Blue Note: 60 Years and Still Counting Off
In the beginning, it was a labor of love and crusader zeal, launched by jazz-obsessed refugees from Nazi Germany. In January of 1939, Alfred Lion and Francis “Frank” Wolff channeled their intrigue with jazz into the thing they called Blue Note, humbly at first. As time went on, they released important music by many of the giants of jazz, and had honed a sound in Rudy Van Gelder’s now-mythic studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. By the ’60s, Blue Note was an entity that both fed off of and fueled the mythology of what jazz was.
Jazz labels are never about smooth sailing, of course. At the ripe and evermore ripening age of 60, Blue Note Records has been around long enough to have weathered huge life changes, shifts in corporate environment, new eras and sub-eras, and has prevailed. More than any other label in the jazz scene, Blue Note represents the vision and constancy of America’s great music, and the saga continues.
At the 50th anniversary mark, it had only been five years since Bruce Lundvall had taken the reins of the newly-revived Blue Note, after it had dwindled into inactivity by 1980. But the New Blue Note has now been around for a healthy decade and a half, long enough for it to establish a new identity. It may be a more complex identity than the Lion-era label, with a roster that includes iconic tenor saxist Joe Lovano, pianists Jacky Terrasson and the virtuosic Gonzalo Rubalcaba, guitarists like the renascent hero Pat Martino and the young, so-called “acid jazzer” Charlie Hunter, psychedelic post-groovers Medeski, Martin, and Wood; the highly successful and inventive vocalist Cassandra Wilson; and the envelope-pushing alto saxist Greg Osby, among others. It's a varied bunch, needless to say.
But then again, Blue Note always challenged any stereotypes entertained about the label, as any historical overview reveals. And history- and navel-gazing are the order of business around the company this year. The 60th birthday festivities included a month of Blue Note artists descending on Manhattan's club circuit in January, and a 20-city American tour, a revue sporting younger Blue Note artists.
Now in a music outlet near you is a limited-edition 14-CD box set entitled The Blue Note Years, compiled mostly by Michael Cuscuna, who has been instrumental in dealing with the riches in the Blue Note archives—indeed, whose passion for that material led him to form the respected, archive-oriented Mosaic label—and has been closely associated with the new Blue Note since its revival. The set's 7 two-CD volumes cover various phases of the Blue Note story, from the seminal stuff of "Boogie Blues and Bop," to "The New Era," covering the late '70s forward. We hear the classic '60s material of "Hard Bop and Beyond," the self-explanatory "Organ and Soul," and a sampling of more left-of-center archives, "The Avant Garde." "It was a very safe avant garde," Bob Belden says of the label's cutting-edge ventures during the '60s. "It was very romantic avant garde—Dolphy, Ornette, Andrew Hill... Cecil [Taylor] made probably his most lyrical record for Blue Note, in terms of the totality of the music. I would say it's like beautiful avant garde."
The seventh volume, organized by Belden originally for a project in Japan, is dubbed "Now as Then," and features current Blue Note artists offering up versions of classic Blue Note material. The message of a continuum is clear: Blue Note is here to stay, even if its textures and themes are subject to change.
An assortment of key Blue Note figures, within and outside the music itself, recently spoke about the label and its legacy.
Bruce Lundvall (head of Blue Note)
It was the thrill of a lifetime to be offered the job to start the label again, because it was my favorite label. I had a great many of the records in the catalogue in my personal collection. The big challenge, I guess is: how do you step into Alfred Lion's shoes, given the history of the label?
Fortunately, early on, Alfred was still living and he came to the Blue Note concert at Town Hall that we did in 1985, so we got to know each other quite well, until he passed away. Basically, we started by signing artists who had been on Blue Note before, who were still playing well-like Tony Williams, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Smith, Stanley Turrentine, Freddie Hubbard. And then we began looking for new people who we felt would be in the mold of the tradition of Blue Note, looking for young players.
It was interesting: our first signing was Stanley Jordan, who actually had an enormous success with us. The first album sold close to 700,000 worldwide. It was on the Billboard jazz charts at Number 1 for a full year. So it was a great way to restart Blue Note, with a new signing. Alfred loved him. He thought he was the kind of original artist who Frank Wolff would have signed. The idea is, of course, that we have to make money, as a label. But we want to try to keep the label in the spirit of the original Blue Note. I think, for us, it has to be a label for its time. Therefore, it has a broader perspective than the original Blue Note, which reflected the personal taste of Alfred Lion, obviously. Also, what we're attempting to do is to represent the music in its best sense for today. We've put a real priority on finding some of the more adventurous and hopefully more original of the new straightahead artists, including people like Greg Osby and Stefon Harris and Jason Moran.
Of course, it takes a long time for people like that to sell enough records to make it viable, from a business end. But that is balanced out by the fact that we have the best-selling jazz vocalist, Cassandra Wilson, and Dianne Reeves is a major success for us over a long period of time. She was the first vocalist that we signed. And then we've gone into this whole area with Charlie Hunter, which represents another area of jazz that is appealing to a younger market and not necessarily people who listen to jazz. These guys play in venues that rock and rollers go to, as opposed to jazz fans.
Basically, what we do is stay out and night and look for people, and try to find the more original players. I rarely sign anyone with the thought that we're going to sell a lot of records. I try to find people who are musically more original and hope that, in time, they will sell.
One of the things that I found very surprising for me was when I first met Alfred Lion. This was right before the Town Hall concert. We had dinner in New York. The first question he asked was “What are you going to do to make money?” I never thought of him that way. I thought of him as a purist. But he said “No, no, we had The Three Sounds, we had Jimmy Smith. We had ‘Sidewinder.’ You've got to be careful. You don't want to be out of business. You want to sell something.” That was surprising to me. He wasn't a purist. But a lot of those records that sold, even though they were commercial, were very good.
While Alfred was alive, we always asked him to comment on the signings and the records. He was very favorably disposed to people like Michel Petrucciani and Stanley Jordan. He loved the Joe Henderson at the Vanguard records. He thought those two volumes were among the best ever done on Blue Note.
The catalogue is what pays most of the bills. That's 50% of our business, and of course, it's all amortized. The thing that we have to hope for now is that we're building a catalogue for the future, with the new signings. After I'm off the planet, the next guy doing Blue Note will hopefully have a legacy that will mean something and still have viability. That's the hope you have.
Michael Cuscuna (consultant and producer)
For me, (the revival of Blue Note) was very exciting, and there was a great sense of relief, because I'd been trying to jump start Blue Note for years. It had a slow slide into dormancy, from about '75 to '81, when everything completely ground to a halt. By that time, Horace Silver had turned in his last album. He was the last artist under contract. The series of previously-unissued sessions came to a halt. In the summer of '81, it was completely dead.
Mosaic [Records] was just one chapter of the plan Charlie Lourie ? and I had to restart Blue Note. At the time, [Capitol Records] wasn't ready to deal with it yet. Bruce was the ideal person, in terms of taste and integrity, to handle Blue Note. It was a great relief that Bruce was involved. He called me in to consult on reissues and to put together an all-star concert for Town Hall. Beyond that, he never officially hired me to do anything.
It was good, because we really had a common philosophy on what the label should be, which was essentially acts with crossover potential, but that were not formula acts. We also felt it was important to get a lot of the people who were so much a part of Blue Note, who were still playing at the top of their game, involved.
But we also wanted to explore was new young talent. That proved to be very hard. It was not apparent that there were a lot of young straightahead players around in 1985. That's why we started that band, OTB (Out of the Blue), which we started with open auditions. It was a way of finding out who the hell was playing. Wynton and Branford had gotten a foothold, but still, acoustic jazz was still suffering from skipping a generation during the '70s, because of fusion.
In the '50s, when I started to get into Blue Note as a kid, as a buyer, what made Blue Note stand out from all the other labels was the care that went into it. They didn't put out blowing sessions and jam sessions. There wasn't an uneven quality to it. It was the first label on which I began buying people I'd never heard of.
The artists would go over the material and spend a week rehearsing it, so that once they got into the studio, they could do difficult material but still get it in an early take. The solos were fresh and the performance was absolutely clean. Those ways of working enabled musicians to write better and write more, and really do structured arrangements that made the music work better than ”let's try this” in the studio. That meant a lot to me. In the new era, we're doing a lot of different things in a lot of different ways. That's just the way the world is, with different studios, different producers, different sounds. While we're trying to be mindful as possible of what Blue Note meant, we don't want to be stuck trying to reproduce what was once. We're just trying to move forward on a project-by-project basis. I don't think there is a Blue Note sound the way there was at one time. I don't think there has been since the late '60s.
Horace Silver (pianist)
I was supposed to play piano on a date with Lou Donaldson, who I had already made one album with. Alfred Lion called me, about three days before the session and said that, for some reason, Lou couldn't make it. Alfred said, “Look, I've already engaged the studio. Why don't you come up and do a trio album for me?” I said, “solid.” Luckily, I had a lot of compositions on the shelf. I went through them and practiced them. That's how it started. It was an act of fate, I guess.
I just played. I have no recollection, from those days, of striving to push in a new direction. I just did my thing. As I look back on it now, I see that some of the stuff from then, did push in a certain direction, with the funky thing and the Latin thing, the way I approached the gospel music—the ingredients I had in my music.
As a result of my influences, from boogie woogie and the blues and the gospel and the Latin music and the bebop and the Broadway show music, we got to make some recordings that were commercially successful. Suddenly, we were selling records with songs like "Senor Blues" and "Filthy McNasty" and "Sister Sadie" and "The Preacher," and other people started to write and play funky. They were trying to sell records. Of course, I always wanted to sell records, but my conscious intention was not a commercial one. I just did what I thought was good music and focused on what I liked.
Alfred and I had a very good relationship. He let me do my thing. I guess that's one reason I stayed with him so damn long. He wasn't trying to do a Pygmalion job on me and try to make me into something he thought I should be. He knew I was conscientious and I would never approach a session unless I was prepared and had my material together, thoroughly written and thoroughly rehearsed. In those days, we had the advantage that I was working all year 'round with my band, so we could play the material before we recorded it. Most of the time, he would approve of what we were doing and say that he liked it.
It was not just an employer/employee thing between Alfred and I. We were friends. We loved to eat [laughs], and so did Frank. They knew where all the great restaurants in town were. And sometimes, we'd just go out and hear some music together. One thing about Alfred: he didn't stick around in the office all the time. He went out to hear live music a lot. A lot of those record company owners and producers stick in the office and deal strictly from there. They didn't get out into the clubs that often. But Alfred was always in the clubs, listening, discovering new talent.
Wayne Shorter (tenor and soprano saxophonist)
The nature of the Blue Note recordings were laid out so that there was no apparent regimentation before we went there. On one record, we made it in six hours. The record only cost $1,500. You probably want a looseness when it came time, because a lot of emphasis was put on how well you improvise in relation to storytelling. You might be just concerned with technique and putting your best foot forward.
If a president of such and such a country comes to this house, that might be displayed as everything you know about etiquette. Technique and etiquette are alike. But we didn't do that. We had a head start.
Back when Lee Morgan and I were still recording with the Messengers, we were talking about getting tight. When you're recording in the studio and no one's there, you tighten up because you go into something that you think is frozen and cannot be changed, you go for the best you can pull out. The only frame of reference you have for whatever that best is what you've already done. You go against yourself.
But if you start thinking about what is the best in terms of all other recordings that you've ever heard, and they all become a conglomeration at that one moment, you hear a bit of somebody. It doesn't have to be an instrument. You might hear a bit of a singer who seems flawless. It seems like some of those Sinatra record are flawless, the voice didn't crack or break. They wouldn't let things go like that anyway. You look for things you can see that producers of past recordings missed.
Also you think that audiences who know nothing about music can see it because they know nothing about music. Sometimes that happens. So, in the early recording stages, you try to be regular, not this, no tense. Trying to be all those “nots,” a certain ingredient probably comes into play—a certain stage of you.
Freddie Hubbard (trumpeter)
Lee Morgan and I really liked each other. You know, at one time he was bigger than Miles, when Sidewinder came out. I used to follow him around. I went out and bought me a sportscar like he had, drive down Broadway by Birdland. Miles was looking at us. Lee had it, man. But he didn't know how to take care of it. He was a brilliant cat when I first met him. He had a brilliant tone. He could play that fast stuff (sings a brisk line: "duga-dut-dugga-dugga-dut"). I could never play that stuff, but Lee could do it.
Lee Morgan was brilliant, but I had maybe a little more hipness going on, for playing the chord changes. But he had the soul, that got to the people. It used to make me mad, because no matter how good I played, he'd play one good lick and the people would go crazy. But we were two young guys, kind of rivals on the scene in a way. We used to hang out. He knew he had been there before me and was better than me. You know, he was with Dizzy when he was 22. He learned a lot of shit from him.
When I got him on that date, The Night of the Cookers, he had been off for about a year-and-a-half. I said “Lee ain't going to play nothing. I'm going to get him.” He must have practiced or something, because he came on and played so much good stuff, I was so amazed. I had to sit down. I was scared to play. I said, “There's something wrong here. This boy hasn't played for a year and a half and hasn't played anywhere.” After about the first set, he starts to wear out, but let me tell you, man, that's a record date I will never forget. The Night of the Cookers—that's going to be a classic. It is a classic.
Andrew Hill (pianist)
[The early '60s] was an interesting period, because places like Birdland and the Half Note were dying around it. All of a sudden, it came into focus where creative activity could be done in some kind of way that seemed to be marketed directly to the jazz connoisseurs. It was a period where everything was in place.
There were so many great known and unknown musicians getting together on the planet. It was the apex of the popular music period for jazz. Look at the way one would look at race in that day: the black race had a certain goal that united it. In music, it had relativity. I don't know if [the Blue Note scene] was a fraternity, because this was inclusive of all the fellowship at the time. All one had to do was to be part of that experience, which had to do with more than just going into the studio—although that was frequent.
It was just the time, and I feel fortunate to have been directly from that period. I just try to keep on going today [with that spirit]. It couldn't help but influence my evolution, because Alfred Lion was a brilliant man, and it was really an honor to come into contact with his presence. He was someone who gave you full participation. Those things could only help anyone evolve.
Joe Chambers (drummer)
Blue Note was a black jazz musician's label. They only recorded black jazz musicians, from the very beginning. Just about everybody notable has gone through there, including Miles and Max and Mingus and Monk. Everybody in the modern era went through there.
Alfred had the blues element in him. That's the philosophy of the old Blue Note. When I came along in the early '60s, it was still there, but the core group that I came up with—Bobby Hutcherson, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson—we were trying to advance the music. We were doing stuff that I guess you could call avant garde, but we had very firm roots, in terms of swinging and the blues. They allowed us to do that.
Blue Note had a distinct sound, too, and that was partly due to Rudy Van Gelder, the engineer. He had a distinct way of recording especially drums, bass, and piano, the standard quintet sound. Most of the young engineers today don't know how to record drums with all the heads on them. They don't know how to record a bass drum with two heads, for instance. They're orientated to the rock sound and these drums without the heads.
But Rudy had all the drums right up front. You could hear every nuance of every piece of the kit. It was right there, but it wasn't overbearing, but sitting right in front. It was almost as if he was recording sitting behind the drums. That's the concept. He understood that.
We would rehearse for about a week. After that, we really had a concept together. We had a sound and we were into the music. We went in and we hit it, usually recorded in one day. Anybody tries to prepare themselves to record, although in fact it was more like a family the way they approached it back then.
You do a session today, and the president of the company is not usually there. Alfred was always there. He and Frank Wolff would be sitting there—not in any authoritative way, but just there, getting into the music. They were there at every rehearsal. It was more like a family situation.
Joe Lovano (tenor saxophonist)
When you think about it, within the history of the music, they covered so much ground as a label. It is definitely the passion of the people who have run the label through the years.
Live at the Vanguard was really two records, with two groups I was working with at the time. We recorded them within a year. That was a hip thing, too, which was Bruce's idea. Originally, it was just going to be the one quartet with Tom Harrell. Then Tenor Legacy came out, and I had a week at the Vanguard with Mulgrew Miller, Christian, and Lewis. After the first set the first night, Bruce said, “Oh man, we have to record. We'll put out a double recording.” He hit me by surprise, because I was playing material from Tenor Legacy, with Josh. So I worked up a whole new repertoire by the weekend, and did another date, and put them out together. That was beautiful. I didn't even hit on him to do that. He just heard the music.
I think that's important with record companies, to let the artists do what they do. You're chasing after the artist sometimes. Blue Note, in its catalogue, has always recorded music of the moment, and that has really lived on. And that has inspired other players to get themselves together, too. I know that's what it did for me—all the records by Hank Mobley, Andrew Hill, Joe Henderson, McCoy Tyner, Wayne Shorter. They were so important for my development.
It was only on Blue Note that my career really started to blossom. Development-wise, I think it was right on time. When I was in my early 20s, the music I was playing, I would have had to record strictly for ECM or another European label at that point, in 1974 or '75. During those years, it was pretty much a rock and roll, fusion scene as far as the American companies went. They were more commercial.
That was a period when I was developing. I wasn't even thinking about recording as a leader. I had moved to New York and was hearing all my favorite players, and was trying to get myself together. If the opportunity had been there to record some of the things I was doing, of course, I would have jumped on it and would have done what I would have done [laughs]. But the situation wasn't there. When I started to tour in Europe more, and in the early '80s when I started to record for ECM with Paul Motian, I started to meet those people. Then I started to record for those labels myself.
But as far as really starting to blossom, things came right on time with Blue Note, as far as my relationships with people and other musicians, and as far as who I am as a player, and not who I'm recording for, or who someone else wants me to be.
Pat Martino (guitarist)
I was playing at the Blue Note club in the Village towards the end of '95, and two significant proposals came before me, simultaneously. One came from Matt Pierson, from Warner Bros. The other came from Bruce Lundvall. Both of them came to me during the stint there. From that point, it was primarily a decision on my behalf. There is a difference between Blue Note Records and some of the other labels. It's much more comfortable in terms of the aesthetics. I personally believe that Bruce Lundvall himself makes sure that exists at all times, as opposed to being consumed by other reasons or needs.
Out of all the labels I remember from my childhood, of significant authenticity, Blue Note still exists. That's partly why I took the contract with them, along with other comforts that went down. They offer the freedom for the artist to have the last word, down to mastering and packaging. That comes from someone who is deeply concerned with authenticity coming from the artist. It's a definite protection of each others' identity in the process. I see that from Blue Note more than anyone else.
Historically, the label had a big influence on me. It was Art Blakey and Horace Silver. It was Jimmy Smith. It was Clifford Brown, it was John Coltrane-Blue Train. I could go on, and add Grant Green and Lou Donaldson. There are so many different players that, as a child on my end, I was affected by. But I was also affected by other jazz labels at that time.
Due to being a young sideman with Willis Jackson [in the '60s], I was scoping out what was taking place. The two biggest labels for me in 1963 when I was a sideman, were Prestige Records and Blue Note, as a buff. Of course, there were Riverside, Columbia, Pacific Jazz, and others, but those two labels were different than all the rest.
I had an opportunity to be a leader, and Prestige records was available to me. In a sense, it's a homecoming for me to be recording with Blue Note. It brings me back to a time when there were two labels that I had the opportunity of considering as my future. Blue Note was not available at that time. Finally, for it to not only become available, but for it to become solidified as a way of living and thinking, has been the achievement of a long-term commitment.
Stefon Harris (vibist)
One thing that I like about Blue Note is that they tend to encourage original music. They encourage their artists to go out and explore, and they let you document what you want. Looking back in the past, that must have been the philosophy of the label. When you look at Herbie's first record, it was almost all original music. Most of the people they were recording at the time, Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey with Wayne Shorter and all these people, were writing original music.
I think they have always encouraged that sort of sound. That was definitely a consideration in my choosing to go with Blue Note. They're extremely hands-off. They give you a budget. You go make the record and bring them the masters. Of course, that has its ups and downs, but certainly the most significant benefit of that type of process is that the artist is really allowed to explore and experiment. Also, an artist is allowed to make his or her mistakes along the way. That really fosters a person's growth, when you put them in the water and let them swim.
I feel that, when producers get too involved with young musicians, they can really hamper his or her growth. It's important to let the person do what they're feeling at that moment, because it may be something that's in development. It may be in their style, something that's unfamiliar to the producer but that is resonating truth from within this artist. He should really allow them to get that down on tape.
People may not appreciate something right now, but ten or fifteen years from now, they may get it. No one appreciated Monk initially, and I'm glad that Blue Note chose to document this guy. They were trying to decide between Bud Powell and Monk, at the time. Everybody said, “Well this guy Monk doesn't have the technique and he writes these crazy compositions,” but Alfred heard something in this guy, as an individual. He signed him and let him document the music and now we can really appreciate it.
I haven't been 100% dedicated to any organization, but I've been a part of some very strong organizations, like Lincoln Center. It has a philosophy. I've been able to walk into that environment and take from it what I thought I had to learn from it, and then walk away. With Joe Henderson, I've got a lot more to learn from him. To walk into something with someone like him, who has such a clear concept, you can't help but walk away with a lot of significant stuff.
We're trying to foster that kind of environment with this collective [on this spring's Blue Note New Directions tour]. We're all young musicians and have known each other for years. Again, we've already been working together, and here's an opportunity to work together every night and to play each other's original music, because we're all composers.
Bob Dorough (vocalist-songwriter)
[In the early days], I never even hoped to be on Blue Note. It just seemed like such an icon amongst jazz labels. I wasn't even paying that much attention to Blue Note in recent years. I knew they had a fantastic library of early recordings. My early recording was on Bethlehem, which was also a pretty good label in the '50s. I did my first jazz vocal album as a leader for them, The Devil May Care.
As a matter of fact, when I was signed to Blue Note, I had been attempting to make a private production of a CD. I'd already had an unsuccessful live recording at the Jazz Bakery in L.A. Something went wrong with the tape. So when Blue Note got serious, I played it and gave this bad cassette to Bruce. I said, “Here are some songs I like. I was actually trying to make a record. What do you think?” He said, “I like those tunes. Let's do that.” So it turned out to be a model for my CD. I guess that doesn't happen too often.
I did it in two sessions. One included my fellow man, Bill Takas, who recently died—in November. I'm going to miss him a lot. He was my fellow troubadour. We used to barnstorm all over the continent and also Europe. We were a big little two-piece band, with voice, piano, and bass. He played on half the album, with Grady Tate on drums. The other half of the CD was done in a studio in New York. I had Joe Lovano and Billy Hart and Christian McBride. That was very exciting for me. I just chose the tunes that each group would play. I'm an old record producer, you know, so I think of the final product quite a bit.
I hope I can make several albums for them and that they'll be successful enough that they'll be able to keep me on. I have a lot of ambitions to go on to bigger things—bigger band, if you please. You know, I love writing, too. I do orchestrations and all that. If I ever get to the point where I can do Bob Dorough with Strings, why not?
I went to the press party for their 60th anniversary, and they had a lot of people, like Ruth Lion, Alfred's widow. It made me feel busting at the seams, being so proud to be on Blue Note. Of course, if you think of all the artists who have recorded for them over the years, my goodness, I'm just honored to be in the same bin. It's a great justification for my long struggle.
Greg Osby (alto saxophonist)
I had been courted throughout my tenure [with the JMT label], but I'd had my reservations about being on a label that represented so much of the standardized presentation in music. I didn't want to have to succumb to being a real straightahead kind of guy, or playing up to the young lion ideology that was so prevalent at the time. I signed with them only when I was certain that I wouldn't have to make any musical concessions.
I'm proud to contribute to the living legacy. It's a label that has spawned some of the most prolific composers and dynamic leaders and personalities of any era. I can't attribute it to the label, solely. The label is just an outlet for the musicians, who create the art. But Alfred Lion did stay out of people's way.
I kind of wish I had been part of the old Blue Note, because they cranked out more product. That's a frustration right now. We're caught up in the business of the music business, and not the business of making music. So you put out one record a year and then they'll shop it and market it, as opposed to selling jazz the best way, which I think is by volume. The more product you have out there, the better the chance of an artist being acknowledged as a contender.
There's a whole new crop of young players on Blue Note who are about to tear the roof off the sucker. We have Jason Moran, we have Stefon Harris, Mark Shim. It's going to turn around. It's a great period right now. We're on the threshold of a new millenium. The cats are shedding the skin of the '80s, that whole young lions thing. Hopefully it has come and gone.
These young cats were weaned on hip hop. They're of the hip hop generation, addressing America's classical music. They have a whole lot of other things that will work its way through the music. It may not be very obvious, but there are rhythms and delivery. In hip hop, they lay back the beat, which we have accepted as the swing feel.
We're on the threshold of a new evolution, based upon what went down in the '80s and '90s. It's time. It's high time.
Bob Belden (musician-producer)
Blue Note, for years, has been the only label where there has been a lot of artistic freedom, more so than anybody—even more than independent labels. They have the money to experiment, on a certain level. They have the bread to give you a string section, or to give you a famous person who's rather expensive. If you've got something that they all agree needs that extra umph, then you've got it. Don Byron's record, New Black Exploitation, was not an easy record to put together, financially, because it's such a complex project and so many parts had to be fulfilled that you fast get into spending money. But the results are that you wind up with a one-of-a-kind record, which, I think, after a period of time, will pay for itself handsomely. Don Byron is just getting smarter and smarter.
In a sense, there's a left side and a right side to the label. The right side is fairly conservative. Some of the younger artists, like Mark Shim, make fairly conservative records, and then you have people on the left side who make kind of bizarre records—Osby's records on the hip hop tip, for jazz audiences, were completely bizarre. For the Blue Note fan, they were saying, “Whoa, whoa,” not realizing that the Blue Note sphere is where the musician goes.
The beauty of Blue Note is that you're encouraged so much to make your own choice. A lot of people have problems with the way record companies are run, but somebody is giving you $25,000 to make a record, or 30 or 40 or 50, and they don't ask for the money back. What other business does something like that? Then you go in and make this sound on a magnetic tape, and it comes out of little boxes on the wall, and people say, “yeah.” What is this? This is the fantasy world of the music business.
Originally published in April 1999