We all know the big names of Blue Note Records—Coltrane, Rollins, Monk, Davis, Silver, Blakey, Hancock, Shorter, and so on—as well we should. But what particularly fascinates me about the label, which has chugged alongside of us for more than 80 years now, are those artists who sometimes elude our notice and study, but who are the most emblematic of what Blue Note was about. Think about dynastic sports teams: the early-1980s Islanders, the early-2000s Patriots. Sure, you have the big stars, but those squads were replete with performers who were maybe just a tick below the kings of the firmament. One tiny tick, if a tick it may even be.
Blue Note has been more than a label. It’s a sound—but not a limited, predictive one—and an ethos to meld swing with brains, soul with tapping feet, chops and theory with accessibility and feel. Blue Note stokes the blues, but it does so exultantly. And it has long been the perfect place for the glue guys, the ones who hold the quorum together.
Let’s look at 10 of the best of the overlooked best.
He was the label’s factotum. Need a job done, need it done well, tenor saxist Ike did it. He was a big-band stalwart, dropped off the scene, and then rose again at Blue Note, where he doubled as talent scout, arranger, extra horn. He did a veritable backstroke in hard-bop tributary streams like blues-samba and bossa nova. At times he was a one-man dance band, which is why he might have been the greatest jazz jukebox artist of the early 1960s. He died at 44 in 1963.