Just in time for the holidays, Blue Note and Chronicle Books have published Uncompromising Expression, a gorgeous, 400-page hardcover tome celebrating the record label’s 75th anniversary. Authored by Richard Havers, this book takes readers through the evolution of Blue Note’s music-making history. It is a must-have for any jazz (or graphic design) fan, along with its companion box set of five CDs.
Blue Note Records was founded back in 1939 by Inspired in part by architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs, the recondite Van Gelder fashioned a perfect sound chamber by erecting a 39-foot tall canopy for his Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, recording studio, which functioned as a music cathedral for the artists. Van Gelder never gave away the trade secrets to his temple of sound. Blue Note was one of the few—if not the only label—that actually paid musicians to rehearse prior to recording them. This was most unusual for jazz musicians, but Alfred Lion insisted that they take the time to do so in order to showcase the artists at their very best. Blue Note went downhill following the death of Alfred Lion, when the label was acquired by Liberty Records. The iconic blue and white center sticker on every piece of vinyl was changed to an all-blue version. Reid Miles’ cover art and graphics was replaced by other photos and designs of lesser quality. But later and thankfully, under the stewardship ofAlfred Lion, a Jewish 18-year-old refugee from Hitler’s Germany who loved jazz, which had been condemned by the Reichstag as degenerate art. Emigrating to New York, the mecca of jazz, was thus a propitious move. Later, he would be joined by childhood friend and amateur photographer, Francis Wolff. With his special knack for photographing like a fly on the wall, Wolff captured some of the most intimate moments from the musicians’ recording sessions that you’ll see featured in this new book. Blue Note rose to become one of the greatest labels of jazz. Different from labels like Verve and Columbia, with their deeper pockets and bigger acts, Blue Note was not just about the singers. It focused on bebop and hard bop of the 1950s and 1960s. It also championed lesser-known players who were coming up on their own as jazz titans: Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon, and Herbie Hancock, to name just a few. Part of Blue Note’s greatness lies in its consistency: the amazing musicianship of its roster and the great sound of Rudy Van Gelder’s recordings. Bruce Lundvall, Michael Cuscuna, and General Manager Tom Evered, the label was revived to its former integrity and greatness.
Reading through Uncompromising Expression, I discovered some interesting little tidbits:
- That jazz singer Babs Gonzales was Erroll Flynn’s one-time chauffeur.
- Alfred Lion’s wife was the sexy model for the cover image of Sonny Clark’s 1957 album, Cool Struttin’ (pictured above).
- Sometimes Blue Note’s hip graphic designer, Reid Miles, had to farm out work due to overload: a young struggling artist named Andy Warhol did the cover art for Kenny Burrell’s album, Volume 2.
Current president Don Was (remember the ’80s band, Was (Not Was), and their video “Walk the Dinosaur”?) intends to reissue Blue Note classics on high-resolution vinyl LPs. The music world, particularly jazz fans, will be the better for it. There is also a wonderful book called The Blue Note Years: Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff, a great companion book to this new one. Here is a YouTube video showcasing Blue Note’s Uncompromising Expression: [youtube width=”575″ height=”360″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otmjxK6nNtI[/youtube]
and a film about Blue Note Records: