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80 years of Blue Note:
Foundation and hard bop years

Blog
80 years of Blue Note: Foundation and hard bop years

04.03.2020

Text: Cem Kayıran
Illustration: Saydan Akşit
Translation: Yetkin Nural

Born in Berlin to a Jewish couple; Alfred Löw - aka Alfred Lion - got interested in jazz during his early youth in the same city. When he moved to New York City in 1937, dreaming about releasing the records of jazz musicians, did he know that he was about to create a defining label for jazz? We do not know. But with musician, writer, activist and journalist Max Margulis’ financial and creative support; Lion’s dream came true. Soon after, another German immigrant, photographer Francis Wolff joined the duo and his involvement marked the foundation of Blue Note’s signature visual aesthetics. The label’s first release was Meade Lux Lewis and Abert Ammons’ improvised piano records from 1939, and even though the label’s initial vision was to release traditional jazz and swing recordings, it didn’t take long for the focus to shift towards modern jazz.

Many music authorities mark the beginning of this shift with the release of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” in 1947. Even though Monk’s song did not necessarily satisfy the critics back then, in time it has found its place among the exceptional standards of jazz history. Actually, same can be said for all recordings from Monk that came out of Blue Note for the following five years. By the second half of 1940’s, names such as Fats Navarro, Bud Powell and Tadd Dameron also joined Blue Note’s catalogue. 1950’s took off with releases from the young talents of the time, Horace Silver and Clifford Brow. Recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s introduction to Blue Note team in 1953 helped both shaping the character of the “Blue Note sound” and acceleration of the label’s rise. The recordings that Van Gelder did from a studio he built in his family home offered a unique listening experience to the period’s jazz community. In an interview years later, iconic musician Herbie Hancock described the motivation of Rudy Van Gelder, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff with these words:

“They were trying to support the goal that we were always seeking which is to allow the music to emerge without being shackled.”

In jazz history, 1950’s is defined by the hard bop movement, which borrows from blues, gospel and jazz traditions with an emphasis on piano and saxophone. And without a doubt, Blue Note was one of hard bop’s major houses.  Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver and Clifford Brown were among the important names of the rising movement. With a distinctive focus on new talent; the label released debut recordings of tens of musicians such as Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan and Jackie McLean. Masterpiece albums of John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Cannonball Adderley became the most successful releases of Blue Note catalogue at this period.

In 1956, Reid Miles joined the team for album covers and provided a major contribution to label’s signature visuals. Under Miles’ supervision, Blue Note adopted an innovative approach to graphic design and cover aesthetic that was pretty far from the accustomed ideas and traditions, making its catalogue a joy to look at as much as to listen to.

When we arrive to 1960’s, the major highlights from Blue Note catalogue are certainly Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock’s milestone albums. Dexter Gordon, Lee Morgan, Freddie Redd are also among the prominent names of the period. We should also note that by the mid 1960’s, Blue Note expanded its catalogue to new horizons with the introduction of free jazz releases. Cecil Taylor, Grachan Moncur III and Larry Young are some of the musicians that released the most avant-garde recordings from Blue Note, a label that has been identified with hard bop.

Here are some of our highlight album suggestions of Blue Note from the aforementioned period:

Horace Silver - Horace Silver and The Jazz Messengers
(1956)

This is the first Blue Note album from Horace Silver as the orchestra leader. A jazz classic in its own right, this is also the first recording in quintet format from Horace Silver, who will continue to record with this format throughout the rest of his career. According to the legend, “The Preacher”, one of the most famous songs from the album, was also the source of tension between Alfred Lion and Horace Silver. It is said that Horace Silver convinced Lion, who finds the song “too old school”, with threats of not giving his permission for the release if the song was not included in the album. The cover, which features a photograph of the musician captured by Francis Wolff, is as legendary as the album itself.

Cannonball Adderley - Somethin’ Else            
(1958)

Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Hank Jones, Sam Jones and Cannonball Adderley... Somethin’ Else takes its name from a Miles Davis composition and also features the legendary musician in a sideman position, which is pretty rare to see in Davis’ career after 1955.  A very special recording from the hard bop period, Somethin’ Else manages to be groovy, romantic and dignified. And a fun detail: It is possible to hear Miles Davis calling out to the producer, Alfred Lion, at the end of “One for Daddy-O”: “Is that what you wanted, Alfred?"

John Coltrane - Blue Train
(1958)

Certified as a “Golden Record” from RIAA, Blue Train is the only Coltrane album from Blue Note that features the legendary musician as leader. The rumour goes that Alfred Lion and Coltrane did not make an official deal for the record. The amazing harmony between John Coltrane, Lee Morgan and Curtis Fuller on the wind instrument partitions made Blue Train one of the widest sound palette offerings among the period’s hard bop releases. Blue Note released a special edition of the album in 2015 with four extra recordings.

Wayne Shorter - JuJu
(1965)

Featuring the rhythm section of John Coltrane’s orchestra, JuJu is one of the period’s albums that highlights obvious African influences. Shining bright with its songwriting as well as Elvin Jones’ timeless magical performance at the drums; JuJu makes its audience feel the perfect communication between its orchestra members throughout the six tracks. Many music authorities agree that McCoy Turner’s performance in this album is one of the peaks in his career.

Herbie Hancock - Maiden Voyage
(1965)

One of the first albums that comes to mind when we speak of Blue Note, Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage is a conceptual album that was inspired by the musician’s interest in marine life and science. Introduced into Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, almost all five songs in the album has become jazz standards. The orchestra that accompanies Hancock includes Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, George Coleman and Tony Williams.

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