Think Blue Note Records and several things come to mind. First the music. From the angular melodic twists of Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane’s free jazz to later, the smooth sounds of Norah Jones, Blue Note has been at the forefront jazz for decades.
Secondly, the album covers. Designed by graphic artist Reid Miles, they were striking pieces of pop art that mixed photography and graphics in an eye-catching way that was almost as influential to design as the music contained within was to the world of jazz.
A new documentary, “Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes” by Swiss film-maker Sophie Huber, does a deep dive into the history of the storied label.
Co-founded in 1939 by German immigrants Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, Blue Note Records began life almost as a hobby for its and jazz fan founders. Early success with “hot” jazz and boogie woogie led to the more challenging harmonic sounds of bebop and hard bop during the label’s heyday.
Telling the story are luminaries like early sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder and musicians Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter who praise Lion and Wolff for not only guiding careers but treating the musicians with respect, both musically and financially. Younger performers like Terrace Martin and A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad speak to the label’s influence on hip hop and beyond.
Cramming 80 years of history into ninety minutes means big chunks of the label’s history are ignored or given a short shrift. Well-known names like Monk and Coltrane, for instance, eat up a substantial amount of screen time while legendary saxophonist Ornette Coleman gets barely a mention. Still, despite the film’s omissions, Huber has assembled a loving history of a cultural touchstone, ripe with wonderful music, archival footage and photography, that vividly bring to life the label’s influence on the way we listen to music.