When Alfred Lion fled Nazi Germany in 1938, he had no doubt where he would go. He was drawn to New York by the sound of jazz.
Lion had first lived there between 1926 and 1930. By occupation he was an art dealer, but his burning avocation was collecting records and listening to live performances. He spent much of his free time searching for records in stores and the cellars and basements of homes.
But he couldn't find discs of some of his favorite artists. So with less than $100 he started Blue Note Records in 1939, first recording boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. For the next 37 years, Lion (later with partner-photographer Francis Wolff) produced some of the most important jazz records ever.
Initially, he recorded traditionalists like Sidney Bechet, James P. Johnson, Art Hodes and Edmond Hall. He quickly moved on to give modernists Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Lee Morgan and Herbie Hancock their first important exposure.
Blue Note records were generally of such high musical quality that many jazz fans used to walk in record shops and ask for the latest Blue Notes regardless of the artists.
In the '60s, a small group of fans used to rush to the now-defunct Jazz Record Center in Manhattan on the day the latest Blue Note shipment was expected. The emotional pitch was sometimes so high that they would persuade the store manager to lock the door just so that they could listen in absolute privacy. Two fans were so intense that they discussed Blue Notes, not by titles but by serial numbers.
But Lion sold the company in 1966. And although he continued producing record sessions until 1968 before retiring to Cuernavaca, Mexico (Wolff died in 1971), the firm lost it high esthetic purpose. The catalogue eventually became part of United Artists and was lost in the EMI conglomerate.
In the last several years, however, producer Michael Cuscuna has been unearthing unreleased treasures from the Blue Note vaults. In addition to those listed below, he says there is enough material for another 40 albums.
Dexter Gordon -- "Clubhouse" (Blue Note LT-989). Recorded in 1965, a particularly fertile year for the master tenor saxophonist, this LP features his cavernous tone and romantic lines on two lush ballads, "I'm a Fool to Want You" and "Jodi" and his effervescent swing on a loping blues, "Lady Iris B." His able asistants include trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and pianist Barry Harris.
Wayne Shorter -- "The Soothsayer" (Blue Note LT-989). Also recorded in 1965, this album is made up entirely of Miles Davis and John Coltrane disciples who have their own voices. Tenor saxophonist Shorter, who's gone on to fusion jazz efforts with Weather Report, is responsible for the distinctive compositions (except for an exceedingly lovely arrangement and performance of Sibelius' "Valse Triste") and several solo of sheer beauty.
Pianist McCoy Tyner is looser here in spirit than usual. And drummer Tony Williams' hi-hat cymbal work is nonpariel in the way he mixes meter. The group also includes alto saxophonist James Spaulding, bassist Ron Carter and Hubbard. One of the best jazz albums of 1979.
Jackie McLean -- "Consequence" (Blue Note-994). Alto saxophonist McClean was frequently recorded by Lion. Why wasn't this fine session issued long ago? McLean is angular, trumpeter Lee Morgan crackling and the rhythm team of pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Herbie Lewis and drummer Milly Higgins fiery.
Lee Morgan -- "Sonic Boom" (Blue Note LT-987). It was an inspired move to record Morgan with former Ray Charles tenor saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman, who's usually associated with rhythm 'n' blues. The pair, both strong proponents of funky jazz, offer some downhome performance. Morgan delivers an eloquent "I'll Never Be the Same" by himself.
Hank Mobley -- "A Slice of the Top" (blue Note LT-995). This album, recorded in 1966, conveys a large measure of sadness. Tenor saxopohonist Mobley wrote the compositions while in prison on a heroin conviction. It marked the only time he has recorded with an instrumentation that included tuba and euphonium. The musical cast, Spaulding, Morgan and Tyner, is excellent.
Mobley is particularly inspired in the way he weaves a melodic web on "There's a Lull in My Life." According to the liner notes, Mobley, a Philadelphia resident, has had two recent lung operations. He rarely performs (his appearance here at d.c. space recently was reported to be an artistic disaster). But this album is noteworthy.
Jimmy Smith -- "Confirmation" (Blue Note LT-992). Another in a long line of marathon jam sessions led by organist Smith, originally recorded in 1957 and 1958, this album is largely lackluster. There're good moments by guitarist Kenny Burrell and Morgan, but Smith never warms to his task.
Donald Byrd -- "Chant" (Blue Note LT-991). This is the Donald Byrd of 1961, before he went pop with the Black Byrds. His trumpet work was fleet and lyrical. His choice of material was imaginative. Nevertheless, bari- tone saxophonist Pepper Adams outshines here.
Stanley Turrentine -- "New Time Shuffle" Blue Note LT-993). Tenor saxophonist Turrentine plays jazz for the masses. His sinewy lines swing in the most direct manner. He plays hummable melodies. And he has a robust tone.
Bobby Hutcherson -- "Spiral" (Blue Note LT-996). Overall, this album contains excellent straiaght-ahead playing by vibraphonist Hutcherson and tenor saxophonist Harold Land. But the gem is a track left over from another Hutcherson record session -- "Jasper," an altered minor blues that features intriguing solos by saxopnonist Sam Rivers, pianist Andrew Hill and Hutcherson.
Grant Green -- "Solid" (Blue Note LT-990). Guitarist Green, who died earlier this year, played fluid, sparkling lines that never failed to swing. He's in good company here with saxophonist Joe Henderson, Spaulding and Tyner.