Blue Note – A Story of Modern Jazz (1996/2007)

by | Feb 25, 2008 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Blue Note – A Story of Modern Jazz (1996/2007)

Documentary by Julian Benedikt
With Ruth Lion, Ron Carter, Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock, Gil Melle, Horace Silver, Taj Mahal, Michael Cuscuna & many others
Studio: EuroArts 2005678 (Distr. by Naxos)
Video: Anamorphic/enhanced for 16:9 widescreen color
Audio: English PCM Stereo
Subtitles: English, German, French, Spanish
No region code
Length: 91 minutes
Rating: *****

This informative  documentary was originally made as two video programs for a jazz festival in German in l996 and has been re-edited into this presentation on DVD with some added materials. It is doubly ironic that the legendary Blue Note label was founded by two German Jewish immigrants – Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff – who came to the U.S. to escape Nazi oppression, founding the most famous American jazz label, and this fine documentary on Blue Note was originally made in Germany for presentation there, not in the U.S.  One of the film’s interviewees suggests that Americans took a very long time to really appreciate jazz because it was most everywhere and didn’t seem that special, whereas to Europeans it was rare and exotic and they quickly championed it as a great musical art when black American jazzmen began to perform there. Nice excuse, but some of us feel it was more insidious than that.

Lion and Wolff started the label in 1939 on a shoestring just because of their love of jazz. They were often the only label pulling some of these terrific jazzmen off the streets to record, and they usually provided a couple days of rehearsals before the recording session – which others didn’t provide. Their covers, with striking b&w photography by Wolff, usually portrayed the black artists themselves, which most other labels didn’t.  Art Blakey – one of the label’s many great discoveries – said that Alfred Lion had a black soul. The label’s relationship with their performers was warm and appreciative, unlike some of the major labels. This is now almost unheard of, which explains the large number of artists’ own labels today. 

Blue Note concentrated on propulsive hard-driving jazz and bebop, with little cool jazz or vocals.  Another of their big artists besides Blakey was Jimmy Smith. Lion even considered at one point selling Blue Note and becoming Smith’s manager since he was so nuts about his playing. Eventually Lion did sell out to Liberty Records and moved to Mexico, but in the 1980s Bruce Lundvall bought it back and has restored it to its former glory, adding many new artists. Excerpts from a 1985 Town Hall Concert by Blue Note artists are seen in the documentary.

This could have been just a promotional vehicle for the label, but it’s much more than that.  As the subtitle says, it’s  A Story of Modern Jazz. The  interviews are excellent and so are the musical excerpts. I was surprised there was no mention in the film of their primary recording engineer, Rudy Van Gelder, and his sonic accomplishments for them. The PCM stereo is good, but it was disappointing to be unable to get DTS surround mode since that was listed on the back cover but evidently not provided.

 – John Henry

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