blue note records

by Debra Scherer

If True Style is an expression of a belief system then the ultimate elegance of an idea or concept is merely a reflection of how solid its foundation of belief is. In the history of the “corporation” there is no better example of this conceptual elegance than Blue Note Records. It’s story reads like a case study of a rock solid creation of a brand that actually meant something. It meant something to the jazz fans, it meant something to the musicians who recorded for the label, and most importantly, it meant something to the founders and the team they put together to create, over and over again, what were considered perfect records. The sound was unique, the look was unique, and the performance each artist gave during his session was the best they ever did. The ‘team’ consisted of Alfred Lion, owner and founder, Francis Wolff, co owner and amateur photographer, Reid Miles, graphic designer, and Rudy Van Gelder, optometrist and recording engineer.

The label’s first brochure in May of 1939 carried a statement of purpose. It read: “Blue Note Records are designed simply to serve the uncompromising expressions of hot jazz or swing, in general. Any particular style of playing which represents an authentic way of musical feeling is genuine expression. … Hot jazz, therefore, 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.” This was their true vision.

They started an independent music label based on an aesthetic and never strayed from it in any aspect of the record making and selling process. Their devotion was exalted by the collaboration and inspiration that naturally effervesced through each jazz session. Whether it was John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock, or an unknown newcomer, every Blue Note record is a collector’s item.

As the music business changed in the 1960’s, Lion and Wolff sold the company to a larger corporate structure, and the sessions, many which were never released, were locked up in a vault, until a few curious and devoted industry insiders got together to identify, catalogue and reissue this great body of work. Its greatness is due to not one element but many; sound, vision, graphics, genius-all coming together to form the Blue Note Aesthetic.

Record producer Michael Cuscuna, referred to often as ‘Blue Note scholar par excellence”, describes so well the essence of the label.

“I was maybe twelve, and the owner of the record store I hung out in had bought a new release by Harold Vic, who was an obscure musician, and I said, “who the hell is going to buy this?” and he said, “it doesn’t matter, because its on Blue Note. Someone will buy it.” That was my first little lightbulb of awareness that Blue Note meant something. About a year or so later I found myself buying two new releases, just because they were on Blue note, and I took them home, and they weren’t musicians that I was familiar with, I played them both endlessly all weekend and I really got into them and was really drawn into this sphere of the music that Blue Note was doing and the whole aesthetic behind what they did. Somehow Blue note did convey a certain aesthetic and a certain sense of quality and a look that was head and shoulders above what everyone else was doing. In general, it reeked of quality, the whole attitude, because they paid attention to detail. It came through in everything, including, when it was just a record jacket sitting in the bin.”

” With blue note, the most amazing thing was that from four hundred yards, you could spot a blue note cover that you had never seen and yet, they don’t look like a series, there is no mold to the design, every cover was different, yet they all looked the same. And for Reid Miles to pull that off, I think was pretty fucking amazing.”

“To add insult to injury, he was like Mario Andretti, but blind. He never heard a Blue Note record, he didn’t like jazz. The only thing he listened to was classical music. Reid didn’t relate to it at all. He relied on Alfred Lion’s description of what a “date was like” when he was ready to design the covers, and just did it blind. And he created THE most perfect fucking cover for each album. I mean, if you take it out of the jacket and put that album on..Yes! Allright! That works. You know, Some of them are graphic and some of them are photographic, some “pull” out of the Bauhaus, they come from all different bags, but they all have that same feel and that is really a testament to Alfred’s communication skills and Rudi’s (Van Gelder’s) artistic acumen. When Alfred told me that Reid never heard any of this stuff, and never got jazz and didn’t like jazz, I was just amazed. Its one of the greatest graphic arts stories of the times. ”

Basically, Reid Miles did not design album covers that “looked” like what the music sounded like, but rather, he made visual representations of what the music ‘felt like’ to Alfred Lion. This was the key to their collaboration. The music inspired Alfred, and Alfred inspired Reid.

Because the photography was done casually by owner Frank Wolff during the sessions, Reid Miles could be innovative in the usage of the photographs in the design process.” Frank used to get a little pissed off,” Cuscuna continued, ” because he used to crop the artists face at mid forehead, and he said, “Frank, nobody gives a shit about their hair, its the face, that’s what they care about.” He used the shit mercilessly, he would chop and crop and use it in any design function and Frank was fine with it. He was a fairly ego-less guy, an enigmatic guy in a lot of ways, but ego-less nonetheless. That you can see just by taking a look through the archive of photos he took. They were as good as any photographer out there. He didn’t value this stuff, he didn’t put it out there, he didn’t put it on a pedestal, he didn’t try to market it, he didn’t try to increase his lot in life, and if you look at the photos, its frightening how good some of it is, just from a pure photographic point of view, it was extraordinary. And the fact that it was all done as candids on the fly, and if you look at the contact sheets, the percentages of good photos verses failed photos is remarkably high. But whatever drove him, it wasn’t ego. It was just love.”

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When it came to the Blue Note sound, Cuscuna had this to say:

“Rudi Van Gelder is a very finicky guy. Rudi was, like, a ham radio operator as a kid, and got fascinated with sound. He started to experiment with recording and then around 1950 started to record in his parent’s living room and came upon his own way of doing stuff. He worked for a few months at a recording studio, but other than that he is all self taught. Alfred was using a local radio station to record, which was the only way to record then if you were an independent label. There was a saxophone player at the time named Gil Melle, who he bought some masters from and Alfred liked the way they sounded and Gil had recorded them at Rudi’s. And that’s how Rudi met Alfred. Alfred and Frank went down to Hackensack (New Jersey) and said they wanted him to do some more. They sat together and had long conversations about “what things should sound like” and they developed a’simpatico.’ Within a year or two, everything was recorded at Rudi’s parents house, in the living room. You see it in the photographs. The Venetian blinds, the television, the table lamp, the whole fucking thing. The house was in the suburb of Hackensack New Jersey. He said ‘my parents home is very modern, so it had a lot of alcoves and it had a lot of angles and I just move microphones around and find ways to take advantage of those angles for a natural sound.’ He was in his early twenties working by day as an optometrist, and he found his own way of making records. ”

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“The key to his sound was two fold: from a technical point of view, he was brave to almost saturate the tapes with sound, something no one did to avoid distortion, he recorded just below this level and by filling up the tape with this much sound, he avoided what is known as ‘tape hiss’, much more than any other engineer did at the time of analog recording. He had heard enough live music, he wanted the recording experience to be similar to the live experience and that meant very vivid drums where you can hear the whole drum kit. If a drummer hits a snare hard enough, your eyes should blink. Jazz musicians have a lot of power, they were extraverted people and they forced a lot of wind through the horn and he was the first guy who really got the full power of that on tape. It was right in your face, it was like ‘heavy metal jazz’; he found that with his own instincts, you could hear every detail crystal clear as bell. ”

Again, it seemed to have been all in the details. Every Blue Note record was something special. The recording session was a frozen moment in musical history, captured and packaged every time by the same ‘team’, with the same purpose. The content was always unique while the intent never varied. In this time of uncertainty in the future of the music industry, this is an important story to tell. While the downloadable prepackaged song is all the rage, music companies should think hard about what product they believe they are selling today. What is their point of view? What are their true beliefs?