July 4, 2014

Blue Note: Strong at 75


Alfred Lion Founded The Pioneering Jazz Label in 1939; Today, The label Celebrates Its Rich History With Numerous Re-releases Of Classic Recordings

by Armand Lewis ~

Today, independent record labels are the norm rather than the exception. This was not always the case. In the 1930s, as America struggled out of the Great Depression, even the idea of an independent record label was almost unheard of. The costs of recording the popular big bands of the day was prohibitively expensive and even if a small company did manage to make some records, the big three record companies (Columbia, RCA and Decca) controlled virtually all distribution.

In 1939, a young German immigrant decided he would challenge that. In doing so, Alfred Lion would not only found the longest running jazz label in history, but he would alter the course of jazz music itself.

With his very first 78-rpm singles recorded on January 6, 1939, Lion’s vision for Blue Note Records was groundbreaking. Instead of the customary two minute long 10” 78-rpm single, Lion let his first two stars, boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade “Lux” Lewis, stretch out their tunes to over four minutes each. This extra time meant the records would have to be released on larger 12-inch 78-rpm singles. Usually reserved for classical music, 12-inch 78s allowed for extended performances — becoming somewhat akin to “long playing” records by the standards of the time.

Blue Note Grammy museum

Blue Note’s anniversary is being celebrated with an exhibit at the Grammy museum in Los Angeles.

Blue Note’s first real hit would come just five months later on June 8th, 1939 with Sidney Bechet’s classic recording of “Summertime.” Also recorded for 12-inch 78, this virtuoso performance not only revived the soprano saxophonist’s waning career, but also sparked a resurgence in New Orleans jazz that would continue into the 1960s.

But Alfred Lion and his partner, photographer Francis Wolff, were not content to merely record old favorites. By the mid-forties, as swing music gave way to modern jazz, Blue Note heard the new sound and was among the first to record such modern jazz masters as Howard McGhee, Milt Jackson, James Moody and Fats Navarro.

Several years later, the label also became known for recording, then cutting edge, artists such as Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and, later, organist Jimmy Smith — all of whom had styles that were unique at the time. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, Blue Note would record dozens of young jazz artists’ first records, establishing their recording careers and often producing their best albums.

Rather than recording just “blowing sessions” where musicians would re-record endless variations on pop tunes or standards, the label also encouraged original comp-ositions, pushing the boundaries of both song structures and arrangements and leading to a general expectation that jazz musicians should compose as well as play their own material.

All this resulted in a catalog of classic LPs produced from the 1950s through today that is too long to list here, but would include John Coltrane’s “Blue Train,” Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” Art Blakey’s “Moanin’,” Horace Silvers’ “Song for My Father” and many others.

The label’s independence would not last forever. As the record industry began consolidating in the mid 1960s, Liberty Records bought the label from founders Lion and Wolff, which led to ownership by United Artists Records in the early1970s when U.A. bought Liberty and later, Capitol/EMI, when that company bought United Artists.

Into the 1980s under label president Bruce Lundvall and currently under the leadership of producer Don Was, Blue Note has continued to record both innovative new artists as well as recognized jazz masters. Two years ago, Capitol/EMI was bought by Universal Music Group, bringing Blue Note under the same umbrella as the Verve, Mercury and Impulse labels.

Now, as Blue Note celebrates its 75-anniversary year, the label has embarked on an extensive vinyl re-issue program of their classic LPs, many of which have been unavailable on vinyl for decades. Their return is a welcome opportunity to fill out one’s jazz LP collection.

One hundred titles are scheduled for re-issue including some extremely rare 10” titles not heard since the 1950s. Legendary pianist Jutta Hipp’s only Blue Note 10” returns to print, as does tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley’s first LP — also an early 10” release. 10” LPs from Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis are also included among more familiar 12” titles by Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Herbie Hancock and many others. A full list of titles and release dates can be found at Blue Note’s website:

Under the personal supervision of label president Don Was, these re-issues are being mastered from the best source tapes available to have the clarity and instantly identifiable “Blue Note sound” of the originals. The album art is also as close to the original packages as possible. Priced under twenty dollars each, these editions are a real viable alternative to searching for rare, pricey originals.

Parent company Universal Music is also releasing multi-CD sets including Miles Davis’s complete Blue Note albums, Clifford Brown’s complete recordings for the label and John Coltrane’s early Blue Note recordings as a sideman.

The anniversary is also being celebrated at the Grammy museum in Los Angeles with an exhibit featuring an extensive collection of artifacts from the label’s history. Original tape boxes, photos and album art as well as instruments, original contracts and other rare and unique items are on display, giving an in-depth look at the label’s history and inner workings. For full information, go to the Grammy Museum’s webpage:

While celebrating it’s rich history and legendary recordings, Blue Note continues to record such artists include Terrence Blanchard, Robert Glasper, Gregory Porter, Norah Jones and, returning to Blue Note after decades away from the label, Wayne Shorter and Bobby Hutcherson. Don Was is also broadening the scope of the label, releasing new albums by rock icons Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and others.

The key word here is “broadening.” As the label embarks on it’s next 25 years, this inclusion of adult-oriented rock fits in with Alfred Lion’s original goal of recording “music with feeling” — allowing Blue Note to continue to record “The Finest in Jazz” for decades to come.


Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at


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