All That Jazz
A new documentary explores the Jewish origins of Blue Note Records, but evades some tough questions
By Marjorie Ingall
Blue Note Records has produced music from the greatest names in jazz: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter. A new documentary by Swiss filmmaker Sophie Huber, Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival this spring and is currently playing the festival circuit. Hancock and Shorter appear in the film, along with the sly, funny octogenarian Lou Donaldson (hailed as one of the greatest alto sax players ever), the genre-crossing Norah Jones, A Tribe Called Quest co-founder Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and longtime soundman Rudy Van Gelder, who engineered such legendary albums as A Love Supreme, Walkin’, Colossus, and Song for My Father. (Van Gelder died in 2016, at 91, before the film was completed.) Younger artists, too, speak to the camera about jazz’s continuing importance in their lives and in the American cultural conversation. For jazz fans, the movie is a delicious deep dive into the label’s eight-decade history. But as I watched, I kept thinking about the missed opportunities.
Blue Note was founded in 1939 by Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. (Fellow co-founder Max Margulis isn’t discussed in the movie, perhaps because he was more of a behind-the-scenes guy, providing much of the early funding, writing ad copy, giving voice lessons to artists, and reviewing music and stirring things up in lefty publications including The Daily Worker.) We hear scratchy radio interviews in which Wolff and Lion discuss their love of the genre. Lion tells of his mother in Berlin bringing home a jazz album in 1926; in his Yiddish accent, he tells a plummy, mid-Atlantic-inflected, WASP-y radio interviewer, “I vas very much impressed by vhat I heard!” Wolff agrees: “I didn’t understand it; I couldn’t follow it … but I just liked it!” They created Blue Note, the story goes, because they wanted to be around the music all the time. Their artists led them into introducing new jazz forms. “Ve kept making Dixieland records, and then slowly drifted over into the sving and then into the modern, into the bop,” Lion says. That last sentence somehow sounds hilarious in a Yiddish accent.
The film is full of photos (Wolff was a passionate photographer), musical snippets, and footage of black jazz artists from the 1940s to the ’60s doing their thing. Blue Note’s most important behind-the-scenes hire was Van Gelder, another Jew, who was associated with it for decades; for almost seven years in the 1950s, the label’s albums were recorded in Van Gelder’s parents’ living room. Van Gelder, Donaldson, Hancock, Shorter, and jazz historian Michael Cuscuna—a consultant for Blue Note since 1984—talk about how much artists loved Lion and Wolff, how they never took advantage of the musicians who recorded for them, how they were directed by a pure love of the music. Which is probably true! But anyone who pays attention to contemporary music should be clued in to the oft-contentious relationship between African-Americans and Jews in the music business. Were Lion and Wolff extraordinary? How do they fit into the narrative of African-American art forms being capitalized on, popularized, and monetized by Jewish composers from Berlin to Jolson to Gershwin to Bernstein? Black artists have spoken of feeling exploited by white management; Jews have pointed to anti-Semitism in hip hop. Jazz in particular feels like a complex petri dish of cultural anxiety; hip hop has seemingly taken on much of the urgency jazz once had, and jazz audiences today feel heavy on wannabe-down white dudes in fedoras. (As I did on Unorthodox a while back, I shall put in a plug for Jesse Andrews’ musical YA novel The Haters, with its gaspingly hilarious mockery of the pretensions of the current jazz scene.) As its fans age, does an art form get less relevant?
These are big questions. But this movie doesn’t go there. It’s purely a celebration of one label, which may be sufficient for informed jazz fans and lovers of classic jazz, but isn’t enough for viewers who seek to understand jazz’s place in the world now. Young and young-ish Blue Note artists like drummer Kendrick Scott, pianist and educator Robert Glasper, and bassist Derrick Hodge talk eloquently about why jazz mattered back in the day. The film shows footage of civil-rights protests and the musicians reflect on how the music reflected the social upheaval of the era. “Never at any point do I hear the music and hear them being defeated,” Hodge reflects. “Somehow, regardless of what they were fighting with, they’re going down in history, creating something … in a way that I felt freedom, in a way that brought me joy, in a way that made me want to write music that gave people hope.”
The film doesn’t effectively convey the fury and grief of the civil-rights movement. It’s not until hip-hop producer Terrace Martin shows up that we feel the immediacy and high stakes that jazz must have conveyed in the 1960s. “When I was a kid, the ghettos wasn’t used to seeing motherfuckers with instruments no more,” he says intently. “Because at that point they’d killed all the music programs in the schools.” Director Huber pairs his words with images of crumbling walls, burned-out buildings, graffiti reading “broken promises.” “I think that was one thing that made gangbangers turn up a whole bunch in the ‘80s,” Martin continues, “because the kids had nothing to do. No more afterschool programs, gangbangers turning up, self-hate turning up, murder rate turning up, crack turning up. All that was left was the records, the albums, and turntables—no instruments. Motherfuckers took records and turntables and went to the South Bronx and parks and got down.”
Ali Shaheed Muhammad of ATCQ picks up the thread: “Putting your record player and your neighbor’s record player together—that’s the birthplace of hip hop: that communal need to get together, to understand, to express.”
Blue Note went dormant in the early ’80s. But its influence continued to be felt in hip hop; the label became this burgeoning genre’s first stop for samples. Donaldson’s “Ode to Billie Joe” is now Blue Note’s most sampled track. (“I found out by looking at my royalties,” Donaldson says with a laugh.) Huber illustrates this via recognizable snippets in songs by Kanye, ATCQ, De La Soul, and Eminem.
The label relaunched in 1985. Today, Blue Note’s president is Don Was (né Don Fagenson), a Jew from Oak Park, Michigan. But he’s also a former musician, perhaps an indication that like the label’s founders, he’ll try to make commerce take a back seat to art. Glasper is now one of Blue Note’s clearest voices, blending jazz with hip hop and R&B. He’s determined to move jazz out of where it often seems to be now—a secret society for the cognoscenti—into more mainstream popularity. He’s on Pulitzer Prize-winner Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly, along with fellow Blue Note artist Ambrose Akinmusire.
But no one would call Lamar a jazz artist. So what’s the future of jazz? Will it require infusions with hip hop and R&B to be relevant? What’s the role of race and gender (the only woman who appears in the entire documentary is Norah Jones) in the genre as it moves forward?
Who knows? But maybe the fact that jazz is such a collaborative genre bodes well for a callback to the positive aspects of black-Jewish musical relations. As the Chicago Tribune noted, in a review of a different jazz documentary, “The Jews of Tin Pan Alley and early Broadway naturally gravitated to the new, all-American sound, which was jazz. … Ultimately, the two musical cultures shared fundamental truths, which helps explain why visionary black musicians such as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and others could find so much meaning in songs written by Jews of Eastern European birth or heritage. And why those songwriters embraced the syntax of black music.” Perhaps jazz in the future can move forward suffused with awareness of how black and Jewish narratives in America have diverged, despite the similar elements in our histories. It seems fitting that a blue note, aka a “worried note,” is a note sung or played at a slightly different pitch than standard. It’s a note for an uncertain time.
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Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.