I was fortunate enough to write about Blue Note Records: Beyond The Notes for The Wire in August 2018 and so after a long period of waiting whilst rights to show it became available, it’s a real pleasure to finally bring the film to our screen.
Founded in New York in 1939 by German-Jewish refugees Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, Blue Note Records exists alongside Prestige and Impulse as one of the most iconic jazz labels and, arguably, amongst the most influential record companies period. Lion and Wolff gave their artists complete artistic freedom and encouraged them to experiment and compose with little regard for commercial imperatives. This uncompromising approach led to a series of releases that helped define hard bop and which would leave an indelible imprint on art, design, photography and music for decades to come.
Directed by Sophie Huber, Blue Note Records: Beyond The Notes lays out the history of Blue Note from its founding to its latter-day renaissance after it became a source of samples for hip hop artists. Jazz was an essential form of expression to African Americans, to whom it represented freedom, and to a later generation of largely suppressed black artists with a proclivity to create music offered a similar sense of freedom.
Huber expertly leads the viewer through a treasure trove of photographs shot by Wolff, many of which would grace the sleeves in conjunction with Reid Miles’s superlative designs and typography, archival performances, interviews with the label’s albums and more recent fans. There are also intimate excerpts from a contemporary Blue Note All-Stars session featuring Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Robert Glasper. We’re also granted access to invaluable recollections from Shorter, sound engineer Rudy van Gelder and others who worked on both sides of the studio window. The cumulative effect is seductive, invigorating and entertaining, taking the viewer beyond the music to immerse them in the talent, drive and sense of heritage and history that continue to propel the distinct mission of a formidable and still fully functioning American label.
Jason Wood: Can you begin by talking about how the project evolved? Was it an approach from you to the label or was it the other way round?
Sophie Huber: As you know, I did a documentary about Harry Dean Stanton. Being a rather private person who wasn’t inclined to reveal much verbally about himself, we filmed him singing his favourite songs in his living room, as a way to get closer to him and his biography. It became a music doc and I was looking for a label to put out the soundtrack album. A friend of mine introduced me to Don Was, the president of Blue Note Records, who is also a legendary musician and record producer. He loved the film, but obviously Harry’s country western songs and Mexican ballads didn’t fit into the Blue Note catalogue. Don ended up playing bass on a few tracks and we released the soundtrack on a different label (Omnivore). Don and I stayed in touch and talked about possible music doc subjects. Around the same time, he was approached by the BBC, who wanted to do a documentary for the 75th anniversary of Blue Note. Don suggested me as a director and I then went on to raise money through Swiss government funds, to ensure an independent production. Now, for the 80th anniversary, the film is finally out there. It started its UK and Ireland run in March and will come out in US theaters in June and will be broadcast on the BBC in the fall.
JW: One of the things that impresses me most about your film is that it does a fine job of foregrounding the history of one of the world’s most iconic record labels but also looks at how it has evolved to remain current and contemporary for a new generation of artists and listeners. Were you keen that your document have this balance?
SH: From the beginning, it was important to me to feature the young musicians and the present as a way to access the past. Jazz is alive and vibrant and there are current movements, that are very interesting, one of which is the connection to hip hop, not only through sampling, but also the collaboration between musicians such as Robert Glasper and hip hop artists, such as Kendrick Lamar. Reinvention and breaking previous rules, has always been part of this music. Also, the importance of the greats of the past becomes evident in their influence on the artists of the present. When you hear Kendrick Scott (drummer in the All-Star band) talk about Art Blakey for instance, there is a sense of heritage, of continuum. It is beautiful how in jazz, the knowledge is passed from one generation of musicians to the next and this also happened within Blue Note. Bandleaders such as Art Blakey would take young musicians in their band and make them leaders. And this continues with the young guys. It is important to them to inspire a younger generation. I wanted the film to be part of that passing of knowledge as well and I hope it can be a torch on its own.
JW: I imagine you were given full access to the Blue Note vaults so I’d just like to draw you out a little more on the research process. You uncover some astonishing footage but was there also a sense of having so much to include that knowing what to leave out became problematic? You certainly manage to cover the key artists associated with the label in its heyday and tease out almost 80 years of music and over a thousand records into an approximately 90 minute film…
SH: Archive: We had full access to the photographs of Francis Wolff – one of the founders – who shot nearly every session from the 40s to the 60s. The recordings from the classic era of Blue Note were not filmed, so I looked for concert footage of Monk, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Horace Silver etc. One of my goals was to tell the story through the artists’ own voices as much as possible and not through historians. I was looking for interviews with Art Blakey, and John Coltrane for instance, and found those on You Tube. We also had access to tapes that rolled in between takes, where you hear the musicians joking and cursing, bringing life to the photographs.
Fitting 80 years into 90 minutes: Our first assemblies were three or four hours long, as we tried to include more artists from each era. The film was funded as a theatrical film, not a TV or serial format, so we needed to bring the story into a form that is digestible in 90 minutes. I wanted people, who do not necessarily have a great knowledge of jazz, find access to this music and spark their interest, and at the same time, give new bits of information to Blue Note aficionados. It is inevitable to leave out important parts in condensing this story into 90 minutes. Also, one has to consider the rhythm of the film, keeping an audience engaged and the story moving, where sometimes one more mini portrait of yet another amazing artist would have been one too many. But my hope is that people will be interested enough to go dig deeper and find out more, as the wealth is vast.
JW: I particularly enjoyed the sequences with Thelonious Monk. Blue Note’s support of Monk makes clear that they were driven not purely by commerce. Such an approach would perhaps be anathema in today’s climate and need for sales and downloads.
SH: The good thing is that Blue Note still supports bold artists and the revenues from the catalogue allow them to do so. I’m thinking of Ambrose Akinmusire for instance, the young trumpeter in the film, but also of the other contemporary musicians. They all have their own, distinct voice, reflecting their experience or our time.
JW: There are frequently questions about the exploitation of black artists and the appropriation of black culture by white record owners. You deal with this head on, including the interview with Lou Donaldson – who describes most white label owners as ’scoundrels’ – to make clear that Wolff and Lion were liked and trusted by their artists. Was it important to you that you explore questions such as this?
SH: I think that one of the main reasons that Blue Note has this place in music history, is that it was founded by two people who did not care about making money first. They wanted to put out the records they wanted to hear and share their experience, the values the music gave them, with others. They were not business men, they were – in Don Was’ words – rabid jazz fans. And that’s why they recorded Monk when nobody else did. I think the freedom and the vitality and power of the music, of black music, resonated with them in a profound way, having fled Nazi Germany. I’m certain that they never saw their role in any other way than to contribute their part in making sure that the music they loved so much found an unobstructed way to the audience. They had a deep respect for the art and the artists and had close and lifelong friendships with many of the musicians.
JW: Similarly, the film in its analysis of turntable culture looks at how for young black African Americans that couldn’t afford instruments but who had access to the record collections of their parents’ jazz remained a source of creativity and an escape from suppression. How are the contemporary Blue Note artists seeking to inspire and influence emerging generations?
SH: It’s been inspiring to me to see how the contemporary musicians all have a strong sense of responsibility as artists, which includes teaching a new generation. Each one, teach one, as Terrace Martin says. Many of the younger artists teach at colleges and are involved in programs that provide instruments and music lessons for kids. And by setting an example, by playing in their own bands or with hip hop artists, they show kids how important and gratifying it is to play an instrument masterfully.
JW: Blue Note Records: Beyond The Notes strikes me as having appeal far beyond just jazz lovers. It’s also about expression, race and why culture and creativity continue to matter. Are you finding that people with little knowledge or even interest in the label are seeking it out?
SH: I’m really glad you mention this. I’m looking for ways to bring people to the cinema who would not necessarily go watch a jazz doc and let them know that they get something out of it, even if they don’t particularly know or even like jazz. Actor friends of mine came to see the film and started going to jazz concerts as they discovered the art form in a new way and said every actor can learn so much from a jazz musician, about listening, about being in the moment, about being an individual while serving the whole. Someone also said that every art student should see it, to think about which values truly motivate us, what kind of artists we want to be.
JW: Having also enjoyed Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction I wondered what you can reveal about what you are working on next? You seem to be very adept at dealing with iconic figures and institutions…
SH: Thank you, Jason, that is kind of you to say. I’m still quite involved with Blue Note, making sure the film comes out, particularly in America, which has not been an easy undertaking, but luckily we now know the film will come out in NYC and LA in June. I am starting to research several ideas, not so much iconic figures, though, but more rural American stories that I might want to fictionalize. But as Harry Dean always said: “We shall see what unfolds.”
Words and Interview by Jason Wood, Creative Director of Film and Culture at HOME.
Blue Note Records: Beyond The Notes screens on Sat 25 May 2019. Find out more and book tickets here.