Francis Wolff's Blue Note Photos: A New Reason To Celebrate

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A second volume of Francis Wolff’s fabled photographs of Blue Note jazz icons has just been published by French publisher Flammarion, 20 years after an earlier book was published (“The Blue Note Years: The Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff”). I think this new book — “Blue Note” with photos by Francis Wolff and authored by Michael Cuscuna — surpasses the superb 1995 volume. Or maybe it is because 20 years has given us the wisdom that his photographs are — like the musicians in them — iconic.

Wolff was already a photographer in Germany before he escaped its borders during the Nazi regime in the late 1930s. In fact, he got out of Hitler’s Germany on the very last boat. He and Blue Note’s other founding partner, Alfred Lion, released their first record for the fledgling company in 1939, just when jazz was being condemned in Germany as atavistic and degenerate. Like many Europeans, Lion and Wolff (funny they both had animal last names; Lee Morgan wrote a song about that) had an outsider’s appreciation for this iconic American art form, a new world musical expression that broke the musical norms of European classical music.

Along with Reid Miles’ superb graphics, all Blue Note records had personnel listings right underneath Wolff’s photos of the musicians during the sessions. The design was iconic, the production values impeccable.

Blue Note records always treated their artists with consideration and respect. Unlike other labels, Blue Note artists were paid for three separate rehearsals before laying down final takes. Artists liked this treatment. Francis Wolff was the founder/cum official photographer who immortalized Blue Note sessions, a fly-on-the-wall, his Rolleiflex always at the ready. Musicians liked Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff because they got treated with respect and turned out their best performances because of it.

The two founders were always there in ‘s studios to bring out the best in their musicians. Van Gelder, who recorded 99% of Blue Note records, had his start in his parent’s living room in Hackensack, N.J. in the early 1950s. The studio owner went to optometry school by day, and recorded early sides by Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, and others by night. Later Van Gelder had to give up optometry to devote himself full time to recording jazz, and designed his new recording studio mecca in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. But in those early days at his parents’ Hackensack home, he had been only getting two hours of sleep at night. Not great for an optometrist.

This is the third book about Blue Note Records. Chronicle Books published “Uncompromising Expression” just last November. Blue Note is the greatest jazz label of them all, hence the numerous publications over the past twenty years. The thing, however, that distinguishes Francis Wolff’s photos from the images of two other great photographers — Herman Leonard and William Claxton — is that Wolff was always present in the Van Gelder studio when all these classic albums were being rehearsed and recorded. He truly captured the gestalt and essence of what makes Blue Note great.

Add to all this: Michael Cuscuna, producer of Blue Note reissues for decades and the world authority on the label and its history. Aside from his duties as a manager of Blue Note since 1984, he is the expert spelunker who descends into the Blue Note vaults, digs out the 10″ reels to find takes and outtakes on all Blue Note sessions. Cuscuna and Van Gelder have a long, fruitful, and symbiotic relationship. His lengthy introduction in the book recounts the history of the label and its founders. As the guy behind Mosaic Records, which researches and reissues box sets of great Blue Note sides, there is no better person to curate this great new volume.

As Down Beat magazine would have it, this one gets five stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐.

Here is Michael Cuscuna talking about Francis Wolff in a recent photo exhibition. Nobody is more qualified to do that…