Jazz on DVD
One Night with Blue Note /
Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns /
Jazz Icons /
Legends of Jazz /
Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers
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Blue Note: A History of Modern Jazz
By Amin Sharif
It seems only a few years ago that PBS
stations across the nation offered their groundbreaking series
on jazz. While controversy simmers concerning the value of the
series to jazz history, there can be little doubt that for most
of America Ken Burns’ documentary was their first real
introduction to the subject. Perhaps, the most pertinent
criticism, among many, launched at the PBS series, was that it
did not give enough attention to the modern jazz movement.
Ken Burns seemed to emphasize the social and
artistic cohesion that early jazz fostered among blacks and
white Americans. Thus Benny Goodman’s swing (jazz) was placed
on an equal footing with bebop. It was this kind of equalitarian
effort to make jazz palatable to all those white folks out there
in vanilla television land that left hardcore, mostly black,
devotees of jazz wanting.
This is not to say that jazz did not, in
fact, bring diverse elements of American culture together. Jazz
is, after all, America’s only classical and original art form.
But, if one does not acknowledge the black grief and anger, as
well as genius, that brought jazz forth, then he is playing the
music short. And, here is the rub with Ken Burns.
He is, in the main, a great storyteller and
commentator on Americana. But jazz is so complex and organic a
subject that even the most accomplished jazz historian would
have difficulty rendering a truthful and complete vision of
America’s musical art form. It would have been better,
perhaps, for Burns to portray a single chapter of jazz history
than to attempt to make such a comprehensive statement.
In contrast to the PBS series on jazz, Julian
Benedikt’s earlier documentary (1996) about the legendary Blue
Note jazz label is a much less ambitious but more focused
approach to jazz. It is an impressive and high stylized
chronicling of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolf’s uncompromising
effort to record the best jazz musicians of the 40s, 50s, and
It was in these decades that the modern jazz
(i.e. bebop, the cool school, new music, etc.) took hold and the
Swing era began to wane. Blue Note’s music was, as its founder
Alfred Lion, puts it “without commercial adornments.” Even
without a prior knowledge of what Blue Note was about, one can
derive from this statement a serious commitment to the music
rather then to commercial success or musical fads. Lion’s
statement would be almost an anachronism in the
hyper-commercialism that exists within the music industry today.
But not only was Lion committed to the music,
he also possessed a deep respect for the jazz artists that he
recorded. Benedikt makes this point, in poignant fashion early
on, by utilizing a story told by Francis Paudras concerning the
great jazz pianist Bud Powell and Lion. It seemed that Paudras
had gone to hear some of the greats of bebop play at a club. Max
Roach and Charlie Parker were among the luminaries who were
performing on this date.
Paudras relates that on this occasion how Bud
Powell out played all of them. But, then for some reason, Powell
began ghost playing, moving his fingers as though he were
playing a composition without touching the keys. As no music was
being played, the audience grew impatient and then outraged.
They pulled Powell away from the piano and
threw him out on the pavement. Powell, who was famous for his
eclectic behavior, “hid under a car like a cat” according to
Paudras. It was then that Alfred Lion came on the scene, talked
Bud out from under the car and took him home with him.
One has only to contrast this portrayal of
Lion and Bud with that of Barry Gordy and his stormy
relationship with the Funk Brothers in another fine documentary,
Standing in the Shadow of Motown, to understand
how unusual it was for black musicians to be respected by those
who owned recording labels. It is clear from this documentary
that Gordy had little or no respect for the musicians that
played the background music for almost every significant Motown
hit from the Temptations “Ain’t to Proud to Beg,” and
“My Girl,” to Marvin Gaye’s groundbreaking effort
“What’s Goin’ On.”
Only rarely were the Funk Brothers ever
listed on any of Motown’s albums. And, only now, with the
Standing in the Shadow of Motown do we
know how great their contribution was to the “Detroit
Sound.” Perhaps, even more pertinent to our discussion, would
be the relationship that Herb Lubinsky, owner of Savoy Records,
had with such artists as Jimmy Scott. For decades, Lubinsky
treated Scott with total disregard for his talent or humanity.
When the great Ray Charles sought to release an album he
produced with Scott, Lubinsky took extraordinary measures to
make sure that it never reached the public.
It is Benedikt’s eye for the interlocking
relations between all members of the Blue Note family such as
Bud Powell that makes this documentary unique and compelling.
Then, of course, there is all that Blue Note music. From
Cassandra Wilson’s sultry cover of Blues Master Skip James’
“32-20,” to a searing Sonny Rollins’ saxophone rift, and
Freddie Hubbard’s powerful solo on “Cantaloupe Isle,” this
documentary is definitely about the music. But, then, there were
nearly 1,000 Blue Note albums to choose from in making and
producing a soundtrack for this documentary. And, what is
incredible about the Blue Note’s recordings is that
ninety-five percent of the music was and remains some of the
best jazz ever put on wax.
We have just mentioned that it is the
interlocking relationship between Lion and the artists that
makes this documentary so compelling.
But just as compelling is Lion’s relationship to his
second wife Ruth, and his lifelong friend Francis Wolf. Anyone
who knows anything about jazz has seen the signature black and
white photographs of jazz artists taken by Wolf. “Using the simplest of lighting, signal flash, and always a
black background,” as photographer William Claxton explains,
was the “technique” that Wolf used to achieve his
Taj Mahal states that Wolf gave a kind of
royal treatment to all the artists that he photographed. There
is an especially moving portrait that Wolf took of a young Bobby
Cranshaw that I especially like in the film. Bobby is shown
standing alone with his arms wrapped around his instrument
(bass) as though it were his favorite lover—which is precisely
what any instrument is for any great musician.
Like Lion, Francis Wolf was born in pre-World
War II Germany. For the post baby boom generation, Germany is
only known today as the birthplace of Nazism. But the Germany
that Lion and Wolf grew up in was entirely different. Berlin,
Germany’s capital, was a vibrant international and
multi-cultural city long before Hitler came to power. Germans
were, for example, in the vanguard of the early film industry.
In fact, the first great, albeit racist,
American film (A Birth of a Nation) was partly
made in response to the groundbreaking cinematic movement in
Germany. And it was this exposure to international culture,
especially early jazz, which allowed Lion and Wolf to recognize
the genius of Art Blakey, Jimmy Smith, and a myriad of other
jazz geniuses. Wolf would be Lion’s constant companion in the
shaping and documentation of modern jazz. In fact, he would
outlive Lion by nearly a decade.
Ruth Lion was Alfred’s second wife and
through interviews with her we have another testament to how
committed to jazz her husband was. Ruth states that for Lion
“nothing was as important as the music.” For more than
eleven years, Ruth pursued Alfred and in the end finally married
him. There is not a hint of bitterness in her voice as she talks
about being Lion’s second great love. Instead, only her joy
and laughter come through on the screen.
Undoubtedly, Ruth is one of those exceptional
women who understand that great artists must go where there muse
takes them. The few moments that Ruth appears on the screen are
some of the best in the entire documentary. It is Ruth who gives
us a sense of Lion’s revolutionary social vision. “Alfred
was the first placed pictures of black artists on the album
cover,” Ruth states. This was at a time when other jazz labels
picture of “pretty white girls” on the album covers to make
the music more palatable to white audiences.
I have said that Benedikt offers us a much
more honest and stylized look at jazz. There is a wonderful
scene in the film where Langston Hughes” poem “Trumpet
Player” is recited while a myriad of black and white
photographs flash pass accompanied by some of the best trumpet
rifts recorded by Blue Note. In these rifts, as in all of Blue
Notes recordings, there is a deep appreciation of the blues.
Jazz lover Maurice Cullez is one of many European luminaries who
appear in the documentary. Cullez states that there was always a
blues feel to Lion’s recording. And, it was this bluesiness
that set Blue Note apart from many other jazz labels.
Blues is, in fact, the organic link between
the early jazz styles of Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet and
the modern jazz we hear today. Hip-Hop is the only
African-American music style that does not take the contribution
of the blues seriously. The sampling of jazz by Hip-Hop artists
is really no more than a secondhand attempt to connect their
music to the great reservoir of black music. But, sadly, jazz
sampling is about as far as these young artists are willing to
go. You will never hear any of today’s rappers sampling the
works of Son House, Muddy, Leroy Carr, or Muddy Waters. Why
should they? Many of them don’t even know who these Blues
There are those that make the argument that
the Hip-Hop generation cannot be compared to any previous
historical era. This may be so. But what is not taken into
account is that black folks have always been confronted with
unique historical realities. Slavery and Segregation were a
thousand times more trying on the “souls of black folk” than
anything currently faced by hip-hoppers. Yet they have chosen to
express their anger in a manner that is at worst degrading and
at best irrelevant to their circumstance.
If hip-hoppers are angry, so what? In this
documentary Marion McClinton states that bebop was created by
black artists who were as angry, if not more so, than today’s
generation. McClinton paraphrases Baraka’s
Dutchman when speaking of the bebop genius Charlie
Parker. “If Parker had killed the first ten white people he
saw,” McClinton affirms, “he would have never had to play a
note of music.”
And here is where distinct differences arise
between Hip-Hop artists and their predecessors; the former
artists do not know how to transform their anger beyond simple
sound and fury. They do not understand or even recognize the
alchemy of the blues. In its earliest form, the blues was the
enslaved African’s first act toward freedom. It was the naming
of this grief and anger-more importantly the transformation of
these emotions that makes the blues central to black aesthetics.
Without the blues, Hip-Hop will always stand
outside of the aesthetics of African-American creativity. This
may be why so many so-called Hip-Hop scholars hold a somewhat
disrespectful attitude toward the Civil Rights Movement. It was
this movement, more than any other, in American history, which
stood for the transformation of grief and anger into conscious
creativity. Perhaps, when faced with such creativity, the
Hip-Hop generation sees one of their shortcomings.
D.J. Smash, who also appears in this
documentary, is one of the Hip-Hop generation that has begun to
acknowledge that his peers are woefully ignorant of their past.
It was during a trip to England that he discovered European
youngsters dancing to the music of jazz artists. Smash admits
that he was taken aback at the fact that white kids a thousand
miles away knew more about jazz than he did. There is a kind of
“they know something that I don’t” realization in
Smash’s voice that belies an amazement that others can find a
validity in jazz that is absent in the minds of nearly all black
But hopefully, Smash is out there wising his
generation up about jazz. And, with a deeper appreciation of
jazz, they may move on and re-discover the blues as well.
It was not just the suggestion of the blues
that made Lion’s recording special. It was also the way that
Lion’s packaged his albums that made Blue Note’s recordings
priceless. Cover art came about when Columbia Records developed
the 20-minute LP. These LPs (i.e. long playing albums)
revolutionized the recording industry. But they also required a
different method of packaging.
Blue Note was exceptionally lucky in
recruiting Reid Miles as their cover artist. Miles was a
remarkably gifted man whose cover designs gave Lion’s albums a
sophisticated look. Many of the covers were small masterpieces
of daring, sometimes even edgy, modern art that fully
complimented the music inside. There are many jazz fans that
have diligently collected these album covers over the years. D.J.
Smash, who inherited his father’s collection of Blue Note
recordings, states the he often takes out a recording just to
“look at the cover.”
Yet what is surprising about Reid was that he
wasn’t even a jazz fan! Reid simply appreciated the
opportunity afforded him by Lion to create fantastic art. But,
if the invention of the LP allowed Lion to develop unparalleled
cover art, it also nearly cost him his company. Blue Note’s
entire library of recordings had been done on a 12-minute
format. The LP meant that all of Lion’s recordings were now
obsolete. The result was that he almost sold the company.
Thankfully, Lion did not. For, he was soon to meet and record
first Art Blakey and then Jimmy Smith. After these recordings,
modern jazz would never be the same.
Art Blakey was especially close to Lion.
“They were like brothers,” Ruth Lion declares. Art Blakey
and the Jazz Messengers are as legendary as any group in jazz.
Their “Night in Tunisia” remains one of the most
recognizable tunes in jazz long before Chaka Khan covered it in
the seventies. The volcanic drive of the Messengers rhythm
section led by Blakey was reminiscent of Chick Webb’s equally
explosive swing band and was a constant trademark of the many
versions of the group.
But changes in front men, whether on
saxophone or trumpet, only added various shading to the style of
the group. The Messengers always played some of the best jazz of
the modern era. The Blue Note documentary includes an astounding
videotape of the Messengers playing “Moanin’” with Freddy
Hubbard (considered by many to be the heir-apparent of Dizzy
Gillespie) on trumpet and the great Ron Carter on bass. Freddie
is playing full out and is a joy to the ears. And one can
clearly hear Carter thumping away in the background.
Perhaps the greatest contribution Blue Note
made in jazz was the recording of the musical genius Jimmy
Smith. Forever, Jimmy Smith will be appreciated for bringing the
complexity of the organ on to the jazz scene. With the organ,
Smith invigorated modern jazz with a different kind of “down
home” blues voicing. Lion was so impressed with Smith’s
ability on the organ that he was ready to abandon Blue Note and
become Smith’s road manager according to his second wife Ruth.
This, if true, would be exceeding high praise
for Smith. Placing this to one side, there is no doubt at all
that Jimmy Smith revolutionized modern jazz with Lion’s help.
What is ironic about today’s jazz scene is the near total lack
of respect accorded to Smith. Jazz fans almost never rank Smith
with the likes of Miles or Trane. What they fail to take into
account is that Miles and Trane had the examples of Armstrong
and Parker to guide their development.
But there was no precedent for Smith to
follow. Jimmy started from scratch with only his own talent and
taste to guide him. It is stated in this film that Smith rented
a warehouse and practiced for an entire year to develop his
signature style. Whether this is entirely true is hard to tell.
But what Jimmy put on wax for Alfred Lion was nothing short of
But Lion was always looking for new talent.
He recorded Thelonius Monk when other labels refused to do so.
He passed over the eclectic behavior of Bud Powell and early on
recognized his genius. Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Jay
Johnson, Horace Silver, Dexter Gordon, and hundreds of others
musicians were allowed to make their mark in the jazz world
through the help of Alfred Lion.
Assisting Lion in this monumental work was an
outstanding recording engineer named Rudy Van Gilder. It was
Rudy who made sure that Blue Note sound came through in all its
power and elegance on every disc. There is a point in the film
where Rudy is asked a question about Blue Notes achievements.
Van Gilder states, in almost mathematical
terms, how Lion was after an “elegant solution” to the
problem of recording modern jazz. This view of “elegance” is
not simply a feature of modern jazz. Astrophysicists also see
elegance as a feature embedded in our own universe. That Lion
seemed to have discovered its application in jazz shows again
just how far ahead his thinking on the subject had come.
Today’s Blue Note is no longer in the hands
of geniuses like Lion, Wolf, Miles, or Van Gilder. It was sold
by Lion decades ago. Cassandra Wilson says that the emphasis of
Blue Note is no longer on instrumentalists. Vocalists are now
what the label features most. That may be so, musical taste
change. But for me Blue Note will always be the older, more
elegant and visionary, as portrayed in Benedikt’s documentary.
But whoever you are—young or old, black or white—you owe it
to yourself to see this masterpiece if given the chance. Dig you
P.S. Check out my review of
Ken Burns’ Special on
Jack Johnson in late January!
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update 3 July 2008