Blue Note Records: from Ammons to Monk, it was home to the jazz idealists

Blue Note Records: from Ammons to Monk, it was home to the jazz idealists

Instantly recognisable, ineffably cool, Blue Note is a label that, after 70 years, still prides itself on celebrating ‘jazz with a feeling’ – straight, no chaser.

By Martin Gayford

‘The finest in jazz since 1939”: that’s how the logo reads on every Blue Note record. It’s an exaggeration, but not a completely crazy one. Other companies recorded wonderful performances, but no other had so strong an identity: not only musical but also visual, extending to the design of the photographs on the sleeve. And no other jazz label remained so faithful to its ideals for so long. There is plenty to celebrate in the anniversary of the birth of Blue Note, 70 years ago.

The foundation of Blue Note was an early sign that jazz was a music with a world audience. It was set up by a German-Jewish immigrant named Alfred Lion and it was run by him and another escapee from Nazi Germany, Francis Wolff, for three decades. Lion bowed out with health problems in 1967; Wolff died of a heart attack in 1971. But the label continues, under different ownership, to produce notable jazz recordings to this day.

Lion, born in 1909, and Wolff belonged to the first generation of European jazz fans. Both were mad about the music; nobody would ever run an independent jazz label, a recipe for financial precariousness and endless work, for any other reason. Ruth, Lion’s wife, described his routine in the late Fifties and early Sixties. “Alfred was doing everything. He was taking care of getting the records out. He was getting to rehearsals. He was getting to auditions. He put in at least a 70-hour week. Days off were very rare.”

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