Blue Note Records - A passion for jazz | Music | DW | 09.01.2014
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Blue Note Records - A passion for jazz

The unique Blue Note Records label can look back at a long history. Founded by two Jews from Berlin who fled the Nazis, a dream became reality when the label's first recording came out 75 years ago.

Singer Norah Jones

Singer Norah Jones signed with Blue Note in its modern incarnation

Alfred Löw heard Dixieland jazz for the first time while on a summer trip to Swinemünde, on the northwest coast of what's now Poland. Löw would later call the experience "the beginning of a life-long love affair with jazz." Advertising photographer Frank Wolff, on the other hand, heard jazz for the first time in Berlin's Admiralspalast theater.

The two German immigrants ended up meeting in New York, changed their names to Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff and turned their hobby into their occupation at the end of the 1930s - founding their own record label Blue Note Records. The characteristic "blue notes" of jazz and blues, played primarily by African-American musicians at the time, came to define the label.

Discriminated founding fathers

It's possible the discrimination Lion and Wolff, as Jews from Berlin, had experienced influenced their decision to offer oppressed black musicians in the US a professional forum. Lion and Wolff not only paid for the recordings; they also paid for music lessons - an approach almost unheard of at the time.

Boogie-woogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis

Boogie-woogie pianist Meade Lux Lewis

Soon, one after another of the country's most popular jazz musicians came to Blue Note Records, including star pianist Thelonius Monk, who, along with drummer legend Art Blakey, can be heard on one of the label's first recordings.

'It must schwing!'

After World War II, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff created a brilliant team for Blue Note Records - drawing in tenor saxophone player Ike Quebec as a talent scout and the legendary recording engineer Rudy van Gelder. Together, the four would lay the foundation for a jazz label that achieved cult status. Their secret motto was a bon mot of Alfred Lion's that stemmed from his German accent: "It must schwing!"

The stylistic palette of the young record label broadened quickly: from its roots in hard bop to more modern and popular bebop, like that for which trumpet great Miles Davis is famed.

But the official slogan of Blue Note Records is more to the point: "The Finest Jazz since 1939."

CD cover of Miles Davis' 'Kind of Blue'

Blue Note has been a springboard for jazz legends

A meeting of greats

Forefathers of modern jazz such as Academy Award winner Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane, saxophone legend Charlie "Bird" Parker and many other jazz greats would remain closely connected to Blue Note Records. Blue Note flourished most during the 1950s and 60s, but Lion and Wolff ended up selling the label in 1967 to competitor Liberty Records. United Artists then took it over and sold it later to EMI-Capitol. The end of Blue Note came in 1979, when Capitol took on the big names into its own repertoire.

However, the label was revived as a Capitol sub-label six years later. Having passed through many hands, the small label reoriented itself artistically, and discovered talents such as American soul and jazz singer Norah Jones.

Musical re-orientation

As a result of the global success of Jones, who is a daughter of sitar virtuoso Ravi Shankar, the oeuvre of the venerable record label has continued to evolve. Country and roots music is no longer taboo, with soul musicians such as Al Green and Van Morrison signing with the label, as well as country legend Willie Nelson.

The new blood at Blue Note remains a class unto its own: American singer-songwriter Amos Lee kicked off an international career in the music business through Blue Note. Many record labels also tried to woo fellow musician Priscilla Ahn, but she proudly signed with Blue Note.

International line-up

Even Götz Alsmann is with the label

German entertainer Götz Alsmann

Blue Note Records is now owned by Universal Music, one of the world's most successful record labels. And it doesn't just work with American artists: it's also taken on singer-songwriter Keren Ann, who has Dutch and Israeli roots, and Spain's Chano Dominguez, inventor of flamenco jazz, for example.

Many other excellent musicians have also put their own stamp on Blue Note, such as German entertainer Götz Alsmann. He's released his last three albums with the label - singing Schlager, chansons and jazz songs from the mid-20th century in German. That may not be what jazz purists are after, but in a sense, it brings the history of the 75-year-old label founded by German immigrants in the US full circle.

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