Blue Note Turns 75
As part of the yearlong celebration of Blue Note Records’ 75th anniversary, on March 25 the venerable jazz record label unveiled the exhibit “Blue Note Records: The Finest In Jazz” in the Mike Curb Gallery at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. The opening night of the exhibit brought together the label’s president, Don Was, and trumpeter Terence Blanchard for a discussion, followed by a performance by Blanchard’s quintet.
The exhibit is small but lovingly assembled, occupying a corner near the well-lit belongings of Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen and opera star Placido Domingo’s stage costumes. The majority of the exhibit hinges on seven video screens showing interviews with Was, producer Michael Cuscuna and pianist Jason Moran, along with unidentified live concert footage and various documentary vignettes.
The limitations of the exhibit create strange juxtapositions in summing up 75 years of business operations.
Rare artifacts like Kenny Dorham’s trumpet and Thelonious Monk’s hat are encased alongside newer items like José James’ leather jacket, which could still be part of his stage wardrobe today. In center display cases, numerous album covers and contact sheets were mounted on the walls.
The informal conversation was moderated by the museum’s executive director, Bob Santelli, who lobbed friendly questions to his guests. Blanchard addressed his motivations for teaching, embracing the need to pass on the knowledge imparted by his former employer Art Blakey. The participants discussed the mystery of Rudy Van Gelder’s recording studio as well as the allure of the “cigarettes and saxophones” that graced so many of the label’s classic album covers.
“You can only put out .25 percent of the records you want,” explained Was, late in the conversation. As the label has drifted toward r&b under his tenure, he was eager to point out that he is working to keep Blue Note relevant while honoring its fiercely defended history.
One of his highest profile initiatives is a jazz collector’s fantasy project: Beginning last week, the label has begun a vinyl-only reissue campaign to release 100 of its most significant albums. But deciding on which albums to release was not an easy task.
“The first 50, there was no argument,” said Was. “The second 50—was all arguments.” Joe Henderon’sMode For Joe provided Was with his introduction to the label back when he was a teenager, while Blanchard was taken in by Blakey’s Free For All.
The Blakey LP is among the first batch of vinyl reissues, along with John Coltrane’s Blue Train, Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch, Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil and Larry Young’s Unity. The campaign is slated to continue with new titles popping up monthly through October 2015.
Was pointed out that the project is not aimed at the covetous collector striving for audiophile packaging and a big price tag. Instead, he said the goal was to release “low cost, high quality” vinyl to help spread the label across as many record collections as possible—much like the no-frills CD releases of the ’90s and ’00s.
Was fielded a question from the audience about how to make money as a musician in a Spotify world. “Nobody knows,” he answered bluntly. “We’re not asking for enough money to drive a Maserati, just enough to make a record.”
Blanchard provided sage advice to an aspiring film composer: “Don’t be the headache,” he stated simply. He advised musicians to do their job, stay out of the way and make things as smooth for the filmmaker as possible.
It also helps when you make great music. In a candy-colored outfit complete with wallet chain, Blanchard led his youthful quintet for nearly 40 minutes following the conversation. He was an enthusiastic frontman, craning forward and backward, exhaling enough wind to extinguish a brushfire. The result from his blasting lungs was jagged and impassioned, driven by drummer Jason Faulkner’s bubbling kit. Despite the brevity of the performance, Blanchard settled in quickly with his band and was able to conjure a wide range of moods.