Blue Note Records Celebrates 80th Anniversary with Documentary ‘Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes’ (DVD REVIEW)

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is a film not only for jazz lovers, but music appreciators, historians, and culture buffs. It explores the vision behind the iconic jazz label, centered on the themes of artistic freedom, the continual forward push of creative expression, and the values of social consciousness. There’s more than just music here; there is plenty of humanity too. The “Winner of the German Documentary Award for Best Music Film” is now available in DVD, Blu-ray, and digital formats.

Why Germany? There are a couple of reasons. The Swiss filmmaker Sophie Huber is a member of an award-winning Berlin film collective , for which she co-directed several films before her critically acclaimed debut, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction. Astoundingly, this is only her second documentary.  The other prime reason is that the co-founders of Blue Note were two jazz loving German immigrants, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, who escaped Nazi Germany to a better life in the states. They had a deep respect for freedom, were embraced by the musicians, and formed a “quartet” of sorts with a New Jersey optometrist moonlighting as a recording engineer, Rudy Van Gelder, and a commercial designer, Reid Miles, responsible for the iconic Blue Note album art.

The film begins with a group of contemporary label artists in the studio, beginning a remarkably thoughtful thread that runs through the film, as these artists comment on their impressions of the icons who preceded them. In a masterful touch, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter join them in the latter half of the film (more on this later). The contemporaries were assembled by current Blue Note President Don Was, (who also has a major role in the film), for the 75th Anniversary Concert but they are in the Capital Studios during the film, first performing Glasper’s composition “Bayyinah” – Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire, Marcus Strickland, Lionel Luecke, Kendrick Scott, and Derrick Hodge. As each of them reflect on the importance of the label, citing the original artists as “innovators and game changers” with Herbie Hancock interjecting “they caught the humanity and freedom in the music.” Marcus Strickland talks about the music now and then n these terms – “how we feel about America, going back to an era we fought to get away from from….bringing freedom and hope.”

The next segment details the fascinating history of Lion and Wolff, boyhood friends who came to the U.S. in 1939 and formed the label for the love of the music and expression of art, rather than as a money  making venture. Beginning with stride pianists Meade Lux Lewis, James P. Johnson, and Albert Ammons and then artists like Sidney Bechet before basically establishing bebop. Lou Donaldson provides some interesting anecdotes as do Hancock and Shorter with Herbie saying “…allow the music to emerge without being shackled.” Michael Cuscuna, Blue Note producer and historian now oversees Wolff’s photographic archives, revealing several brilliant examples which then segues into the album art, each cover being different but all somehow recognizable as Blue Note.

Much is devoted to how Lion took a big chance on Thelonious Monk; of all the bebop artists he could have chosen. The film footage here and elsewhere is well worth the DVD alone.  They didn’t make any money with Monk and had to abandon him but it’s the embracing of a new artist, a brand new sound, which is the testament of Lion’s vison. From here several classic artists like Bud Powell, John Coltrane (Blue Train), Freddie Hubbard (Breaking Point), Miles Davis (Somethin’ Else w/Cannonball Adderley), are examined before a great segment about Clifford Brown and the original Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Live at Birdland (1954). That band had Brown, Donaldson, Horace Silver, Blakey, and Curly Russell. Donaldson again provides insightful comments about both Blakey and Brown. Later Blakey appears with Bobby Timmons on piano for “Moanin.’” That later leads to a discussion on  how Both Blakey and Silver defined the label sound for the next 30 years – the beginning of “hard bop.” It’s fascinating to hear Don Was talk about how revolutionary and radical it was at the time.  

The film gets back to the importance of certain albums but when Hancock and Shorter join the other six in the studio for Shorter’s “Mescalero,” this becomes one of the best segments. Shorter begins by wondering if any of the music they made in early years would have value later before Was talks about Shorter’s “Speak no Evil” offering everlasting value for meditation. The musical piece itself is amazing but the commentary is just a memorable. Kendrick Scott says,” I saw how each individual relinquished the leadership. Being in a band with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter,,.I’m looking to them but they’re waiting for me to do something. They want to see what you have to offer. This is very important. Everybody has a voice. You have to be courageous.” Herbie Hancock pays off the discussion with “Music is about collaboration and freedom”

Shorter and Hancock reminisce about their days with Miles with Hancock explaining a huge lesson he learned from Miles when playing a chord “so wrong” at the height of a blistering gig in ‘’64 or ’65. “Miles just took a breath and then played some notes that made my chord work, He heard it as part of the music. It taught me a lesson that I try to pass on – to not be judgmental.” Don Was then transitions from the modal music that Hancock and Shorter made for the label into Blakey’s iconic Free for All, recorded between the March on Selma and the passage of the first Civil Rights bill. The contemporary artists reflect on how the original artists were dealing with segregation and racism.

Cuscuna relates how in 1966 the label surprisingly had two big sellers that made it to the pop charts – Lee Morgan’s Sidewinder and Horace Silver’s Song for My Father. The label ran out of copies in 48 hours, distributors exerted pressure to make more and when Lion was reluctant, they delayed paying him, leading to cash flow problems and the eventual sale to a bigger company, Liberty. Lion left in 1971, Wolff in 1971. From 1974 to 1984 the label was dormant, producing no jazz. According to Terrace Martin, jazz told the stories of the inner cities and without it, hip-hop began to fill that void in the ‘80s. This leads to an interesting sequence drawing parallels between jazz and hip-hop, the use of jazz sampling form Lee Morgan, Donaldson and others by artist like Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul and Eminem.

New owner in 1984 Bruce Lundvall talks about signing Norah Jones and later Robert Glasper. Don Was receives accolades as the new President because ”he’s got ears” and is not a corporate type. Glasper and Martin then bring us to the present speaking about the merging of R&B, hip-hop and jazz. Akinmusire even says, “hip hop and jazz are the exact same thing” as the film touches on the community of L.A. musicians that made Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly.  The film does a superb job of exploring how the label today continues to reinforce its original values and is a bastion of expression for African-Americans and others. Kendrick Scott has the perfect closing quote – “{We} gotta keep handing it down the way Herbie and Wayne passed it to us.”

This could be some of the best two hours spent understanding the importance of music in America during the last century. It becomes even more provocative when you realize much of the evolution of jazz and Blue Note was during the developing years of R&B, rock n’ roll, and folk music – history that many know well.  This history is arguably more important – art for the sake of art, not commerce. Director Sophie Huber lets us know that Blue Note is not just an historic label. Its essence is still very vital.

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One Response

  1. Harold MELVIN &the blue notes and their best hites music platinum jazzblue notes good music interest in any of these commemerables

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