It is well known that the Nazi regime denounced modernist art as “degenerate”, but not so well known that the Third Reich also proscribed “Entartete Musik” or “degenerate music”. Another name for this was jazz. It makes complete sense, therefore, that the most renowned of American jazz recording companies – Blue Note Records – was founded by refugees from Hitler’s Germany.
Blue Note survives in name, if not – some would argue – in spirit. This weighty book helps to explain the mystique that continues to surround the label, though in that regard the pictures are more helpful than the text. One of the crucial points about Blue Note records was that they looked beautiful – and distinctive.
The covers were works of art in themselves. They had a look that combined typography derived from the Bauhaus – bastion of modern design in Weimar Germany – with brilliant photography, often starkly black and white and resembling the work of a master of the camera such as Cartier-Bresson or Robert Frank. Those designs were visible evidence of an attitude more common in Europe than America: that jazz was not merely a novel form of entertainment but something to be taken with the same seriousness with which one might approach Beethoven or Debussy. It, too, was art.
Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note, came from a cultivated Jewish background in Berlin (his father was an architect). As a teenager, he heard a recording made by the Sam Wooding & His Orchestra, among the first African-American jazz bands to perform in Europe. In 1925 they recorded a piece called Shanghai Shuffle in Berlin; many years later Lion remembered the effect it had on him. “It interested me immediately. I felt the music, not knowing actually what made me feel it.”
In 1928, aged 20, Lion went to the US, slept rough in Central Park, got a job at the docks and rented a series of rooms from which he was usually ejected for playing his record player too loudly. He returned to Germany for a while, tried his luck in South America and ended up back in New York. By January 1939, he had saved up just enough money to pay for his first recording session, and Blue Note was born.
His choice of performers for that first date was interesting: Albert Ammons and Meade “Lux” Lewis, two exponents of driving blues piano, or boogie-woogie. This was exactly the idiom that caught the ear of another European modernist refugee, Piet Mondrian, the doyen of geometric abstraction, a year or two later. The masterpieces of Mondrian’s New York years were titled Broadway Boogie Woogie and Victory Boogie Woogie.
The styles of music that Lion recorded changed through the years, from earthy blues and New Orleans in the early Forties, through bebop to free-form in the Sixties, but, in some ways, his taste remained consistent. He liked his jazz rhythmically forceful and a little gritty. There was not much interest at Blue Note in pianists with a romantically lyrical approach, such as Bill Evans, Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan; nor was there any dulcet-toned “cool” music.
The label was the expression of a distinctive taste: Lion’s. When he heard certain players – the astringently percussive Thelonious Monk was a prime example – he “flipped” and felt he had to record all their music, regardless of whether it sold. Blue Note had its hits from time to time, otherwise Lion would have gone bankrupt. But he was emphatic that the company was not primarily about making money, but about quality. He was prepared to pay for rehearsal time, regarded by his rivals as an expensive luxury. Consequently, for example, the one album that the tenor saxophonist John Coltrane made for Blue Note – Blue Train (1957) – is also the most poised and perfect of his early efforts.
Francis Wolff, a boyhood friend of Lion’s and his long-term partner in the Blue Note enterprise, narrowly escaped from Germany in 1939. “The Gestapo came to his apartment,” Lion remembered. “I was working feverishly to get Frank out.” It was Wolff who took those brilliant photographs. During Blue Note’s great period – roughly from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Sixties – the covers were conceived by a young designer named Reid Miles. To Wolff’s pictures, he added that bold Bauhaus-inspired typography. The results were often works of art in themselves (although the most famous artist to work on them, Andy Warhol, produced comparatively weak results).
Lion had a heart attack in 1966, and sold his label. Wolff carried on until his death in 1971 but, by that point, the distinctiveness had largely seeped away, visually and musically. Since then, there have been a number of excellent recordings made under the Blue Note name in the Eighties and Nineties – and some less distinguished – but the fact that it continues at all is a tribute to the strength of Lion’s original vision.
This book tells the story with amiable, but rather unfocused enthusiasm. Its main interest is in the lavish quantity of Wolff’s images that are reproduced, including many not used on the final cover designs. Those in search of a critical assessment of Lion and Wolff’s musical achievement would do better to seek out a copy of the late Richard Cook’s Blue Note Records: The Biography (2001).
Thames & Hudson, 400p, Telegraph offer price: £43 + £1.95 p&p (RRP £48). Call 0844 871 1515 or see books.telegraph.co.uk