The book ‘The Cover Art of Blue Note Records’ by Graham Marsh and Glyn Callingham has long been a ‘go to’ source of graphic design ideas for various projects I have been involved in over the years. Every time I dip in, I am blown away at the amazing photography, the audacious cropping techniques and the colour palette which 60 plus years on from when they first appeared in many cases, has never been bettered.
The wonderful thing is that, in many ways the cover designs are just the icing on top of the often-marvellous music held within the 12×12 cardboard sleeve. We’re talking about the complete package here.
The Blue Note company started in 1939 by Alfred Lion and his friend Max Margulis, deriving the name it is said from the ‘blue notes’ found within the blues and jazz. Lion first became aware of jazz after hearing it aged 16 in Berlin where he was born in 1908. He emigrated to the US in 1926, but was a victim of an anti German/immigrant attack so returned home. However the pull of New York was too strong for him, so he came back again in 1938. After attending and hearing swing concerts at Carnegie Hall, he was inspired to begin a record label.
He then teamed up with writer and communist Margulis and they set to work. Margulis was a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ and very useful on various elements such as record producing, copy writing and photography. Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons made their first recordings on 78-rpm shellac, with their first hit coming from pianist Sidney Bechet with his version of ‘Summertime.’
The US Army then drafted Alfred, by which time Margulis had dropped out of the company, to be replaced by Lion’s childhood pal Francis Wolff. It was he who kept the business running whilst Lion served overseas.
Wolff, a photographer and a Jew had himself fled Berlin, escaping the rise of Nazism and fled to New York.
Bop Til You Drop…
Word quickly spread around the musician’s community that the two gents at Blue Note treated their kind well, keeping them involved in the production of each record they contributed, most unusual in those times. By 1943, with Lion now out of the army Blue Note pressed on with new artists and recordings, including work by saxophonist Ike Quebec. It was he who then tipped Alfred and Francis off onto the burgeoning Be Bop scene and they enthusiastically dived in. Quebec would continue to work as their A&R man for Blue Note right up until his passing in the early 1960s.
Pianist Thelonious Monk was among the names that found his way to the Blue Note door in 1947, along with drummer Art Blakey. Monk was not a big seller, but Lion would remain loyal to him. Other names that graced the label included Bud Powell, Fats Navarro and Miles Davis.
The pace of the development of jazz in general quickened from there with new talents like Clifford Brown and Horace Silver emerging. Another key name in this story pops up around 1953, that of legendary producer Rudy Van Gelder.
In 1956, the first 12″ LP on Blue Note was a recorded by legendary Hammond organ maestro Jimmy Smith. The names that joined him at the label read like a Who’s Who of the mid century jazz greats. Kenny Burell, Donald Byrd, Sonny Rollins, Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley to name but a small selection.
‘Blue Train’ by John Coltrane in 1958, saw ‘Trane’ lead from the front for the first time. It is still said by many to be his finest recording. The paid rehearsal time that Blue Note afforded the musicians, a rare luxury back then, certainly made the difference when it came to recording time.
‘These are works of Art, not Record Covers’
Former Esquire magazine employee, Reid Miles joined in the fun in 1956 and soon took graphic design to a whole different level. Using Wolff’s photograph, which he cropped and enlarged to be almost unrecognisable from the originals, he created masterpieces with clever use of type, fonts and blocks of colour, influenced by the school of the Bauhaus.
Do yourself a favour and Google the following titles later today. ‘No Room For Squares’ by Hank Mobley, ‘Into Something’ by Larry Young ‘Una Mas’ by Kenny Dorham ‘Its Time’ by Jackie McLean and ‘Hub Tones’ by Freddie Hubbard.
You can buy me a red drink as a thank you when we finally get released from the dreaded C word.
Into the 1960s and Dexter Gordon joins up going on to make many fine albums over a five year time period. Other notable names making their way to the front of the jazz pecking order via Blue Note at this time include Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter; former well regarded sidemen, now making albums under their own names. On many occasions, this amazing roster would also work on each other’s recordings as a ‘Blue Note family’ emerged.
Individual songs that became actual hits, were a rarity in jazz, but Blue Note had a couple in ‘Sidewinder’ by Lee Morgan and ‘Song for my Father’ by Horace Silver, both attaining very decent air play on the more sorted US radio stations.
Avant Garde A Clue Mate?
The next phase divides opinion from the outset, as things went experimental, as ‘free jazz’ becomes a thing. Hands up who bought ‘Out to Lunch’ by Eric Dolphy simply for the design of the album cover and then sat there dumb struck at the music within? Not just me then.
Cecil Taylor and Ornete Coleman would later also confuse my ears. In among all that, organist Larry Young drops ‘Plaza de Toros’ in the Hard Bop section, which totally redresses the balance for me.
Blue Note was sold to Liberty Records in 1965. Alfred Lion retired having suffered health issues for a few years, not long after in 1967. Francis Wolff died in 1971 aged 64. Alfred, bless him, lived on until 1987.
Things were pretty quiet during the 70s as jazz in general went through a fallow period and the label lay asleep until 1985, left pretty much alone by EMI who had by then purchased Liberty.
Things began to pick up again though with artists on the roster such as John Scofield, Greg Osby and a big seller in singer Norah Jones. Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard signed with Blue Note in 2003 and the reissue arm of the label got going big time under the auspices of Michael Cuscuna, who became head of special projects. Names like Gregory Porter, Robert Glasper, and Kendrick Scott are the ‘now’ of the label as opposed to the ‘then.’
Excellent condition first pressings of Blue Note recordings are today worth $5000 dollars or more which is nice for some, but for me the legacy of the label is more that just monetary. It’s the story of brotherhood between two German émigrés and a community of black musicians, all of them somewhat marginalised at the time, coming together to create wonderful time capsules of a bygone age.
And I personally thank them for it.
The Mumper of SE5
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