Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes

Way back in 1939, two white German Jewish immigrant refugees fled Nazi fascism and arrived on our shores with a love for jazz music and its purity and innocence. Their love for that music led to a recording label that would produce the sound for themselves, and the music-loving public too, at “Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes.”

Laura's Review: B

In the late 1930's Alfred Lion, who had immigrated to America to escape Jewish persecution in Hitler's Germany, created a record label to record the jazz musicians who enthralled him, beginning with the boogie pianist Meade Mux Louis. When Lion was drafted into the Army, his childhood friend Frank Wolff joined him and ran the company, stamping his own mark on it with his astonishing photography of recording sessions. Lion returned, almost losing everything when he continued to release the work of Thelonius Monk to a public who didn't get it. Eighty years after its founding, what he created is now revered as having produced some of the jazz genre's most iconic recordings. Director Sophie Huber guides us through the amazing history of "Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes."

Even if jazz is not your thing, Huber's rich musical history of its preeminent label is something to sink into. Early archival footage is presented in rich black and white. Wolff's 'amateur' photography reveals a true artist, his work used for distinctive album covers. But it is the music and the camaraderie among artists and between artists and the two Germans they accepted as their own where "Blue Note" really sings and Huber drills down, highlighting seminal works like John Coltrane's 'Blue Rain' and Miles Davis's ' I Waited for You." We learn how the Art Blakey and Horace Silver cemented the 'Blue Note sound' and how Blakey's 'Let Freedom Ring' became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Immerse yourself in Wayne Shorter's brilliant and eerie 'Masquelero.'

Anecdotes abound, like Herbie Hancock recalling a 'hideous mistake' he made and how Miles Davis, after a momentary pause, ran with it, turning it into a triumph. Many of Blue Notes artists praise its German founders for not only not trying to change a thing, but creating an environment which allowed the soul of the music to emerge, unlike many of their parasitic counterparts. What may be surprising to many is the label's more recent history which Huber turns into an analysis of how hip hop sprung from jazz via artists like A Tribe Called Quest and Kendrick Lamar, many sampling Blue Note recordings.

Robin's Review: B+

As I watched this well-made and well-researched documentary, by Sophie Huber, about the birth and life of a record label that was built upon a heartfelt love of jazz, I was struck that it was the abovementioned white guys who were the ones who brought to the public some of the greats in that music scene. The founders of Blue Note Records, Al Lyon and Frank Wolff, because of their passion for jazz, produced and introduced some of the industry greats – Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Art Blakely and the Jazz Messengers and Thelonious Monk to name jus a very few. (My dad, an avid jazz fan, at the end of his three-job day, would play these and other great artists – at 3:00 AM and VERY loud. Fond memories now, but not when I was six years old.)

The BNR story is built on archival footage and interviews of jazz greats and their music, but the biggest visual contributions are Frank Wolff’s own amateur photos of the many sessions and talents that crossed Blue Note’s threshold. The construction of this copious information is built to flow us through the many years of Blue Note and its family of talented musicians – a true “community of individuals.”

One interesting side note made by director-writer-producer Sophie Huber in the course of telling the BNR story: During the Reagan Era, in the mid-1980s, funding for the after school arts and music programs were cut. The rise of gang violence in the US began when those programs were eliminated. Food for thought, don’t you think?

Anyone who has a real love for music will want to see and learn from “Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes” and the many amazing talents those two old white German Jewish immigrant refugees brought to us all.