This Jewish duo escaped the Nazis to break sound barriers with Blue Note Records
By Rich Tenorio
In the 80th anniversary year of legendary jazz label Blue Note Records, a new documentary reflects on the two German-Jewish immigrants who introduced the label to America: Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff.
Together they signed some of the greatest names in 20th century music history while striking a chord for racial equality. Now they are the subject of “It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story,” directed by German filmmaker Eric Friedler in partnership with acclaimed executive producer Wim Wenders, who is also from Germany. The film will screen at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival on February 12.
“I was always fascinated by the story of two young Germans who came to America in 1939 and started a record label that went on to become a legend,” Friedler told The Times of Israel. “[They] escaped Nazi Germany and with no money in their pockets tried to establish one of the most important jazz labels in world history.”
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Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, and Quincy Jones are among the greats who recorded with Blue Note at some point during the three-plus decades of Lion and Wolff’s tenure. Many of the still living musical greats share their thoughts in interviews during the film.
Alfred Lion looking over the shoulder of Hank Mobley. (Courtesy Altanta Jewish Film Festival)
The title of “It Must Schwing!” stems from Lion’s requirement for success, delivered in his German accent.
According to the film press statement, “The most important thing was that the music had the right swing, or as Alfred Lion used to put it in his characteristic accent, when issuing the only instructions he ever gave to the musicians: ‘It must schwing!'”
Under Lion and Wolff, much of the Blue Note music did, in fact, “schwing.” Of the 1,000 records cut at Blue Note during that era, 95 percent became classics, according to Friedler. Lion and Wolff even took chances on unheralded artists whose music might prove noteworthy later on — and were notably on the mark in the case of Thelonious Monk.
“It Must Schwing!” is actually the second recently-released documentary about Blue Note. The first, “Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes,” was directed by Swiss filmmaker Sophie Huber and took more of a long-range view of the company, headed today by celebrated Jewish-American musician Don Was.
All gifted and talented welcome
At Blue Note, Lion and Wolff created a welcoming atmosphere for many African-American musicians in genres such as jazz and blues who had been discriminated against by other labels at a time of racial hostility in America.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, civil rights leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would take the call for equality to the American public. The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival screenings of “It Must Schwing!” take place in the city of King’s birth as the United States celebrates Black History Month in February.
Friedler said that Lion and Wolff were “not political activists,” but that their embrace of racial equality was a “totally normal way of behavior” for them. He calls them “two German guys who regarded the music as admirable, done by extraordinarily talented people, and simply wanted to show respect [to] the artists, treat them with dignity and humanity.”
Alfred Lion, seated, and Francis Wolff. (Courtesy Atlanta Jewish Film Festival)
The Hamburg-based Friedler is the director of over 10 films. “It Must Schwing!” has a personal connection: Friedler describes himself as “raised on jazz records,” with his father playing Blue Note records for him when he was a child.
“One day, I thought, ‘OK, I have to tell the story,’” Friedler said, but called partner Wenders crucial to making the film. “He’s one of the most important documentary makers of music documentaries in the world,” Friedler said. “It’s an honor to work with him.”
German filmmaker Eric Friedler, who directed ‘It Must Schwing!’ at the Grimme Awards in 2014. (Wikimedia commons/CC-SA-3.0/Krd)
Friedler said the project began some five years ago — first in Germany, then in the US. The filmmakers uncovered a trove of material, including a 1964 interview of Lion and Wolff by German journalist Eric T. Vogel. It is the only German-language interview with the duo that has heretofore been unearthed, according to Friedler.
Filmmakers also interviewed living legends with connections to Blue Note in the Lion and Wolff years — including Hancock, Jones and Shorter, as well as Lou Donaldson, Benny Golson, Sheila Jordan, Kenny Burrell and Sonny Rollins, among many others.
Friedler said, “The moment they found out the film was about Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, the first thing they said was yes.”
Kismet at the Admiralspalast
Lion and Wolff had a love-at-first-sight relationship with jazz going back to their days growing up in Germany in the 1920s. The then-teenagers met during a concert by African-American musicians Sam Wooding and his Chocolate Dandies at the Admiralspalast venue in Berlin. From that moment, a love of jazz would unite Lion and Wolff in friendship.
This friendship proved vital when the situation of German Jews rapidly deteriorated after Hitler and the Nazis took power in the 1930s. Lion emigrated first — “the only place he could think of leaving [for] was to the US, especially New York,” Friedler said. He credits Lion with getting Wolff out of Germany as well, on the last ship out of Hamburg that was not guarded by the Gestapo.
“They helped each other,” Friedler said. “They trusted each other very deeply.”
Jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock in ‘It Must Schwing!’ (Courtesy Atlanta Jewish Film Festival)
Lion trusted Wolff enough to bring him into the record label he had founded in early 1939. (According to the 2003 book “Blue Note Records: A Biography by Richard Cook,” the two “main figures” in the company’s creation were Lion and Max Margulis, “a writer and committed left-winger.”) Under Lion and Wolff, Blue Note became a rare opportunity for African-American musicians.
Friedler said that when Lion emigrated to New York, he was “shocked” that “the stars and music he admired so much were actually discriminated against. He could not really understand what was going on.”
“White companies, big record companies, did not record African-Americans during that time,” said professor Eddie Meadows of the UCLA global jazz studies department. Lion and Wolff were different, he said: “Because both were from outside the US, I think they witnessed the music culture of African-Americans and saw an opportunity.”
“They just loved jazz,” Friedler said. “They were against all barriers.”
As Lion and Wolff worked to develop a label that would promote jazz, their personalities complemented each other.
“Alfred was the more extroverted person,” Friedler said. “He made everything happen … He was a very good partner. Francis was more introverted, more shy, more in the background.”
Musician Quincy Jones speaks about Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff in ‘It Must Schwing!’ (Courtesy Atlanta Jewish Film Festival)
Yet neither shied away from taking chances on overlooked musicians or unfamiliar genres. Meadows praised Lion and Wolff for recording modern jazz artists such as Monk, Fats Navarro and Bud Powell, and bebop artists such as Howard McGhee, James Moody and a young Miles Davis.
“Even though there was not a large market, Blue Note recorded them anyway,” Meadows said. “It’s very important for African-American culture.”
A continued legacy
Don Was attends the 56th Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, January 26, 2014. (Christopher Polk/Getty Images, via JTA)
Current Blue Note president Was reflected on Lion and Wolff’s willingness to take risks in an article on the website of Universal Music, which owns Blue Note.
“Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff wrote a manifesto when they started the label, and they dedicated themselves to the pursuit of authentic music and affording the artist uncompromising artistic freedom,” Was wrote. (Attempts by The Times of Israel to contact Was were unsuccessful.)
“I think, ultimately, that philosophy enables you to create music by virtue of the fact that it is honest expression. It becomes music that endures for decades because it’s coming from a real place,” Was added in the article.
Sheila Jordan in ‘It Must Schwing!’ (Courtesy Atlanta Jewish Film Festival)
UCLA’s Meadows said that Lion and Wolff tried “to make recording sessions very open, make people very comfortable.” This is echoed by the film, which portrays Lion and Wolff as treating musicians in a respectful way, from paying for rehearsals to a policy of fair wages. It’s an approach that was appreciated by the musicians filmmaker Friedler interviewed.
“As Kenny Burrell is pointing out, and Lou Donaldson, it was not a label in the sense that there were executives and managers,” Friedler said. “It was more like a family with, somehow, everybody the same.”
Lion and Wolff sold Blue Note to Liberty Records in 1965, with Lion retiring and eventually dying in 1987, aged 78. Wolff stayed on at the label but died just six years later. Yet the creators’ vision continued to manifest itself.
Still from ‘It Must Schwing!’ (Courtesy Altanta Jewish Film Festival)
“Blue Note seemed to evolve with the times,” Meadows said. “It still continued to record jazz that was reflective of modern times, not just stick with the old styles that were around.”
Today, Blue Note has worked with current stars like Norah Jones and Jason Moran, with its music being sampled by hip-hop artist Madlib. Meadows said that “in the sense [the label has] tried to keep current, keep up with what’s going on in culture, around new markets, I think it’s quite fascinating.”
Eighty years after Blue Note made its debut, music lovers can appreciate the two friends from Hamburg who helped connect America with music that could swing — or is it schwing?
“I thought, isn’t it great to show a film, how two refugees from Germany, what [an impact] they made on music?” Friedler said.