By Evan Haga
Plenty of jazz labels are revered for documenting specific epochs of the music’s timeline, but only the Blue Note Records catalog can claim vital contributions to a vast majority of jazz’s movements and eras.
Think about it: the bop of Monk and Bud Powell; the hard bop of Art Blakey and Horace Silver; the soul jazz of Jimmy Smith; the postbop of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter; the experimentalism of Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill; the funky fusion of Donald Byrd; the postmodernism of Jason Moran; the jazz and hip-hop synergy of Robert Glasper; and so much more. Few labels have defined any genre as comprehensively as Blue Note has informed jazz, and along the way, certain hallmarks of the Blue Note brand — Reid Miles’ design; Rudy Van Gelder’s recorded sound — have become as revered as the music itself.
This playlist series, approved by the label, celebrates Blue Note’s 80th anniversary by tracing the entirety of its story — in the process rounding up a Hall of Fame of jazz’s essential figures and recordings.
Hot Jazz to Bebop
The narrative of Blue Note Records, the world’s most storied jazz label and the music’s most iconic brand, is a quintessentially American one—a tale of two German Jewish immigrants from Nazi-occupied Berlin, the childhood friends Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, who changed American culture through sheer passion, ingenuity and perseverance. The label was hatched in 1939, after Lion, a hot-jazz devotee who’d recently been stunned by John Hammond’s legendary “From Spirituals to Swing” at Carnegie Hall, recorded two of that event’s acts, the boogie-woogie piano giants Meade “Lux” Lewis and Albert Ammons. With its mission to “serve the uncompromising expressions of hot jazz, or swing,” Blue Note experienced its first hit that same year with a recording of “Summertime” by the soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet’s quintet. While competing labels like Savoy and Dial quickly took to the jazz insurgency that was bebop, Blue Note offered its own invaluable documents of the birth of modern jazz soon enough, under the A&R-like guidance of saxophonist Ike Quebec. This playlist chronicles the label’s genesis through the trailblazing Blue Note recordings of Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Art Blakey, Tadd Dameron, Fats Navarro and other bop-era immortals.
Blue Note: Hard Bop & Soul-Jazz
As the ’50s dawned, the initial shock and awe of bebop’s progenitors gave way to a more fluid, graceful kind of virtuosity; bop’s groundbreaking language thoroughly internalized, musicians began working with sleeker contours in improvisation, expanded ideas about composition and less startling musical temperaments.
Blue Note made mighty contributions in this era, recording figures like the trumpeter Clifford Brown, the trombonist J.J. Johnson and Herbie Nichols, a genius pianist-composer whose influence continues to go underrated. Concurrently, the drummer Art Blakey and the pianist-composer Horace Silver started hardening bebop’s tenets with soulful, earthy elements from R&B and the church.
Tempos grooved rather than raced, and the writing and improvising took on the accessible, barroom-worthy melodic and harmonic angles of the blues. Enter the heyday of hard bop and soul jazz — and of Blue Note’s signature sound.
In addition to the aforementioned giants, this playlist features both ’50s bop highlights and primetime hard bop, with classic cuts by John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Lou Donaldson, Hank Mobley, Dexter Gordon, Lee Morgan, Grant Green and others.
Blue Note: Postbop & Avant-garde
Not unlike its late but crucial immersion in bebop, Blue Note made a number of the most important avant-garde jazz recordings a bit after the revolution’s rallying call was sounded. Thus the visionary ideas of the saxophonist Ornette Coleman, the pianist Cecil Taylor and other renegades became entrenched in Blue Note’s hard bop output organically. The results constitute another kind of golden age for the label, filled with recordings that continue to be revered for their balance of swing, blues and bop-rooted language with bristling dissonances, outré writing and extended improvisations.
Without pronouncing it, Blue Note seemed to be making an argument about the continuity inherent in jazz history — the fact that hard bop, soul jazz and the New Thing were more similar than disparate.
Essential Blue Note material from free-jazz architects Coleman and Taylor is included here, as are exploratory cuts by Eric Dolphy, Don Cherry, Tony Williams, Grachan Moncur III, Andrew Hill and more. And in tracks by Jackie McLean, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter and McCoy Tyner, one can hear the development of postbop — the far-reaching, progressive bop aesthetic that continues to serve as the baseline for developments in mainstream modern jazz today.
Blue Note in the 1970s
In 1972, the dapper executive George Butler took the helm of the Blue Note label following a tenure at United Artists Records. Blue Note co-founder Alfred Lion had left the organization in 1967, a couple of years after his label was purchased by Liberty Records. Lion’s friend and business partner, Francis Wolff, whose smoke-filled images of Blue Note sessions made him arguably jazz’s greatest photographer, died in 1971.
Butler soldiered on in a music industry swayed by rock and pop, with a mind to place talent like Grant Green, Ronnie Laws, Ronnie Foster, Bobby Hutcherson, Bobbi Humphrey and Donald Byrd in commercial settings, sometimes overseen by the Mizell Brothers, that were laced with wispy R&B, disco grooves and strings.
Though the bop faithful remained skeptical, these sessions found a wide-ranging audience and, thanks largely to hip-hop and DJ culture, their historical reputation continues to grow.
Blue Note: Rebirth
In the mid-’80s, the arrival of Bruce Lundvall as CEO meant a proper reactivation of the label after several years of dormancy, and under this generous, sage recordman’s guidance, Blue Note thrived on creative and commerce-savvy fronts.
Lundvall took on phenomena like the pianistic guitarist Stanley Jordan and the one-man choir Bobby McFerrin; guided a nonpareil program for reissues and previously unreleased recordings; recruited legacy Blue Note artists like Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw; invested in highly influential stylists like Don Pullen, John Scofield, Joe Lovano, Cassandra Wilson, Greg Osby and Jason Moran; and experienced unimaginable sales with Norah Jones’ debut.
Since Lundvall’s passing in 2015, Blue Note has continued to thrive through the leadership of producer and musician Don Was. In the image that Lundvall devised, Blue Note’s current roster continues to deliver jazz icons (Wayne Shorter, Charles Lloyd), rising bandleaders (Kendrick Scott, Joel Ross, James Francies), current headliners (Robert Glasper, Marcus Miller, Gregory Porter, Ambrose Akinmusire, José James), smart crossover bids and inspired historical packages. Eighty years on, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff’s original fervor remains.
(Photo credit: Francis Wolff/Courtesy of Blue Note Records)