Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Blues of note

 Right top Rudy Van Gelder.

An excellent addition to Richard Havers first book on Verve and Norman Grantz. This Blue Note title visually follows the same format with plenty of artist photos, LP covers and printed ephemera from the label's past decades. The text, though, follows a different style from the Verve book which interspersed the history of the label with spreads devoted to the performers. In these Blue Note pages seventy-five albums are given a spread or more with a large graphic of the cover, performers, tracks and a few hundred words of background about the album. The first record spread is frequently followed by a page or two with addition photos and related material about the artist.

The first ninety-nine pages cover Alfred Lion's early years and his arrival in New York during 1936. He started Blue Note in 1939 with Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons as the first stars of the label. WW2 slowed recording activity until 1944 when Lion (then thirty-four) started to record a more contemporary sound with Ike Quebec, who became the A&R man for the label. The fifties were the start of Blue Note's golden years and in particular 1953 when Rudy Van Gelder began to record the label's musicians.

I've always thought that part of the success of Blue Note was the sound Van Gelder created in his studio. The tracks always seemed particularly loud with tremendous presence, perfectly in keeping with the feel of East Coast jazz at the time. Page eighty-four says that he recorded the music with high decibels, far more than other sound engineers (in recent years Blue Note CD re-issues have been marketed as 'Rudy Van Gelder masters'). Another original facet of the label was the creative sleeve design by Reid Miles, either using the stunning photos by Francis Wolff taken in the windowless Van Gelder studio or just using type only. Type with maybe with a simple graphic was something other jazz labels picked up on to keep their covers distinctive in a crowded LP market.

The label changed in 1966 when it was bought by Liberty Records and in 1967 Alfred Lion retired. On page 197 he is quoted as saying 'I couldn't communicate with these people at Liberty, I do things my way and suddenly there were too many people and there were all these rules and procedures'. In fact jazz was slowly changing and Blue Note, to my mind, became just another record company releasing LPs with a much broader interpretation of jazz with vocalists a significant part of their artist roster. The book follows these changes and it's interesting to see the covers from the seventies onwards which have completely lost their Reid Miles style. The seventy-five records which the book's editorial is based on go up to 2103 with a release from singer Gregory Porter.

Alfred Lion, Rudy Van Gelder, Reid Miles and Francis Wolff were Blue Note to me in the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties when I was buying their records (now bought all over again with Michael Cuscuna CD re-issues). The book is a wonderful memory jogger for me, as was the Verve one, and it will fascinate others of a certain age. BL fans should also check out the two books of Francis Wolff photos and the lovely Graham Marsh/Glyn Callingham paperback of several hundred LP covers.

* I wonder if Richard Havers will write more books on jazz labels run by individuals: Pacific Jazz with Richard Bock; Contemporary Records and Lester Koenig would seem the next obvious choice.

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