Culture Magazine

Blue Note Records

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Majorie Ingall reviews Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes, a documentary about Blue Note Records, a record label that was extraordinarly important in the jazz world of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. From the review:
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 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.”

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