The State of Sound


A Legendary Label


The Blue Note record label is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year and has organized the Blue Note Jazz Festival—a series of concerts in Paris—to commemorate its relatively long history: it is oldest jazz record label still in existence.

An amazing era

The history of this legendary label is above all an incredible American success story. It started in 1939 when Alfred Lion, a German Jew and passionate collector of jazz albums, immigrated to New York with a single dream in mind: to record African-American musicians. The first recording session took place on January 6, 1939 and involved around twenty boogie-woogie tracks. Other recording sessions with a multitude of musicians followed, and the record label was phenomenally successful during the 1950s and 1960s. Blue Note’s success primarily stems from a defining series of encounters that allowed the label to make a name for itself. A few years after Alfred Lion arrived in New York, he was joined first by German photographer Francis Wolff and then by graphic designer Reid Miles, who both helped develop highly original imagery for the label’s records; the Blue Note aesthetic signature became unmistakable.


The Blue Note sound

Blue Note records also have an unmistakable sound, a sonic aesthetic that also contributed to the label’s success during its golden age. This unique sound is largely due to the work of one man, Rudy Van Gelder, who was the label’s sole sound engineer during that period. He recorded all of the label’s records in the living room of his house in New Jersey, always under the same technical conditions. Although the conditions were clearly artisanal, Van Gelder’s approach was nonetheless highly professional and driven by an obsession: to reproduce the sound of the instruments as he had experienced it during the recording sessions, to capture “a sound bigger than life,” as he was wont to say when describing his work. In this familial atmosphere, the musicians were pampered and made the focus of the work; for instance, Blue Note was one of the first labels of that era to pay musicians for the time they spent rehearsing prior to the recording session.

fb534e76f0668a6c6af5833ba81a8-1Herbie Nichols recording in the Van Gelder living room

A label that has kept rhythm with the times

The label has always captured the spirit of the times. It followed the rise of bebop and then hard bop and recorded musicians like Art Blakey (and his Jazz Messengers); the latter ended up being one of the label’s star artists. Blue Note has made bold artistic choices in the process of seeking out new voices and exploring novel musical terrain; for instance, in the 1950s, it pursued the “new thing,” the term used to describe the free jazz being played by Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman. Blue Note has uncovered new talent, like when it discovered Herbie Hancock in 1962, who was then an obscure young pianist. In the 1970s and 1980s, the label largely pursued a major reissue program. However, in the 1980s, Blue Note also began to enrich its catalog by expanding its definition of jazz; for example, it started incorporating rap and soul artists.


Two questions for Nicolas Pflug, Blue Note’s Artistic Director

– Is it the case that Blue Note’s incredible past can be a bit hard to live up to in the present?

It is true that during the label’s golden age, all the musicians were living in New York and that, to some degree, everything was easier. However, if you take a good look at the label’s catalog, you will see that, historically, Blue Note has always been ahead of the game thanks to its avant-garde and trailblazing spirit. Today, our goal remains the same: to record artists that are producing the diverse soundtracks of our time. These artists sometimes occupy the borderlands between musical genres.  

– What is your impression of the changes taking place in the music industry and the new ways in which we are listening to music?

I am not particularly worried. It is true that we are living in an era characterized by a great deal of change and that the means of listening to music are becoming ever more diverse. We have to adapt to the inevitable spread of digital music formats. However, physical formats are continuing to persist alongside them. Over the past two years, all our new albums have also been released on vinyl, and at present, our CD sales are equivalent to our vinyl sales.

For example, when it comes to digital formats, Blue Note has a special Spotify app that allows listeners to discover its entire catalog. It is also commemorating its 75th anniversary with a special partnership with Astell & Kern: it has pre-loaded 75 of its albums onto an Alstell & Kern high-resolution audio player.


The Blue note

The term “blue note”, which inspired the label’s name, has become a characteristic feature of jazz over time. Producing blue notes is a technical way of playing with a musical harmony: it involves generating certain notes in a series at a slightly lower pitch (a semitone or less) to imbue the music with the “color” that we have come to associate with jazz and blues.

In closing, when it comes to this legendary label, Woody Allen put it best: “God created woman, cinema…then jazz and Blue Note.”

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This entry was posted on 21/11/2014 by in Music and tagged , , , .
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