Blue Note Records: Highlights from the past 75 years


Lionel Loueke (Brantley Gutierrez/Brantley Gutierrez)

The legendary New York record label Blue Note has released music by many of the most celebrated names in jazz, including John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock and Donald Byrd. Throughout the years, Blue Note’s musical reach has broadened to include artists such as Willie Nelson, Al Green and Anita Baker, and the current roster is highlighted by Norah Jones and Robert Glasper. Here is a look back at some of the notable moments in Blue Note’s 75 years.

1939: Blue Note Records is founded by childhood friends Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, two Jewish men from Germany. After leaving the Nazi-occupied country, they met in New York and with their shared love for jazz, laid down the groundwork for the label. To propel the label forward, the two brought on their friend and adviser Ike Quebec, who served as a talent scout, along with recording engineer Rudy van Gelder. The first album to be released on the label is “The First Day” by pianists Albert Ammons and Mead Lux Lewis, a compilation of 18 tracks including “Nagasaki” and “Boogie Woogie Blues.”

1952 and 1953: “Young Man With A Horn” by iconic trumpeter Miles Davis is released. “Miles Davis, Vol. 1,” a 15-track compilation, is also released, and “Miles Davis: Vol. 2,” an 11-track compilation, follows a year later. Davis also recorded “Somethin’ Else,” which was released in 1958 and featured Hank Jones, Sam Jones and Art Blakey.

1957: Saxophonist John Coltrane never officially signed with Blue Note, but the label released his classic album “Blue Train.” Coltrane’s son, Ravi Coltrane, made his official Blue Note debut in 2012.

1965: Lion and Wolff sign the label over to Liberty Records. Lion remained with the label until 1965. After that time, Wolff worked with a producer named Duke Pearson until his death in 1971.

1970: Jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd, who recorded for Blue Note between 1956 and 1976, establishes the jazz studies program at Howard University. In 1983, the master’s program in jazz studies was established with the help of former coordinator of jazz studies, Arthur Dawkins. Since that time, vocal jazz studies has become a significant part of the program. Some of the musicians who graduated from Howard’s jazz studies program include pianists Marcus Johnson, Geri Allen and composer Michael Bearden.

1973: Byrd’s album “Blackbyrd” is released and becomes the highest selling album in Blue Note history. The album received considerable criticism from jazz purists who denounced his experimentation with elements of R&B and funk. Vocalist Norah Jones’s 2002 debut album “Come Away With Me” is now — by far — the label’s best-selling album, moving 25 million units worldwide.

1979: The label becomes inactive. Blue Note’s director of marketing, Charlie Lourie, and producer and catalogue researcher Michael Cuscuna establish Mosaic Records and begin an effort to introduce a series of reissues and unreleased music from Blue Note’s archives.

1984: Blue Note becomes a sub-label of EMI-Capitol and is reactivated. Veteran music executive Bruce Lundvall leads the label’s rebirth and vocalist Dianne Reeves becomes one of its new stars.

2009: For its 70th anniversary, the label celebrates its founding with the release of “Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records” and a coinciding North American tour by the Blue Note 7, a band led by pianist Bill Charlap and featuring saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist Peter Washington, saxophonist Steve Wilson and drummer Lewis Nash.

2012: Don Was becomes president of the label. Was helps broaden the label’s reach and under his leadership, the label sees the return of legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Blue Note is currently owned by Universal Music Group.

Macy L. Freeman is an editorial aide for the Weekend/Going Out Guide section at The Washington Post.
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