February 5, 2016

The Look of Blue Note


by Armand Lewis

It’s rare to see what goes on behind the scenes in any artistic creation. Even more elusive is the opportunity to see the inner workings of an entire company throughout its most creative decades. While it was routine for photographs to be taken at recording sessions for use on LP jackets, there was only one record label in the world to systematically document it’s musicians at work as they created much of their best music.

Blue Note Records was fortunate to have a master photographer as one of its owners. Francis Wolff was a boyhood friend of label founder Alfred Lion when the two were growing up in Berlin. Wolff grew up to be a photographer before World War II, but in 1939 as the Nazi threat intensified, he immigrated to New York where his friend had recently started what would become the greatest jazz label in history.

Out of his passion for photography, when Francis Wolff joined Blue Note he started photographing the recording sessions that Lion produced. With the advent of the LP and the need for something to put on the cover, this turned into a business necessity. Wolff would continue to photograph all Blue Note recording dates until 1967. The photos he took during these historic sessions reveal not only the intensity of their subjects, but also the eye of a visual artist who had a sense of composition, lighting and spontaneity like few others.
After Alfred Lion retired from Blue Note in 1967, Wolff took over as producer and label chief. As he was now supervising sessions, this allowed less time for photography. All the photographs he took ended up with Lion, who kept them as souvenirs of his career. Nobody but Lion knew the photos existed until the mid 1980s, when he allowed Mosaic Records access to them for their re-issue sets of Blue Note material.

Blue Note Francis WolffFlammarion Publishing has just released the third book of Blue Note Photos by Francis Wolff, which is compiled by Blue Note and Mosaic Records producer Michael Cuscuna (ISBN 10-2080202208). Like its predecessor volumes, it will amaze anyone who has ever been exposed to the intense, evocative covers of the classic Blue Note albums from the 1950s and 1960s.

Selected from an archive of some thirty thousand images, the book presents one hundred and fifty photos ­— some of which have never appeared anywhere before now

These are no mere snapshots. Wolff’s images capture their subjects in moments of intense concentration, playful relaxation, and sometimes sheer exuberance at what they were creating. There are some portrait style photos, but the vast majority are truly action shots. Put on your favorite Hank Mobley or Lee Morgan LP while you thumb through the book, and you’re practically there in the studio with them.

Selected from an archive of some thirty thousand images, the book presents one hundred and fifty photos ­— some of which have never appeared anywhere before now. All the familiar Blue Note stars are here as well as sidemen who didn’t get their pictures on the album covers. Some familiar images that were used for album covers are represented, but even on the original LPs, they never appeared with such clarity. Naturally, the reader will recognize the LP cover shots, but presented here in their original state, one can see how even minor alterations in editing the photos for the album covers change the mood of a photo — giving it real impact. The photo captions for each image also reference the recording date and album session, which can make looking at the book while listening to the corresponding album almost a cinematic experience.

Though Francis Wolff would not emerge from behind the shadows of this great company until many years after his death, his creative contribution was truly immense. Both this new volume and the earlier books belong in the libraries of anyone interested in jazz or photography.

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


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