Thursday, February 02, 2012

Remembering Alfred Lion (1908-1987)

"Alfred Lion knew just what he wanted and he took the time to get it," Rudy Van Gelder, recording engineer for Blue Note Records

"Any particular style of playing which represents an authentic way of musical feeling is genuine expression. Hot jazz, therefore, is expression and communication, a musical and social manifestation, and Blue Note records are concerned with identifying its impulse, not its sensational and commercial adornments." Alfred Lion (1908-1987)

Alfred Lion, with ever-ebullient jazz legend Dexter Gordon and Francis Woolf

As Black History Month in 2012 started in a truly rotten way with the tragic deaths of gospel and R&B singer David Peaston and "Soul Train" host/founder Don Cornelius, I will bring attention to an individual who also was tremendously important to African American culture and music. He passed away 25 years ago today: Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note Records. The very well-written and comprehensive New York Times obit is still available online, and yet just scratches the surface of Mr. Lion's influence and impact.

Alfred Lion, with Francis Woolf and ace soundman Rudy Van Gelder, was personally responsible for producing a gargantuan chunk of 20th century recorded music and innovative, hard swinging jazz history.

The story began when Mr. Lion attended the Carnegie Hall Spirituals to Swing Concert on December 23, 1938. The concert changed Albert's life; utterly blown away by the two-fisted piano heroics of boogie-woogie gurus Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis, he arranged to record the duo. Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis were recorded session on Jan. 9, 1939, and a few dozen pressings were made. The word got out and he had to press more, then followed the recordings up with an album by Sidney Bechet leading the Port Of Harlem Jazzmen. With Bechet's masterful version of "Summertime", Blue Note Records was off and running.

Fast forward a few years, after Mr. Lion's WW2 service and discharge from the Army. Lion and partner Francis Woolf re-started Blue Note and got the ball rolling in 1947 by recording one of the most innovative, original musicians and composers of all: Thelonious Sphere Monk.

The label soon followed this up with equally groundbreaking recordings by the cutting-edge musicians of the day: Bud Powell, Tadd Dameron, Miles Davis, Milt Jackson, Herbie Nichols.

Blue Note, to a significant degree, made its reputation in the hard-driving genre known as hard bop: the red-hot unholy spawn of blues, gospel and bebop.

The originators of hard bop, powerful and charismatic drummer Art Blakey and pianist Horace Silver, played at fever-pitch intensity, with style and panache to match. Former members of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and Silver's bands - Johnny Griffin, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan - would carry the hard-swinging torch in their solo albums (which often featured Art himself on the drums).

The list of outstanding musicians who recorded for Blue Note is a Who's Who of 20th century jazz: pianists Monk, Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Herbie Nichols, Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor; trumpeters Fats Navarro, Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan; saxophonists John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter, Sam Rivers, Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon, Ike Quebec, George Coleman and Gato Barbieri; bassists Paul Chambers, Reggie Workman and Jimmy Garrison; drummers Tony Williams, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Joe Chambers; among many others.

In the 1950's, Blue Note pioneered a blend of gritty r&B and jazz, powered by the mighty Hammond B-3. These were smokin' virtuosos who could rip up and down the keyboard with their hands while tapping out a walking bassline worthy of Ray Brown with their feet. Jimmy Smith, Big John Patton, Baby Face Willette and the innovative Larry Young were four Blue Note artists who could make that Hammond B-3 sing. Offering inspired support: guitarists Grant Green and Kenny Burrell.

In the early 1960's, Blue Note started taking on modern jazz. The recordings weren't as far out as those incendiary leaps into the unknown by saxophonist Albert Ayler, but got quite a bit of bold, groundbreaking experimentation into the mix. Many featured sidemen from the Miles Davis and John Coltrane Quintets. In particular, the recordings of multi-instrumentalist Sam Rivers and pianist Andrew Hill took listeners on quite a wild sonic ride. Brilliant keyboardist Larry Young took the mighty Hammond B-3, threw some Trane style "sheets of sound" into the mix and took the funky instrument in a completely different modernist direction with his provocative yet propulsive recordings, both as a leader and with guitarist Grant Green.

Original thinkers and diehard modernists Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor would join the label in 1965 and throw down the gauntlet yet further.

The label was bought and sold several times, but thankfully still exists. Heroes Charlie Lourie and Michael Cuscuna formed Mosaic Records and got to work immediately on archival re-issues of unreleased masterpieces by Monk, Powell, Nichols, Hill and more. Many of the classic Blue Note albums have been reissued.

In recent years, such superb artists as guitarist Charlie Hunter have valiantly carried the torch, but it's a different era now, more corporate - and much more hostile - to both improvisational jazz and the fearless "out-of-the-box" trailblazing that created this music in the first place.

Now, more than 45 years later, nobody is doing anything like this, except in the indie and DIY recording world. Nobody.

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