Blue Note Records at 80: Can a Symbol of Jazz’s Past Help Shape Its Future?
By Giovanni Russonello
July 26, 2019
The name Blue Note Records calls to mind a once-regnant sound in jazz: the hard-bop of the 1950s and ’60s, with its springy four-beat swing rhythm, its spare-but-lush horn harmonies, its flinty, percussive piano playing. Imagine a smoky room with a horn player blowing fiercely over a strolling standup bass, and you’re hearing the Blue Note sound. Think of a modernist, cobalt-hued album cover, with blocky title text and a photo of a studious young musician hunkered over an instrument, and you’re envisioning the Blue Note look.
It’s been a long time since that fantasy was a reality — for jazz or for Blue Note, which turns 80 this year. Since the 1960s, the label has been through numerous corporate mergers, partial shutdowns and creative readjustments, all while working to keep pace with shifts that have left jazz in a state of diffusion: Much of its forward motion is happening on the fringes, and there’s hardly a mainstream sound to speak of.
“Jazz” today encompasses an entire ocean of post-collegiate musical work: highbrow traditionalism, renegade funk, droning free improvisations. Jazz musicians now have to be improvisers deeply trained in the American tradition, with roots in the blues. Beyond that, almost anything goes.
Sign up for the Louder Newsletter
Stay on top of the latest in pop and jazz with reviews, interviews, podcasts and more from The New York Times music critics.
When the musician and producer Don Was took over as Blue Note’s president in 2012, “The mission was to keep the Blue Note aesthetic alive, and carry it forward,” he said in a recent phone interview. So what does that mean, exactly? What is jazz today, when the very notion of genre seems to have gone defunct?
In the past few years, the star pianists Robert Glasper and Jason Moran both declined to renew their contracts after well over a decade on Blue Note. Mr. Glasper is increasingly making music beyond the pale of jazz, while Mr. Moran is concentrating more heavily on multidisciplinary work and releasing his own albums. In a D.I.Y. age, some artists might see diminished benefits in associating with a legacy organization that sports the tagline “The Finest in Jazz Since 1939.”
Robert Glasper’s “Black Radio,” the first full album with his electric band, the Experiment, won the Grammy in 2013 for best R&B album.Peter van Breukelen
But Mr. Was has managed to pull together a roster that has its own uncontainable energy, and a healthy mixed identity.
Last year the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire put out a twisty album called “Origami Harvest” with a string quartet, a rapper and a three-piece jazz band playing together. This spring the vibraphonist Joel Ross led a traditional-looking quintet through 12 fresh, deeply felt original tracks on his debut album, “Kingmaker.” The pianist James Francies released his own fine debut, “Flight,”and the drummer-composer Kendrick Scott continued a strong run with the sonic tapestry of “A Wall Becomes a Bridge.”
“The old ’50s and ’60s Blue Note era is still like the Old Testament for any jazz musician, but it’s grown beyond that,” said Michael Cuscuna, a record producer who worked to enshrine much of the Blue Note catalog in reissues and archival releases.
He spoke highly of the younger generation, saying he was astonished by the expanse of their talents. “They go all the way back to the beginning, and they’re charting the path for tomorrow.”
Blue Note’s Beginnings, and ’80s Revival
Blue Note knows that history is its greatest asset. Each time the label hits a major anniversary, it takes a long look back, and repackages the past. This year, Blue Note has been rolling out vinyl reissues from its midcentury glory days; limited-run canvas prints of old album covers; even a commemorative G-Shock watch, with release-party concerts in New York and Los Angeles.
The label started as a passion project. Its first stewards, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, were German-Jewish immigrants who had fled the Third Reich, and shared a devotion to jazz.
Their early recordings came with a manifesto printed on the cover: Jazz, it said, “is expression and communication, a musical and social manifestation, and Blue Note records are concerned with identifying its impulse, not its sensational and commercial adornments.” From the start, Lion and Wolff were concerned with finding the musicians on jazz’s cutting edge, and letting them tell their stories. Before hard-bop became Blue Note’s stock-in-trade, their releases ranged from swing to Dixieland.
Francis Wolff and Alfred Lion at the Blue Note office in New York, in April 1959.Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images
Lion typically produced the records and Wolff photographed the recording sessions, which, starting in the 1950s, were almost always engineered by Rudy Van Gelder, who ran his own small studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. It was there that Art Blakey recorded the various iterations of his ensemble, the Jazz Messengers; where Herbie Hancock made his first and best albums as a leader; where Wayne Shorter cut some of the most cited recordings in jazz history.
In “Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes,” a thoughtful documentary looking at Blue Note’s first 80 years and its present day, Mr. Shorter recalls that Lion and Wolff were openly hostile to commercial imperatives, but aware of the music’s real worth. “They were hearing this music not only as music,” he says, “but as a valued treasure.”
By the mid-60s, Lion’s deteriorating health led him and Wolff to sell the label to Liberty Records, which was quickly acquired by an insurance company. Jazz’s popularity was on the wane, and under new supervision Blue Note’s output took a turn toward airy funk records. Many have not aged particularly well, though some — like Donald Byrd’s “Black Byrd” and Bobbi Humphrey’s “Blacks and Blues” — caught the spirit of the times, and became hits.
In the late 1970s, the higher-ups at EMI — which had acquired Liberty’s catalog — let Blue Note wind down. Mr. Cuscuna, the record producer, continued to reissue a handful of items from the back catalog, but for the better part of a decade, the label released no new albums.
Finally, in the mid-80s, after coming under the aegis of Capitol Records, Blue Note was revived, and the executive Bruce Lundvall came in to run it. He brought a dedication to jazz, and to the original ideals set out by Lion and Wolff. He took seriously the Young Lions — a group of fresh-faced musicians intent on reviving that classic hard-bop sound, among other parts of jazz’s earlier history — but he also invested in artists uninterested in traditionalism: kitchen-sink conceptualists like Geri Allen, Greg Osby and Jason Moran. It’s possible to hear multiple different histories of jazz in the 1990s, depending on which Blue Note records you pick up.
The trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who joined Blue Note in the ’90s and still records for the label today, straddled the divide. But he felt at home with Lundvall. He’d gotten pressure while on Columbia to make “concept records,” which are easier to market, but at Blue Note, he said, “Bruce wanted me to be me.”
Terence Blanchard said the executive Bruce Lundvall, who helped revive Blue Note in the mid-80s, “wanted me to be me.”Peter Van Breukelen/Redferns, via Getty Images
Peer-to-peer sharing upended the record industry around the turn of the millennium, and Blue Note declined to renew contracts with some of its artists. But then in 2002 came a kind of deliverance: Lundvall took a chance on Norah Jones, an unknown 22-year-old pianist and vocalist who was just getting her feet wet in New York’s jazz and singer-songwriter scenes.
“He wasn’t sure what I was all about, and I wasn’t sure what I was about either,” Ms. Jones recalled recently. “So he gave me some money to make demos.” That material eventually led to “Come Away With Me,” Ms. Jones’s debut, which sold roughly 30 million copies worldwide.
Norah Jones’s blockbuster album, “Come Away With Me,” shifted Blue Note’s profile and trajectory.Amy T. Zielinski/Redferns, via Getty Images
In a 2009 article in The New York Times, Lundvall said that he had begun to reimagine Blue Note’s profile after that release, envisioning that albums in “the adult sophisticated pop area” could now help subsidize the label’s investment in cutting-edge jazz. After Ms. Jones broke, he signed Van Morrison, Al Green and others with broad baby boomer appeal.
But it’s possible to see Ms. Jones’s album — lazing in the breach between folk, jazz, country and soul — as part of a tradition that already existed at Blue Note.
The vocalist Cassandra Wilson had recorded a couple of boldly spartan, creatively devastating albums for Blue Note in the mid-1990s, when she was one of those anti-conservatism dissenters. They directly inspired Ms. Jones. “To me, that was sort of like, ‘Oh yeah, I can totally be on this label and still find myself in other genres,’” Ms. Jones said. “It was very inspirational.”
Ms. Jones, in turn, became an inspiration to Kandace Springs, a young vocalist and pianist who is currently preparing her third full-length album for Blue Note. It will feature a duet with Ms. Jones, both women singing and accompanying each other on electric keyboard.
Kandace Springs, one of Blue Note’s signature younger artists, is preparing her third full-length album for the label.Steve Jennings/WireImage, via Getty Images
A Modern Sound for the 21st Century
Roughly 90 percent of the 1,200 or so titles in the Blue Note catalog are now available on Apple Music and Spotify, and about three-fourths of the company’s album revenue last year came from streaming and sales of its vast catalog, according to the label. Just a quarter came from new releases.
But the label reinvests much of that revenue in promoting its new artists — even when the returns tend to be modest. With jazz and experimental music catching a fresh gust of interest from young listeners, Blue Note sees an opportunity to put its cachet to work, and re-establish itself as an influence on the music’s future.
If Mr. Lundvall found his meal ticket in the Starbucks set, Mr. Was is tilting toward a more youthful listenership. He appears to be thinking about the twin popularity of streaming and vinyl among consumers under 50. But he’s also staying the course with older Blue Note fans: the seasoned straight-ahead jazz listeners, and those boomers at the coffeehouse.
Mr. Was’s first signee for Blue Note was Gregory Porter, a baritone whose powerful gentility has made him one of the label’s biggest sellers. A month after Mr. Was’s arrival, Mr. Glasper released “Black Radio,” the first full album with his electric band, the Experiment. It sold the equivalent of more than 300,000 albums, and won the Grammy in 2013 for best R&B album.
To some degree, “Black Radio” illuminated a Blue Note history — running through Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder,” “Black Byrd,” the acid jazz records Charlie Hunter was making for the label in the 1990s and Madlib’s album of Blue Note remixes, “Shades of Blue,” from 2003 — that could continue into the present. Mr. Was signed the Experiment’s bassist, Derrick Hodge, to his own deal after the success of “Black Radio.” The following year, Blue Note released its first record by José James, a hushed baritone with a D’Angelo-like funk band behind him.
Meanwhile, he spruced up the label’s commitment to its legacy figures: instrumentalists like Dr. Lonnie Smith, Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter, each of whom has a long Blue Note history. They’ve all released albums in the past couple of years, and each one pushed into bold territory: Mr. Shorter’s LP had help from a chamber orchestra, and included an original graphic novel; Mr. Carter’s record was a collaboration with the radical Brooklyn poet and painter Danny Simmons.
Certainly, there are huge portions of the jazz world that Blue Note doesn’t represent. Since the 2000s it has backed away from what small relationship it had to the free-improvising avant-garde. And its roster lacks, for instance, any female instrumentalist who doesn’t also sing. But the label has its ears open to a busy present day, and it seems fair to infer that the boundaries are moving only outward under Mr. Was’s leadership.
The vibraphonist Joel Ross offered 12 fresh, deeply felt original tracks on his debut album, “Kingmaker.”Tom Jamieson for The New York Times
“Kingmaker,” the debut album from the 24-year-old vibraphonist Joel Ross, is a record that seems to have both devotees and casual listeners talking. It’s full of tightly layered compositions with crossing rhythms and downhill momentum, and a chatty, hyper-articulate vibe that feels distinctly millennial. You can hear his debt not only to the Blue Note vibraphone tradition — Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson in particular — but to Herbie Hancock’s records on the label in the ’60s, and to Mr. Akinmusire, a 37-year-old trumpeter whose slippery influence is all over Mr. Ross’s writing.
“Kingmaker” is built of beautifully indeterminate music, both historical and hip in the way Roy Hargrove’s was in the 1990s, or Lee Morgan’s in the 1960s. But Mr. Ross is not quick to impose any big narrative thread around his generation.
“A lot of the music from Ambrose’s generation and Glasper, I feel like they were just finding and pushing the limits on how jazz could be fused with other styles,” he said in an interview. “We want to take the fusings and build something that’s still as traditional, and honest to us.”
Mr. Was, for his part, said Blue Note intends to come along for the ride. “I think in the ’60s there was a Blue Note sound, and you could put the needle down and you’d know that it was a Blue Note record before you even knew whose record it was,” he said.
“You can’t do that today, mainly because artists are used to having a little bit more freedom. You can’t tell them who’s going to design their cover for them, you can’t tell them who’s going to mix their record, and you can’t force them to conform to a company sound,” he added. “So they’re all different, and I’m proud of all of them, and they all add up to a total picture.”