(On March 25 the GRAMMY Museum will launch Blue Note: The Finest In Jazz, a new exhibit commemorating Blue Note Records' 75th anniversary. For more information, visit www.grammymuseum.org.)
Celebrating its 75th anniversary, Blue Note Records launched a full slate of festivities in 2014 with a bang. At a special anniversary concert on Jan. 8 at Town Hall in New York, GRAMMY winner Robert Glasper and fellow pianist Jason Moran paid tribute to the label's earliest roots — Albert Ammons and Meade "Lux" Lewis, whose recordings constituted the label's first titles in 1939 — with a medley of the boogie-woogie pianists' tunes. The pair took similar liberties with songs from some of the label's iconic touchstones, including Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Ornette Coleman, as well as Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me," a song that was co-produced by Blue Note's current president, Don Was.
Blue Note's celebration was augmented at the 56th GRAMMY Awards on Jan. 26 when two of the label's artists took home statues. Shorter won Best Improvised Jazz Solo for "Orbits" and Gregory Porter picked up Best Jazz Vocal Album honors for Liquid Spirit.
"[Winning a GRAMMY with Blue Note Records] was extraordinary, based on the fact I used to collect the records and on the history of that company," says Porter, whose Liquid Spirit is his first recording for the label.
Porter and Shorter represent two of the label's countless successes. Founded in 1939 by German immigrants Alfred Lion and photographer Francis Wolff with funding by artistic and political gadfly Max Margulis, Blue Note Records has been at the forefront of nearly every trend, school and advance in the evolution of jazz. In the process, the label has served as the home for luminary artists such as Sidney Bechet, Chick Corea, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Horace Silver, and Miles Davis, among others.
Optometrist/engineer Rudy Van Gelder, who was honored with a Recording Academy Trustees Award in 2012, mixed an unprecedented number of jazz classics for the label, including works by Bud Powell, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, and Monk. The iconic album artwork, designed by commercial artist Reid Miles, further cemented the label as the gold standard of jazz.
Beginning in 1984, after two decades of bouncing from owner to owner, Blue Note Records was resuscitated by Bruce Lundvall, also a past Trustees Award recipient, as part of the launch of EMI Manhattan Records. He signed musicians from the classic period such as McCoy Tyner as well as new jazz artists, including GRAMMY winners Terence Blanchard and Joe Lovano.
"I had the opportunity to not only make records but put ensembles together and tour the music and really live in the music I was recording," says Lovano, who has the longest tenure with the label with approximately two dozen releases in 25 years.
The GRAMMY Museum will help commemorate the label's 75th anniversary with Blue Note Records: The Finest In Jazz, a special exhibit that will feature classic album artwork and photographs, interactive displays and artifacts such as a baby grand piano that belonged to Monk. The exhibit will launch March 25 in conjunction with An Evening With Blue Note Records, an event featuring Blanchard and Was.
GRAMMY Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli says "[we] wanted to give our exhibit a point of view: to [show] how a label can really impact the course of a music form, particularly in jazz. Blue Note did that."
Blue Note will dig into its archives with a 100-album vinyl reissue initiative, commencing on March 25. The reissues will include classic jazz albums such as Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers' Free For All, Coltrane's Blue Train, Eric Dolphy's Out To Lunch!, Shorter's Speak No Evil, and Larry Young's Unity. On the other side of the technology spectrum, a Blue Note Spotify app allows music fans to discover music spanning the entire history of the label.
From May 3–11 the label will host Blue Note At 75 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., capped by Blue Note At 75: The Concert on May 11. As the culminating event of Blue Note's 75th anniversary celebration, artists from the label's present and past roster will perform, including Moran, Shorter and Norah Jones — whose Blue Note debut, 2002's Come Away With Me, netted five statues at the 45th GRAMMY Awards — among other surprise special guests.
While Blue Note's current roster contains a formidable pool of jazz talent, in recent years the label has traced the next step in its evolution by extending its reach outside jazz, evidenced by signings such as Rosanne Cash, Anita Baker, Elvis Costello And The Roots, Willie Nelson, Gov't Mule, and Van Morrison, among others.
"It's not a stretch at all to sign Van Morrison. When he steps up to the mic he delivers the goods as solid as Wayne Shorter delivers the goods," says Was, who was appointed label president in 2012. "It's just different modes and scales, but they are both pouring their lives out.
"[Alfred Lion talked] about the pursuit of authentic music. At that moment it was hot jazz," added Was, referencing a "manifesto" written by the label's co-founder. "He couldn't foresee what Blue Note would release in the '60s but he [was] still looking for authentic music of uncompromising quality; a focus on inspiration rather than the sensational."
(Dave Helland's first Blue Note purchase was either The Amazing Bud Powell or Art Blakey's The Witch Doctor.)