Special CD Review: The Blue Note Years: 1939-1999

By Brian L. Knight

It seems that 1939 was a year dominated by world and national events. As the bloody Spanish Civil War was finally coming to an end, Adolph Hitler (after claiming that he had been attacked) sent his Blitzkreiging Wermacht across the Polish border. The following day, Britain and France declared war on Germany, which would commence the bloodiest six years on world history. A few months later, the once indomitable German battleship, the Graf Spee, was scuttled off the coast of Uruguay. On the home front, some classic movies were released. The nation was swept off their feet as Rhett swept Scarlet off her feet while Toto and Dorothy weren’t in Kansas any more and New York City was host to the World’s Fair.

As for the legacy of 1939, there is little that survives today. World War Two will always have a lasting impact on our society but it should be noted that Bill Clinton has been our first post-war president who never served in the Second World War. In general, World War II is drifting more and more away from current events and becoming more and more, a chapter in world history. Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of OZ are experiencing 60th Anniversary celebrations but they have been tainted with color and what can come close to comparing with the arrival of the Phantom Menace anyway? Other groups celebrating their 60th Anniversary? The Smokejumpers (parachuting firefighters), the National Bowling Association (their annual meeting is in Reno, Nevada where else?) and the Maine’s Seashore Trolley Museum.

Perhaps the most lasting American legacy of the year 1939 is New York City’s Blue Note Records. Despite financial hardships and corporate mergers, Blue Note has remained true to its mission of continuously providing good music for the last 60 years. With its constant barrage of re-issues and new releases, Blue Note remains the world’s premier source for jazz music. On January 6, 1939 a German émigré (perhaps escaping the simultaneous persecution in his homeland) by the name of Alfred Lion recorded tunes by two boogie-woogie pianist, Gene Ammons and Mead Lux Lewis. Two years later, Lion was joined by long time friend Francis Wolff and together; the two would lay down the foundation for Blue Note Records. For the next 60 years, Blue Note would be the foremost promoter and recording source for American jazz music. Just as the musical styles changes so did the artists who recorded for Blue Note. The Blue Note Catalog provides to jazz what Smithsonian Folkways provides for Folk – an audio history of American’s premier art form. There are many labels that contributed to the development of jazz – Prestige, Fantasy, Impulse, Verve – but none them seemed to capture the same energy and grace of Blue Note.

To celebrate its 60th Anniversary, Blue Note Records has just released The Blue Note Years: 1939-1999. This 14 CD colossal set is not only a testament to the history of the label but also to the history of the genre itself. The box set has been conveniently packaged into seven 2 CD subgroups that trace the development of the label and jazz as a whole. In addition to the recordings, there are also the pictures of Francis Wolff. Wolff, who was a professional photographer in Germany, continued his trade in the Blue Note Studios. For thirty years, Wolff photographed every single recording session that was held for Blue Note. Accompanying this CD set is an amazing collection of black and white pictures that easily make Wolff the Ansel Adams of the music world.


Boogie, Blues and Bop 1939-1955

This set covers the advent of what is known as modern jazz. As the world was hanging on the precipice of World War Two, New York City was a hotbed for jazz innovation. Prior and even during the war, Swing was the jazz genre dominating the airwaves and bandstands. With the swinging compositions of Benny Goodman and Glen Miller, people were flocking to the dancehalls. In the early years, Swing jazz was primarily a dancing occurrence rather than the listening event that it is known as today. Instead of big bands creating melodic grooves, jazz transformed to smaller groups that focussed on solos and improvisation. The two innovators that led this new approach to jazz playing were trumpeter Dizzy Gillepsie and saxophonist Charlie Parker. They defied the norms by blowing extended, far reaching solos in small quartets and quintets. Fans of the new jazz were not drawn to the music to dance but rather to listen with intent and concentration. At first, this new jazz form – bebop or bop, was criticized by fans, musicians and critics alike. Even one time innovator, Louis Armstrong, was known for his harsh criticism of the bebop sound. The most notable bastions for these new musical explorations were the nightclubs of New York City such as Monroe’s Uptown House and Minton’s Playhouse. It was at these dark halls and the Blue Note studios that this new art form was born and the transformation of jazz from aerobic workout to audio pleasure occurred.

The first disc covers the transitional period where the jazz was exploring multiple styles. In an effort to keep costs minimal, Alfred Lion’s earliest recordings were simply piano pieces. This is exemplified by the first three tracks: "Boogie Woogie Stomp" by Albert Ammons which serves the distinction of being the very first Blue Note recording; Meade Lux Lewis’ 1944 version of "Chicago Flyer" and Earl Hines’ "Reminiscing at Blue Note". All three tunes are evocative of the boogie-woogie, barrelhouse, and ragtime piano styles that were popularized at the turn of the century. The blues on this set are represented by clarinetist Sidney Bechet’s "Summertime" and Edmund Hall’s "Profoundly Blue" (This features the rare acoustic guitar work of legend Charlie Christian). Even though bebop was dominating the music front, swing was still played as displayed by Ike Quebec’s "Topsy". Ike Quebec would also serve the distinction as being Blue Note’s Director of Artists and Repertoire. In addition to many of the aforementioned artists, Quebec recruited the Tiny Grimes Swingtet, whose "Tiny’s Boogie Woogie" (1946) was a precursor to the rockabilly and R&B that would dominate the airwaves 20 years later.

By the second disc of this set, jazz had fully thrown itself into the bebop sound. Within these 18 tracks, there are the compositions that developed the framework of modern jazz which are still being explored and expanded upon today. There is pianist Thelonious Monk’s "Round Midnight"; pianist Bud Powell’s rendition of Dizzy Gillepsie’s "Night In Tunisia"; vibraphonist Milt Jackson’s "Bag’s Groove"; pianist Wynton Kelly’s "Born to Be Blue"; trumpeter Miles Davis’ "Tempus Fugit" and drummer Art Blakely’s "Quicksilver". These tunes, along with many others, are the tunes that eventually became the jazz standards and are the true foundations of modern jazz. With the appearance of Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk on this set, Blue Note captured two of the most visionary pianists of the modern jazz era. Although the two made significantly different contributions to jazz (Monk’s non-traditional compositions and Powell’s high paced playing), the two influenced jazz pianists for the next 50 years.


The Jazz Message 1955-1960

The Jazz Message represents the beginning the glory era for Blue Note Records. The previously described set represented the embryonic stages of the label, where Blue Note was grappling with financial constraints and multiple playing styles. By the mid-1950s, the finances were relatively settled and the sounds of bebop had pulled ahead of all the other styles and become the predominant sound of the era – the golden era of the "Blue Note Sound". There was no better outfit to spread the jazz message of this new sound than the appropriately titled Art Blakely’s Jazz Messengers. The Jazz Messengers were essentially created within the Blue Note studios and consisted of Art Blakeley (drums), Horace Silver (piano), Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Hank Mobley (saxophone) and Doug Watkins (bass). The set starts with "Minor’s Holiday", which was recorded live in 1955 and was a staple in the Jazz Messenger’s setlist for the next three decades. The tune easily symbolizes the Blue Note sound with its high paced rhythm and frenetic soloing by Dorham. The artists of the Jazz Messengers along with, Cannonball Adderly ("Autumn Leaves" w/ Miles Davis), Freddie Hubbard ("Open Sesame"), Sonny Clark ("Cool Struttin’), Lee Morgan ("I Remember Clifford"), Stanley Turrentine ("Little Sheri"), Lou Donaldson ("Blues Walk") and Dexter Gordon ("Society Red") became the flagbearers of the Blue Note sound.

One thing that is interesting on this set is the word ‘funk". Sometimes it is easily misunderstood that the word is a product of the 1970s when the Meters, Parliament/Funkadelic and O’Jays were reigning supreme. This misconception is eliminated with the presence of tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley’s "Funk In A Deep Freeze". The tune has all the elements of a funky tune, yet it was written and performed in 1957. Another interesting aspect is the presence of Jackie Mclean ("Appointment in Ghana"). Without being too stereotypical, Blue Note’s artists, during its golden era, were predominantly Afro-American. Saxophonist Jackie Mclean, who was a clear disciple of the great Charlie Parker, was one of the few white artists to record during the label’s early years.


Organ and Soul 1956-1967

The organ and the Blue Note sound were synonymous with each other. As Blue Note heading into the 1960s, it brought along the funky, slinky sounds of the organ which created the base for soul-jazz. The leader of the organ movement was Jimmy Smith, whose 20+ minute "The Sermon" is the opener to this set. Other Blue Note organists who followed behind Smith in the refinement of soul-jazz were Baby Face Willette ("Something Strange") and John Patton ("Let Em Roll"). Following the organ were the countless saxophonists (Lee Morgan, Stanley Turrentine, Lou Donaldson), guitarists (Grant green, Kenny Burrell) and trumpeters (Donald Byrd) who all played together during this period like one giant happy family. This is reflected on Don Wilkerson’s "Sweet Cake", which has Grant Green, John Patton and Ben Dixon (drums). Another interesting cut is saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s "Adam’s Apple". Recorded in 1966, this tune features pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Joe Chambers. Hancock and Shorter’s collaboration on this album signifies a little side project while they were both working for Miles Davis. All of these musicians and their works would leave a tremendous legacy on the face of modern music as their sounds would be the preferred samples for modern day hip-hoppers.


Hard Bop and Beyond 1963-1967

The Hard Bop was a logical extension of bebop era. The compositions became more complex and the solos were much more lengthy. During this period, some truly classic recordings were released such as Herbie Hancock’s "Maiden Voyage" and "Cantaloupe Island" (featuring the young and talented Tony Williams on drums); Dexter Gordon’s "Cheesecake" and Wayne Shorter’s "Footprints". Between Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, some amazing work was produced as the two played on each other’s albums as well as the Miles Davis Quintet. These two were astonishing performers and there compositional skills were equally outstanding. This period also signifies an open appreciation of the music of other cultures. There is the samba/blues of Kenny Dorham’s "Una Mas" and the Caribbean of polyrhythms of Blue Mitchell’s "Fungii Mama". The musicians who contributed sounds of the Hard Bop era were faced with an unpleasant future as jazz was losing its steam in its popularity struggle with the rock and roll. Interestingly enough, many of these musicians who were obviously virtuoso hard bop musicians, went on with "cross-over" experiments. Herbie Hancock experimented with fusion, funk-jazz and even techno. Blue Mitchell combined jazz with R&B masterfully, as exemplified on his album Graffiti Blues. Wayne Shorter experimented with the fusion of Weather Report.


The Avant-Garde 1963-1967

The avant-garde jazz movement was often referred to as free jazz or energy music. The music was divergent from most musical styles as it there was an apparent abandonment of song structure and styles. In reality, the structure and style was still there, it was just harder to identify. Although the avant-garde easily fell into Blue Note’s mission statement of promoting all forms of jazz, the tunes of free jazz never seemed to fit the label’s mold. Subsequently, the avant-garde was never the true focus of Blue Note. While Blue Note’s avant-garde recordings were less prolific than the output of other labels, the quantity hardly reflected the quality of the recorded works. The most notable artists on this set are pianist Andrew Hill and Grachan Moncur who contribute to six of the set’s songs. Some interesting cuts are organist Larry Young’s "Moontrane", which is a tribute to Coltrane; drummer Tony William’s "Tomorrow Afternoon", which also has Gary Peacock (bass) and Sam Rivers (saxophone); and trombonist Grachan Moncur’s "Thandiwa", which features the somewhat rare free jazz explorations of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. The talented Tony Williams, who was Blue Note’s session man throughout the 1960s, can be found all over these recordings. His mastery of polyrhythmic technique is heard on Eric Dolphy’s "Out To Lunch" and "Hat & Beard"; Andrew Hill’s "New Monastery"; Grachan Moncur’s "Monk in Wonderland"; Sam River’s "Luminous Monolith"; and Jackie McLean’s "Frankenstein" (Mclean was one of the few Blue Note artist who made the transition from the bebop to the avant-garde). Although William’s was best known for his fusion trials with Miles Davis and John McGlauglin, it was obvious that his real love was the avant-garde.

Thelonious Monk’s presence in this 60th Anniversary Set was delegated to the early development years of bebop. Almost twenty years since his first Blue Note recordings, the innovations of Monk were still being felt within the jazz arena. With Monk’s complex chord sequences and odd time signatures, the avant-garde artists immediately embraced his work. On three tunes, tribute is paid to Monk with Grachan Moncur’s "Monk in Wonderland", Eric Dolphy’s "Hat and Beard" and Andrew Hill’s "New Monastery". The Avant-Garde set also features the contributions of free-jazz stalwarts Ornette Coleman ("Dawn"). Don Cherry ("There is the Bomb") and Cecil Taylor ("Steps").


The New Era 1975-1998

The term "New Era" has double connotations. For one, this period marked a time when the fate of Blue Note hung in limbo until it was picked up by a larger company and the label switched from a homegrown music company into a corporate bigwig. While the power struggles were occurring at the upper echelons, the same quality music kept on coming through the studios. This leads to the second connotation of "New Era": it marked new directions in the music. There was the development of contemporary jazz led by Ronnie Laws ("Always There") and Earl Klugh ("Angelina"), which was a toned down fusion-bop-soul sound. There was the continuation of soul-jazz into a quasi disco-funk that was practiced by Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds ("Falling like Dominoes"). There were the indefinable vocal style of Bobbie Mcferrin ("Freedom Is a Voice") and the traditional vocal of Dianne Reeves ("Never Said"). There was the virtuoso guitar playing of Stanley Jordan ("Lady In My Life") and John Scofield ("I’ll Take Les"). There is the innovative eight-string guitar of Charlie Hunter ("Fistful of Haggis") and the hip-hop blends of US-3 ("Cantaloop" – remix of a Herbie Hancock classic). It wasn’t all new directions for Blue Note during this period, for the label’s traditional artists, such as McCoy Tyner("Lonnie’s lament"), Tony Williams ("Red Mask") ,Benny Green ("Bish Bash") and Joe Henderson ("Beatrice") kept on providing quality recordings.


Blue Note Now and Then

Blue Note Now and Then is the most interesting set in the compilation for it features brand new music. It is actually new Blue Note artists recording classic tunes from the label’s history. The CD opens with vocalist Dianne Reeves and pianist Geri Allen’s version of Herbie Hancock’s "Maiden Voyage". Guitarists John Scofield and Fareed Haque revisit Wayne Shorter’s "Tom Thumb" and Kenny Burrell’s "Soul Lament", respectively. Kevin Eubanks cranks out Bobbie Hutcherson’s "Little B’ Poem" while organist Lonnie Smith joins up with US3 horn section for a version of his own "Move Your Hand". Perhaps the best example of blending the music generations is veteran bassist Ron Carter joining up with Thelonious Monk’s son, T.S. Monk (drums) for a rendition of the elder Monk’s "Evidence". Every single tune is a unique document and was especially made for this compilation. In many instances, the musicians were brought together for the first time just to record the track.

It is this final recording that makes one really appreciate the impact and presence of the Blue Note Label. It is the combination of the old and new; traditional and experimental and young and old that brings forth one’s appreciation of jazz music. Regardless of one’s generation, personal taste or musical background, all of the participating musicians are bound by the common theme of making music. Blue Note acts as this common theme’s bonding agent. The label’s original mission statements in 1939 stated: "Any particular style of playing which represents an authentic way of musical feeling is genuine expression. By virtue of its significance in place, time and circumstance, it possesses its own tradition, artistic standards and audience that keeps its alive." After hearing the boogie woogie of the 1940s; the bebop of the 1950s; the soul jazz and avant-garde of the 1960s and the jazz eclecticism that has been occurring ever since; it is easy to realize Blue Note’s uncanny ability to capture the sounds of a particular era. As Blue Note musicians such as Charlie Hunter, Stefon Harris, Greg Osby and Medeski, Martin and Wood continue to pave the way, it is also easy to ascertain that Blue Note’s influence on the development and growth of jazz is far from over.