, according to data research portal Statista, made up just 1.1 per cent of music consumption in the United States last year.

This year, Blue Note Records ­celebrates its 80th anniversary, but the inevitable slew of ­commemorative vinyl reissues, shock-proof watches and framed, canvas album prints – which are a steal at Dh1,080 – ­celebrate a comparative sliver of the label's 1950s and 1960s heyday. Incredibly, the consistent sound, look and feel of this incomparable 400-odd LP run was defined by the visionary achievements of just four men

The men who started it after fleeing Nazi Germany 

Jazz might be described frequently as America's classical music, but it was two emigres who fled Nazi ­Germany that led the genre's most renowned ­imprint, a pair otherwise known as the Lion and the Wolff. Enthralled by swing and boogie-­woogie piano, Alfred Lion founded Blue Note in 1939, a year after ­arriving in New York City, soon inviting childhood friend Francis Wolff into the fold. Over the next three decades, these two enthusiasts would sit in on many of the most fruitful, storied sessions in jazz, recording nearly all of the era's most monumental talents – Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan, Horace Silver, Donald Byrd … and that is only the beginning of a very long list.

UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01:  Photo of Thelonious MONK; Posed at the Piano in Minton's Playhouse, Harlem  (Photo by William Gottlieb/Redferns)
Pianist Thelonious Monk. Redferns

But while Lion and Wolff are ­credited ­perennially as Blue Note's leaders, the pair fulfilled very different roles in the company's operation. Despite ­minimal musical training, Lion was the in-house producer, and by all ­accounts his talents lay not at the ­console but with the concept: ­signing and disarming the right ­musicians; pairing them in fertile ­configurations; and helping the players decide what to play. Crucially, this ­included ­encouraging the composition of new material, and nurturing its development.

A label that put people first 

Like most jazz sessions of the day, a typical Blue Note LP was recorded in a single evening – and it was always after dark – but Lion was the only producer who paid his musicians to rehearse first. The upshot? Blue Note's material was invariably ­conceived more ­elegantly and performed more buoyantly than the music produced by its competitors, who typically ­cajoled players together to jam through the standard songbook on a one-off date. Wolff, meanwhile, served as the label's omnipresent photographer, a role he fulfilled with the relish of a fanatic, but the eye of an expert. A friendly and familiar face, Wolff spent these paid rehearsals capturing on film countless candid moments that have gone down among the most ­famous in jazz history. These ­images are exquisitely framed and, naturally, are most often in black and white.

It is inarguable that both the ­performances and images profited from the unlikely friendships these European emigres struck up with their core roster of black American musicians, who in some cases would appear on up to a dozen records a year. "Apart from the music, I am moved by the humanity that runs through the entire history of Blue Note, the ­collaboration between the ­German founders, who fled to New York in the 1930s, and the African-­American ­musicians, and how ­together they found an expression of freedom in jazz," says Sophie Huber, director of Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, a thrilling new documentary set for DVD release this year.

A rounder sound and distinct design 

Lion and Wolff's instincts were fully realised in harmony with two ­visionary craftsmen – sound ­engineer Rudy Van Gelder and graphic ­designer Reid Miles. Van Gelder, a daytime ­optician when he was ­introduced to Lion in 1953, recorded Blue Note sessions into the 1970s, first at his parents' New ­Jersey home, and, from 1959, at his purpose-built, Englewood Cliffs ­studio, where the church-like, three-storey ceilings and spotlit gloom contributed to both the distinctive sound and Wolff's photographs.

He had a certain sound in his head that he wanted the instruments to make, and the guys who worked out there understood and really had a way of making them sound special, making them sound personal.

Known for his secretive and ­meticulous methods, Van Gelder's recordings are defined by spacious warmth and crisp audio detail – breathy horns, roomy drums, shapely bass and a characteristic hi-hat snap – that later became integral to Blue Note's revival as a go-to source for ­hip-hop samples. "A big part of it was Rudy Van Gelder and how he recorded the ­instruments," renowned bassist Ron Carter tells me, after clocking 38 Blue Note credits. "He had a certain sound in his head that he wanted the instruments to make, and the guys who worked out there understood and really had a way of making them sound special, making them sound personal."

Completing this creative quartet was Miles, who was hired to design Blue Note's first LPs in 1955 and was ­responsible for establishing the label's distinctive sleeve style, which would survive into the late 1960s. A classical music-lover, it was Miles's modernist flair that cemented Blue Note's ­timelessly cool image, defined by inventive typography, bold colour ­palettes and the brazen, angular ­cropping of Wolff's photography – much to the latter's chagrin.

"With their unfailing taste, Blue Note covers managed to distil all the artistic influences America had to offer during the middle decades of the 20th ­century," write Graham Marsh and Glyn Callingham, in the ­introduction to their 1992 book The Cover Art of Blue Note Records. "They were a veritable running commentary of all that had been ­happening in ­post-war ­graphic design, on increasingly ­accessible 12-and-a-half inch squares of cardboard."

A history of Blue Note in six records

‘Genius of Modern Music (Vols 1&2, 19471952)’ by Thelonious Monk

Blue Note’s first major artistic contribution was extensive, early bebop-era documents of piano iconoclast Thelonious Monk, later collected on this seminal pair of LPs.

‘A Night at Birdland (Vols 1&2, 1954)’ by Art Blakey

The essential, embryonic hard-bop document – no artist defined the head-nodding Blue Note sound more than drummer Art Blakey, whose Jazz Messengers would, for the next 35 years, serve as an academy for future stars, including Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard.

‘Song for My Father (1963-1964)’ by Horace Silver

It was the runaway success of pianist Silver’s Brazilian-tinged classic – as well as Morgan’s The Sidewinder – that presaged Blue Note’s 1965 sale to Liberty Records. It was the beginning of an end, as Alfred Lion retired within two years.

‘Speak No Evil (1964)’ by Wayne Shorter

Widely hailed as the greatest living jazz composer, Shorter symbolically re-joined Blue Note in 2013 – nearly five decades after recording this beguiling, otherworldly masterpiece.

‘Places and Spaces (1975)’ by Donald Byrd

After Francis Wolff died in 1971, Blue Note was shepherded further towards funk and fusion. The most successful vintage jazzer to cross over was trumpeter Donald Byrd, a label mainstay who recorded more than 20 albums as leader. Soon afterwards, Blue Note would be phased out altogether.

‘Black Radio (2012)’ by Robert Glasper

Following its 1985 relaunch, Blue Note pursued a poppier direction. But the brand has enjoyed a recent resurgence under the stewardship of Rolling Stones producer Don Was, which is epitomised by pianist/ producer Robert Glasper’s game-changing, Grammywinning, hip-hop/jazz hybrid Black Radio.