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June 2008

Blue Note: A Story of Modern Jazz

The story of the classic jazz label Blue Note is essentially the story of Alfred Lion, a German emigre whose love affair with jazz began in 1926 when he saw Sam Wooding’s Chocolate Dandies as a young boy in Berlin. “It was the first time I saw colored musicians, and I was flabbergasted,” he recalls in this excellent 90-minute documentary from 1997, written and directed by Julian Benedikt. “It was something brand new and it registered with me right away … it was the beat. That beat got into my bones.”

Lion would eventually leave Nazi Germany in 1938 and seek out the source of that beat in America. A year later, he formed Blue Note Records and debuted with a recording of boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade “Lux” Lewis, who had performed on the “From Spirituals to Swing” program at Carnegie Hall which Lion attended the previous year. He scored his first legitimate hit for the label later in 1939 with Sidney Bechet’s “Summertime.” Lion went on to produce a thousand records in the years that he had Blue Note, and it’s safe to say that a vast majority of those albums have since entered into the pantheon of jazz classics. A catalyst and a visionary, he had an instinctive knack for what sounded good. As he often said, in his thick German accent, “It must schving!” During his tenure at Blue Note, Lion discovered and promoted such uncompromising artists as Thelonious Monk, Herbie Nichols, Andrew Hill, Sam Rivers and Cecil Taylor. But he also produced some hit records, including Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder and Horace Silver’s Song for My Father.

Francis Wolff, Lion’s close friend from Berlin, would follow Lion’s path to America in 1941. Wolff documented all the recording sessions with his stunning black-and-white photographs that graced the covers of countless Blue Note albums, the most striking of which were designed by Reid Miles. Lion eventually sold the label to Liberty Records in 1966. Wolff passed away in 1971 and Lion died in 1987.

Benedikt’s fast-paced documentary features insightful commentary from Blue Note artists Lou Donaldson, Bobby Hutcherson, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon, Johnny Griffin, J.J. Johnson, Gil Mellé, Bob Cranshaw, Max Roach and Horace Silver, renowned engineer Rudy Van Gelder, producers Bob Belden and Michael Cuscuna, filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier, former basketball star and lifelong Blue Note fan Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and rock guitar hero Carlos Santana. Lion’s first wife Lorraine Gordon and his second wife Ruth Lion also provide personal anecdotes about the man and his music. The film includes rare footage of Monk, Hill, Taylor, Hubbard, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver and Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers. We also see performances of “Cantaloupe Island” by an all-star ensemble of Hancock, Carter, Tony Williams and Hubbard and “Moanin’” by Art Blakey with Griffin, Hubbard, Walter Davis, Jr., Curtis Fuller and Reggie Workman, both from the 1985 Town Hall concert film, One Night With Blue Note, celebrating the return of the legendary label.

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