There have been many influential jazz record labels throughout the previous century and into the current one, but there is no more recognizable label than Blue Note Records. Blue Note is “unquestionably the most iconic jazz label there has ever been,” claims the site Udiscover Music in a post on the “50 Greatest” Blue Note albums. Indeed, “it may well be the most iconic record label of all time… a brand recognized the world over for the ‘finest in jazz.’”
Outside of the label identities in certain subcultures like punk and electronic music, no other name so instantly conjures up a fully-formed, distinctive look and sound. It is the monochrome look of dapper, too-cool musical giants in tailored suits and skinny ties, and the sound, primarily, of the Hard Bop era—of Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Bud Powell, McCoy Tyner, and, of course, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane, artists who totally enlarged the boundaries of jazz. (See the trailer above for the Sophie Huber documentary Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes.)
By design, Blue Note’s unforgettable 50s and 60s album covers—most created by artist Reid Miles and photographer Francis Wolff—suggest brimfuls of possibility. “Right from the beginning,” says producer and writer Michael Cuscuna in the video above, “they really took their covers seriously.”
But this would have meant little if they hadn’t taken the music just as seriously as the stylish artwork that adorns it. Founded in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Max Margulis, the label first served as a home for more traditional big band and swing, but in the late forties, Blue Note seemed to realize better than any other commercial entity that the future of jazz had arrived, thanks in part to saxophonist and talent scout Ike Quebec.
“Not really in the pantheon of Blue Note players of the 1960s,” writes Burning Ambulance (he died in early ’63), Quebec is still central to the label’s success. As an A&R man, he signed Monk and Bud Powell, and “it’s been said that he did a lot of uncredited arranging on other musicians’ sessions, too.” His later recordings fit right in with his more famous peers (check out his “Blue and Sentimental”). Quebec’s own work doesn’t come up in many Blue Note retrospectives, including the Spotify discography above, and that’s too bad. But it’s hard to complain when you’ve got so many incredible, iconic Blue Note recordings in one place.
Created by Junior Bonner, the Blue Notes Records Discography playlist is not “complete” in that it contains every album the label ever released—an impossible expectation, surely, especially since Blue Note is still going strong. But, with a run time of 144 hours, it more than sufficiently covers the roster of the label’s greatest players, including several many of us probably haven’t heard before in much depth. Hardcore audiophile record collectors should visit LondonJazzCollector and Jazzdisco.org to get the full Blue Note catalog of every Blue Note artist and release. But lovers of jazz who don’t mind digital streaming instead of precious vinyl and shellac will be thrilled with this impressive anthology.