Cause For Celebration: The Iconic Blue Note Records At 75

Blue Note Records is the kind of record label that people like to call “storied” — so celebrated and impactful that no one narrative can capture its essence. From swing to bebop and hard bop, through fusion and the avant-garde, Blue Note has been telling the story of jazz in the grooves of its records since 1939 — and for its 75th anniversary, it’s releasing remastered vinyl editions of some gems from its catalog. But the real legacy of the label is too big to capture on disc.

Even on a stage as big as the Kennedy Center’s in Washington, D.C., where dozens of the label’s stars gathered for a special Blue Note at 75 concert earlier this month, the label’s history felt sprawlingly diverse: Elder titans like Lou Donaldson shared the moment with pop contemporaries like Norah Jones. You can see videos of four of those performances here, or zoom in on the label’s discography with a look at 75 great Blue Note solos here.

NPR’s Melissa Block went looking for the big picture as well, gathering stories and insights from the label’s current president, Don Was, and many musicians from throughout its history. Read quotes from pianist Jason Moran, organ master Dr. Lonnie Smith and others below, and hear the radio segment at the audio link.

“I can’t remember the first Blue Note album I bought, but I do know my very first favorite Blue Note record — and that would be Speak No Evil, Wayne Shorter. It’s almost like a really amazing underground hip-hop record that didn’t go mainstream for some reason; that’s how it sounds. It just has a certain mood, a certain darkness and a certain honesty.”

— Pianist Robert Glasper, who released his Blue Note debut, Canvas, in 2005

“You won’t see this on the Grammys, and that’s a shame. I always say that if the aliens came to Earth and they watched one of these award shows, would that be the best America has to offer? I sometimes am unsure of that. And I want to make sure that the best of what Blue Note Records has to offer, at least a small portion of it, is on this stage, presented in the most earnest and honest way possible.”

Pianist Jason Moran (on Blue Note since 1999) on the importance of the Blue Note at 75 concert

“Blue Note captured you because of the liner notes and the cover art. There was an energy there; there was a hipness that you followed. The music followed the production, and the production followed the music. And you could just feel the love in each disc.”

— Saxophonist Joe Lovano. His Blue Note debut, From the Soul, came out in 1991

“Blue Note was the first to take the chance and the risk to record him as a leader — and not only did they record him as a leader, they called the recording Genius of Modern Music. That’s bold.”

— Library of Congress jazz historian Larry Appelbaum on Thelonious Monk’s Blue Note debut

“In this kind of music, change is part of the DNA. You’re supposed to play the music differently every night. You’re not supposed to repeat yourself; you’re always supposed to be pushing the threshold. So we’ve gotta continue to do that. I’ve never said no to something because it’s the wrong genre. I’ve said no to stuff — a lot of stuff — because I didn’t feel anything when I heard it.”

— Blue Note President Don Was

“Blue Note has a history. It’s a legacy. If they didn’t keep it up that would be a tragedy, because it’s just like the Empire State Building or the White House. It’s a monument. It’s part of life.”

Organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, whose playing on Lou Donaldson’s Alligator Bogaloo won him a Blue Note contract in 1967

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript :

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I’m Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I’m Melissa Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: For 75 years, the story of jazz has been written in the grooves of Blue Note Records.

LONNIE SMITH: Blue Note was a – that was the company. That was the hottest company, and they were not joking.

BLOCK: Hammond B3 organist Dr. Lonnie Smith started recording for Blue Note in 1967.

SMITH: Blue Note has a history. It’s a legacy. It’s just like the Empire State Building – it’s a monument.

BLOCK: And for a younger generation of musicians, like pianist Robert Glasper, who crosses freely between jazz and hip-hop, signing with Blue Note is proof that you’ve made it.

ROBERT GLASPER: I got a call in the morning. They’re like, hey, do you want to be a Blue Note recording artist? I was like, yeah. That was amazing when you consider all the lineage. It was surreal to me.

BLOCK: That lineage includes everyone from Sidney Bechet to Art Blakey, Bud Powell, John Coltrane and Horace Silver, from swing through bebop and hard bop, fusion and avant-garde jazz, and now all the way up to Norah Jones and Jose James. Blue Note Records is celebrating its 75th anniversary by remastering and releasing on vinyl some old gems from the catalog like Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil.”

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SPEAK NO EVIL”)

LARRY APPLEBAUM: This is some of the greatest music this country has produced.

BLOCK: Jazz historian Larry Applebaum with the Library of Congress.

APPLEBAUM: There’s a reason why these recordings get reissued over and over and over. Most of them never go out of print. People still want them. They’re still hungry for these kind of stories, the musical stories that are find in these recordings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “BOOGIE WOOGIE”)

BLOCK: We’re listening to the very first Blue Note recording Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis recorded in New York in 1939. The label was founded by an immigrant named Alfred Lion, who had fled Nazi Germany. Actually, the roots go even deeper. Lion had first heard jazz as a teenager in Berlin – Sam Wooding and his orchestra, music that got into his bones.

APPLEBAUM: And he said that just hit him like a ton of bricks. He heard something that just aroused his passion.

BLOCK: In New York, Alfred Lion was soon joined by his friend and fellow German refugee Francis Wolff. And together they did things differently at Blue Note. They paid, not just for the recording session, but also for rehearsals. That was unheard of. Larry Applebaum says while other labels stiffed artists on royalties, Blue Note paid them what they were owed. They encouraged original composition, not just a rehash of jazz standards. And, Appelbaum says, Blue Note took risks. In 1947, they took a gamble on a pianist who was widely dismissed as untrained with unconventional technique. His name – Thelonious Monk.

APPLEBAUM: Blue Note was the first to take the chance and the risk to record him as a leader. And not only did they record him as a leader, but they called the recording the “Genius Of Modern Music.” That’s bold. That shows a belief that Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff had in Thelonious Monk. And of course, history has worn that out.

BLOCK: For the last two years, Blue Note has been in the hands of Don Was.

DON WAS: To be president of Blue Note records is really deep, you know. It’s kind of like saying yeah, I’m the bass player in the Rolling Stones.

BLOCK: And that allusion reveals a lot about where Blue Note is today. Don Was made his name in the dance pop band Was (Not Was) in the ’80s. He went on to produce albums for everyone from the Rolling Stones to Elton John to Bonnie Raitt. But back in 1966 in Oak Park, Michigan, he was a teenager in his mom’s car listening to a jazz station by accident – WCHD.

WAS: The first thing I heard was the song called “Mode For Joe” by Joe Henderson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “MODE FOR JOE”)

WAS: There’s something about when his sole kicks in and he does these kind of animal cries…

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “MODE FOR JOE”)

WAS: …That right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “MODE FOR JOE”)

WAS: I’d never really heard anything quite like it. I don’t really have the words to describe the emotional foundation of what Joe Henderson was playing, but I could sure feel it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “MODE FOR JOE”)

BLOCK: You could feel it. And you could hold it in your hand. The Blue Note album had a distinctive look as well as sound. The jackets were works of art – moody, black-and-white photographs of the musicians taken by Francis Wolff, bold graphic design by Reid Miles.

WAS: I’d look at those pictures, and I mean, these guys sitting in this room that you couldn’t see the walls. It was all black. And there was smoke and saxophones and cool clothes. And I just wanted to be like these guys. I wanted to be in that room.

BLOCK: Now Don Was is in that room. And he’s committed to signing artists to Blue Note from outside the jazz world. Those changes don’t always sit well with musicians from the old school. Listen to 87-year-old saxophonist Lou Donaldson during his set at a concert for Blue Note anniversary this month at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOU DONALDSON: Now this band, we play music straight ahead. You’ll hear different kind of music on Blue Note Records, but this is a straight ahead set – no fusion, no confusion…

(LAUGHTER)

DONALDSON: …No Kenny G, no (inaudible), no Spira Gyro, No Heavy D, no Snoop Doggy Dogg…

(LAUGHTER)

DONALDSON: No 50 Cent, who’s not worth a quarter.

(LAUGHTER)

DONALDSON: Straight ahead music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: But to those who say that new artists and genres have diluted the Blue Note brand, Don Was says change is good.

WAS: In this kind of music, change is part of the DNA. You’re supposed to play the music differently every night. You’re not supposed to repeat yourself. You’re always supposed to be pushing the threshold. And the history of Blue Note Records is one of kind of revolutionary change in music.

BLOCK: He ticks through the revolutionaries in Blue Notes’ roster – the boundary pushing Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey with his wildly propulsive swing, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter with their intricate post-bop innovations.

WAS: We got to continue to do that. Now Van Morrison is an artist who is currently on Blue Note. And when he steps up to the microphone and sings, I don’t think there’s a whole lot of difference between that and Wayne Shorter stepping up to the microphone and playing. You know, their soulful, and they’re just laying it out there. And it’s deep – comes from the heart.

BLOCK: So genre, you’d say, doesn’t matter. Would there be any type of music, if it were great music, but just a different genre that would not belong on Blue Note?

WAS: I don’t know, you know. I mean, I’ve never said no to something because it’s the wrong genre. I’ve said no to stuff – a lot of stuff- because I didn’t feel anything when I heard it.

BLOCK: That’s Don Was, the president of Blue Note Records, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. You can hear the entire Kennedy Center concert I mentioned, including this performance by Norah Jones, at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NORAH JONES: (Singing) …That excites me. That thrills and delights me.

BLOCK: You’re listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.