How many music labels can honestly claim to be more than just a label, but an actual brand? Blue Note Records, that scrappy little label founded by two German immigrants in 1939, is one of the few that can—the name is synonymous with jazz. But not just any kind of jazz, specifically the jazz that from the 40s onwards helped transform America’s dance hall music into an intellectual and aesthetic way of life. The kaleidoscopic chordal inversions and jagged compositions of Thelonious Monk; the mile-a-minute group wailings of the Jazz Messengers; the icy ensemble explorations of John Coltrane; the avant-garde atonality of Cecil Taylor (Rest in Peace); the breathy adult contemporary of Norah Jones. Their catalog boasts a murderer’s row of canon classics: what album collection can truly be called complete without Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else or Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch! But even more than the music itself, their album art (designed primarily by visual artist Reid Miles and company co-founder Francis Wolff) also seared its way into the very psyche of the genre. Many of their album covers remain immortal jazz images: a pensive Coltrane brooding and a reclining Hank Mobley smiling in twin blue vacuums of darkness on Blue Train and Soul Station; the Andy Warhol silkscreen repetitions of Taylor on Unit Structures; the brash typographical negative space of the Jazz Messengers’ At the Café Bohemia Vols I & 2 and Larry Young’s Unity. For many, Blue Note represents nothing short of the very soul of post-World War Two jazz.
Director Sophie Huber took upon quite the undertaking exploring the history, internal culture, and impact of the beloved label in her new documentary Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes. Though well-intentioned and crammed with talking heads interviews with surviving jazz luminaries like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and new school legends like Kendrick Scott and hip-hop producer Terrance Martin, the film cannot overcome puff piece temptation. Her treatment of Wolff and fellow co-founder Alfred Lion as hands-off producers who lived for the music and not for the money man, borders on the hagiographic. Huge swaths of the label’s history are overlooked so as to give additional screen time to more publicly recognizable legends like Monk and Coltrane. (They almost completely skip their not insignificant contributions to free jazz. Norah Jones gets more attention than Ornette Coleman!) There’s also this weird reoccurring insistence that Blue Note was a politically radical label that created rabble-rousing protest music supporting the Civil Rights movement. But as my friend and colleague Joe Bendel, a living jazz encyclopedia, explained as we stepped out of the theater into the chilly streets of Tribeca, this seems like Trump-era provocation meant to make the film seem more socially conscious. Other jazz labels like Candid and Impulse! Records were more vocally political; Blue Note was more content to let great artists create great music. Beyond the Notes might not be a great documentary, but there are certainly worse ways to spend 90 minutes than looking at great photographs and visual pop art, listening to world class musicians session, and hearing old jazz farts swap stories about the glory days.