If you're into jazz at all, some of your favorite albums were probably issued by Blue Note Records. Aficionados celebrate the label for putting out some of the definitive recordings in jazz history, spanning from before bebop to the present day. Even the cover art, with its Francis Wolff photography, elegant design and sleek typesetting, has become iconic in jazz lore.
This year, Blue Note celebrates its 70th anniversary — and the 25th anniversary of its relaunch after being acquired by EMI Records. The label was co-founded on a shoestring budget by a German emigre named Alfred Lion. But Lion was both meticulous and passionate about recording music that he believed in.
"Alfred was a short man, maybe 5'3" or 5'4". But when the groove was right in the studio, he used to start to jump around and dance to the music in the studio," says Michael Cuscuna, a jazz record producer and archivist who has worked extensively with Blue Note. "And a lot of the musicians said that's when they knew they had the right take, when Alfred got out of his chair and started dancing."
On Talk of the Nation, host Neal Conan discussed the history and legacy of the label with Cuscuna, Blue Note CEO Bruce Lundvall and pianist Bill Charlap, who records for Blue Note. Lundvall says he's confident that the label will continue to enjoy success.
"The artists drive the business forward, and when original artists come along, the business will pick up, there's no question about it," Lundvall says. "We're just middlemen in this business, those of use who run record companies and work at record labels ... So you have to choose the right artists. And I think we have a lot of those."
This year, Blue Note put together the Blue Note 7, an all-star sextet playing all across North America in celebration of the label's 70-year milestone. Before he left on tour with the group, musical director Bill Charlap picked some of his favorite Blue Note classics for NPR Music.
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In jazz and blues, there are blue notes, played just under the pitch. They add a more soulful sound, they give tune a little more feel.
(Soundbite of jazz music)
CONAN: There are blue notes and there is Blue Note Records, now the oldest and, many argue, the best label in jazz. Founded seventy years ago, Blue Note captured much of the best work many of the all-time greats. And along the way, the label established new standards for the excellence of its recordings and the quality of its cover art. Even the elegant blue and white label itself is instantly recognizable.
This hour, Blue Note's past, present and future - the artists, engineers and producers who made it happen. And we mark two anniversaries: Seventy years ago on this day, Alfred Lion made Blue Note's first recording and this year marks 25 years since the label was reborn under Bruce Lundvall, Blue Note's current president, and he'll join us in a couple of minutes.
And we want to hear from you. What was the defining Blue Note album for you? What was your Blue Note moment? 800-989-8255; email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org, click on Talk of the Nation. We're going to start with jazz writer, producer and archivist Michael Cuscuna, co-founder of Mosaic Records, which released boxed sets of jazz, many from the Blue Note archives. Michael Cuscuna join us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you in the program today.
Mr. MICHAEL CUSCUNA (Co-founder, Mosaic Records): Hi. Thank you, Neal
CONAN: Tell us about a little bit about Alfred Lion and the start of Blue Note Records.
Mr. CUSCUNA: Well, I mean, it was one of those great things that could only happen in this country. When Alfred was a young kid growing up in Berlin, he was absolutely fascinated by music, especially drummers. And when he used to go on trips with his parents on vacations, he used to climb out of bed and sit behind the drum set when they went out dancing with the dance bands in the ballrooms. And one day, his mother brought home a 78 - he didn't remember what it was - but one side was a commercial tune and the flipside was a jazz tune. And once he heard that, his life changed dramatically.
And a lot of people think, because he's a German emigre who is Jewish, as was Francis Wolf, that he was a refugee from Hitler's Germany. But in fact, he left Germany shortly after graduating high school and came to New York just to work on the docks and sleep in Central Park, just to be close to the music and hear it live and collect records. So, that's how deep his passion went, and it's probably the kind of passion that has steered the lives of all three of us sitting here today.
And what he brought to it was - in his passion, he had a desire to make music that really reflected what went on in the clubs and what went on in the musicians' minds. And he started Blue Note on a shoestring in 1939 with Max Margolis, and they recorded music that they believed in, that had feeling. And that was their basic criteria. And from then, it led to what we know as Blue Note today.
CONAN: I've read musicians called him Stompy.
Mr. CUSCUNA: Oh, yeah, well, they did. And the reason they called him Stompy was - Alfred was a short man - maybe five-three, five-four - but when the groove was right in the studio, he use to start to jump around and dance to the music in the studio. And a lot of musicians said that's when they knew they had the right take - when Alfred got out of his chair and started dancing.
But what he also brought to it was a very strong dramatic sense of wanting to create the best situation to create the music in. And what made Blue Note different from a lot of other labels was that Alfred insisted on planning meetings, on rehearsals where it encouraged musician to do - to write new and interesting music, so that it wouldn't be music that was rehearsed and played in the studio, where by the time you learn the tune, you're so tired you're playing your fifth-level solo. So, he had a very systematic, meticulous way of producing a record that made all the difference and that added to the canon of jazz in a way that no other label did.
CONAN: As you go back through the archives of Blue Note Records, what surprises you about the character of those recordings?
Mr. CUSCUNA: Well, I think what surprised me most was how many great sessions sat un-issued in the Blue Note vaults until I got there in 1975. And that was my passion - was to start to unearth a lot of this material that I knew or was rumored to exist. But the consistency - the day in, day out consistency of what Blue Note did by recording every week with meticulous planning and rehearsals and then issuing albums with incredible sound by Rudy Van Gelder, and creating album covers with a - that have a very graphic, almost throwback to Bauhaus kind of look, and Francis Wolf's artful photography - the whole package was just, you know, incredible. And it was a kind of thing where, as kids, we would go into stores and buy the new Blue Note release, even if we'd never heard the musicians. Because we trusted the package and were so attracted to the package from the get go. And believe me, in 1960, when you're spending $3.98 on an album and you're 12 years old, that's a sizeable investment.
CONAN: Let's Bring Bruce Lundvall into the conversation. Twenty-five years ago, he was given the task of resurrecting Blue Note Records, which had been acquired by a parent company, now EMI. He's currently the CEO of Blue Note Records and he joins us also from our bureau in New York. But, president was not the first job you wanted at Blue Note.
Mr. BRUCE LUNDVALL (CEO, Blue Note Records): Well, actually I always wanted to work for Blue Note, ever since I was in college. In fact, when I graduated from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, all my friends would go into interviews with IBM and Xerox and all these large companies and end up with training jobs, apparently - marketing training jobs and so on. I had no interest whatsoever in that. I wanted to be in the music business. I was a very bad tenor saxophone player, but I was a huge jazz fan.
And I walked into New York one day from the bus and from my home in New Jersey, and I went to Alfred Lion's office at Blue Note with a resume in my hand. And it had very little information on it, except my college courses, my summer jobs and absolutely no grades identified and one line saying occupation and that was unemployed jazz fan. And Alfred invited me into the office very graciously and invited me out just as quickly, I think, saying we don't have no jobs here. It's just Frank Wolf and me. We put the records in the sleeves, we sends them out ourselves - in his German accent. He was very polite and very nice, but within 10 minutes I was out the door looking for a job at Columbia Records, which I didn't get either.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Well, eventually you managed to scrape a living in the music business.
Mr. LUNDVALL: Yes. In 1960, after I was in the service, I had my first job at Columbia Records as a management trainee. And it was Camelot - it was Goddard Liberson, the president of Columbia Records - was a very visionary man and he believed that there's music and there's a responsibility for commercial success. And if you have the music - you got the music right, the commercial success would come along right with it.
CONAN: Well, Bruce Lundvall, what was your Blue Note moment? What was the record that inspired you to go up to that office and ask for a job?
Mr. LUNDVALL: Well, the very first record I bought on Blue Note Records I bought at the Colony Record shop in 1951, and it was Monk's "Criss-Cross." And I bought a second one, it was "Bags' Groove" by Milt Jackson. And I fell in love with that - those were 78s. And then I bought 10-inch LPs and 12-inch LPs. I thought I had the entire Blue Note catalog. Little did I know, I had very little of it by the time I was actually working here.
CONAN: You mentioned Thelonious Monk - an incredibly important artist in 20th century America and one that Blue Note did a great deal to uncover and develop and nurture. Let's listen to a little bit of "Straight, No Chaser."
(Soundbite of song "Straight, No Chaser")
CONAN: And Michael Cuscuna, let me ask you a little bit. Thelonious Monk, just the name alone was enough to make - well, I think we called them - they were known in those days as straight people giggle, and the music was a little difficult to access, too. But he was somebody that Blue Note was so intent on bringing to the public's attention.
Mr. CUSCUNA: Yeah. Well, I think it's indicative of what Alfred was all about that - yeah, everyone thought that Monk was this curiosity who would just get one or two gigs a year up in Harlem. And when Alfred heard him and Art Blakey for the first time, he flipped out. He had to record everything that Monk ever wrote. And so, he sat him down and did a rehearsal and took notes of all the compositions that he wrote. And inside of two months, he recorded three double sessions, recorded about 17 sides before he even put out one 78 to see if it would sell. So, he was that committed. And he did that again with Herbie Nichols and again with Andrew Hill. But he was - his driving passion was music, and then paying the rent was secondary to that.
CONAN: And when you issued - reissued box sets of this material - I know some of the Monk material you found had never been issued before.
Mr. CUSCUNA: Yeah. Well, I started going through the acetates around 1981, when Blue Note was sort of in mothballs. And actually, I started Mosaic out of boredom and desperation, because I couldn't get Blue Note started again. And I had found about 30 minutes of un-issued Thelonious Monk, most of it alternate takes, that I had to get out. And an average LP was 40, 45 minutes, so I couldn't figure out what to do with this 30 minutes. And then it occurred to me, well, if I take all of Monk's music for Blue Note, which is some of his greatest and most seminal music, and put it all in the order it was recorded in to give it a historical perspective and insert the un-issued material where it was actually recorded, I would have a great four-LP box set. And that's how I came to think about box sets, and that's how I came to think about Mosaic.
CONAN: And Bruce Lundvall, let me ask you quickly - when you were asked to take over Blue Note in 1984, what was it - as Michael just said, it'd been defunct for a while - what was it that gave it value? What made it valuable?
Mr. LUNDVALL: The music, obviously. The most original artists in jazz were all on Blue Note, and they defined contemporary jazz music like no other label did. And I had a meeting at the Record Industry Association - I had a meeting with Basker Mennen(ph), who was the chairman of EMI at that time. And we had dinner that night. It was at an R-I-double-A meeting in Washington. He said, how would you like to start Blue Note Records again?
I just fell apart. I said, this is my lifetime dream. I was working at Columbia Records and then Elektra Records before that, but Blue Note was always my favorite album - always my favorite label. And I said, when do we start? And Alfred Lion said - and Basker Mennen said, what do you mean we? And I said, I have to have Michael Cuscuna as my partner here. He owns Mosaic Records, so he can't be an employee, but he can be a full-time consultant. He knows the Blue Note catalog better than anyone. And then we started off.
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CONAN: Thus hangs a tale. We'll tell more of it in just a moment. Stay with us. This is Horace Silver, by the way, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and this is NPR News.
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CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking about Blue Note Records - its past, present and future - and about some of the people who helped create that distinctive Blue Note sound. We posted some of the favorite Blue Note classics on our Web site. You'll find those at nprmusic.org.
What was the defining Blue Note album for you? What was your Blue Note moment? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org., click on Talk of the Nation. Our guests are Bruce Lundvall, currently CEO of Blue Notes Records, and Michael Cuscuna, jazz writer, producer and archivist and co-founder of Mosaic Records. Let's get another caller on the line. And we'll go to Rod, Rod, with us from Denver.
ROD (Caller): Good afternoon, gentlemen, and thank you for taking my call. Love to all three of you. My defining Blue Note moment was 1981, a student at the University of Missouri, Kansas City listening to what I thought was jazz - a lot of like things that were going on in late 1970s, early 1980s. But the one album that really blew my mind was the "Blue Train" album recorded in '57 with Curtis Fuller on the date, and it was just so - a fantastic recording. And that was the one that really kind of opened me up to what I guess what some folks - some of the snobs of us that love the music call it real jazz. And also, Lee Morgan's 1964 date, "Search for the New Land" - those were two, like, landmark recordings for me in terms of my love of this music that we call jazz.
CONAN: "Blue Train," of course, referring to John Coltrane. Here's the title tune.
(Soundbite of song "Blue Train")
CONAN: And Michael Cuscuna, the one and, I think, only album John Coltrane recorded for Blue Note?
Mr. CUSCUNA: Yeah. Unfortunately, it was one of Alfred's great regrets. He thought of John Coltrane as the great one that he let get away. But that album is kind of a perfect example of what separates Blue Note from a lot of the other recording going on at the time, because it is so far above the rest of Coltrane's mid-'50s recordings around that time - in execution and in compositions and in solo quality - that I always use that as one of the great examples of the difference between Blue Note and the other independent jazz labels that were going on at the time.
CONAN: And why is it, do you think, that - there were a lot of other - Prestige, for example, that (Laughing) a lot of those other John Coltrane records were on, and there were a lot of record labels around. Why is it that Blue Note, do you think, survived and those others didn't?
Mr. CUSCUNA: Well, I mean, Prestige survived certainly, but what made the records lasting was that Alfred really wanted to sit down with people, encourage them to compose, spend money on having them rehearse. And so, instead of going to a Prestige date, where there was no discussion beforehand, and you picked a couple of standards that you all knew and made up a couple of blues and four hours later, packed your bags and left, there was a concerted effort to really make something substantial, a statement that had never been made before. And that's what I think defined Blue Note.
CONAN: And Bruce Lundvall, earlier, Michael Cuscuna referenced Rudy Van Gelder, the great recording engineer who's responsible for so much of the audio on so many of the records, a man you continued to use today.
Mr. LUNDVALL: We do. We use Rudy Van Gelder as often as we possibly can, but the difference is that we don't own the company. It's owned by EMI, our parent company, and artists today have the freedom to record wherever they want to. And some of them always go with Rudy and some of them want to go to other studios - just the nature of the way business has changed and - but Rudy is still the greatest, as far as I'm concerned. And of course, the RVG series - the reissued series - digitally re-mastered at 26-bit digital, has been a great boon to our reissue series.
CONAN: I wanted to ask you also about - a bit about the business side. This is - of course, a company has to stay in business. It's got to make profits or at least break even. And there was a problem when it had an enormous hit. This was, of course - we mentioned earlier - Lee Morgan with "The Sidewinder." Let's take a listen.
(Soundbite of song "The Sidewinder")
CONAN: The vamp from "Sidewinder." How does having an enormous hit create a problem for a record label, Bruce Lundvall?
Mr. LUNDVALL: Well, in those days, it was just Alfred Lion and Frank Wolf working together, and they were getting order for thousands of albums on "The Sidewinder" from distributor and records stores. And they said, well, sell the first hundred that we sent you. They didn't know how to keep up with the demand in this case. It was a boon to them, of course. It saved the record company, I believe. Michael can confirm that.
Mr. CUSCUNA: Yeah. Well, but there was also the other problem, which was that once you had a hit, distributors wouldn't pay their outstanding balances until you had another hit. And so, they were always playing catch up, trying to get the next hit so they could get paid for the records they'd already sold. And that can create a financial crunch when you're an independent business.
CONAN: And indeed, it got the company into some business. Of course, later that decade and through the '70s, of course, jazz itself was in some trouble. But I guess that's another story, and I guess it's a story we're dealing with today, in terms of economic realities. But we'll get some more on that a bit later. Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Bill, Bill, with us from Avon Lake in Ohio.
BILL (Caller): Good afternoon, gentlemen.
CONAN: Good afternoon.
BILL: I was hoping that Michael could recall the story that the one-time Sonny Stit came to record for Blue Note. And of course, he'd recorded for just about every other label available. But when he came over to record for Blue Note, he wasn't quite on the top of his game, and I think it's a kind of a funny story. So, I was hoping Michael could recount that.
Mr. CUSCUNA: Well, OK. (Laughing) The story comes from Dexter Gordon. Sonny Stit was notorious for making albums for everybody and anybody, week after week, and his modus operandi was the opposite of Alfred's. He'd just go in, blow, leave. And so, he refused to rehearse. So, Alfred got Dexter Gordon to come in, so they could do some two tenor stuff. Sonny was a little in his cups when he arrived at the studio, and so he wasn't at the top of his game, in terms of facility. And they just had one problematic take after another.
And finally, Dexter was sitting in the control room behind Alfred Lion and Sonny says, all right, I'm going to do another tune. And he starts to play "Bye-Bye, Blackbird," at which time Alfred, who's always interested in something new, challenging and different, just hits the roof. And Dexter said, I just enjoyed watching these two mismatched people in this creative process run amok. And Alfred just leaped up and said, who needs another "Bye-Bye, Blackbird?" The session's off. And that was the end of an ill-fated Sonny Stit session on Blue Note.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BILL: Thank you very much. That's one of the funniest stories I ever heard.
CONAN: Bill, thanks very much for the call.
BILL: Thank you. Take care.
CONAN: Bruce Lundvall, have you've been able to - as you say, you're now part of a bigger company - maintain those kinds of standards, what Alfred Lion used to call the Blue Note standard?
Mr. LUNDVALL: Well, we certainly try to. The actual point of view that we have at all times is to sign only originals - people that are musically brilliant and people that have the kind of touch of God on their head, so to speak, as jazz musicians. And we try to do that for the most part, and I think we've been reasonably successful. We've been profitable, actually, for most of these 25 years, except for one bad year. Last year wasn't such a good one, but every other year, we've made a nice profit. Then of course, when Norah Jones came along, we outsold and out-billed Capitol and Virgin and all the other record labels that we own.
CONAN: And was it a problem for you to have a big hit?
Mr. LUNDVALL: Not at all. It was a great opportunity. It changed the direction of Blue Note to a certain degree, began to sign other people that were not jazz artists, but just a few of them. But they're all very legitimate - like Al Green, Anita Baker, Amos Lee - young singer, songwriter, wonderful young artist - and several others. But we've tried to keep the quality as high as possible and tried to keep Alfred Lion's standard. And that's been a tough one, but we've - I think we've achieved it pretty much.
CONAN: In the unlikely event you've haven't heard Norah Jones, listen in.
(Soundbite of song "Don't Know Why I Didn't Come")
Ms. NORAH JONES: (Singing) I waited 'til I saw the sun I don't know why I didn't come I left you by the house of fun I don't know why I didn't come I don't know why I didn't come...
CONAN: It's a terrific record, Bruce Lundvall, but I know you've also gotten criticized for putting this out. Some people listen to that and say, you know, that's not jazz.
Mr. LUNDVALL: Well, Norah is at heart a jazz artist. She was trained as a jazz musician, as a jazz vocalist, at North Texas State. She came to my office out of the blue with a so-called manager, not really a manager at that time, but someone that worked in the royalty department at EMI. And I said, what do you - she was very, very shy, and I said well, what do you have to play for me? She said, well, I have a demo of three songs. And the first one was "Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most," my - one of my favorite tunes. And this girl was only 18 or 19 - I guess 19 years old at the time.
But I put it on, and I said, my God - I stopped my equipment. I said, where did you ever - how do you even know this song? She said, I love the song. I said, I can tell that you do. But how would you even know this song? It was written long before you were ever born. She said, well, I'm a jazz person, I love standards. And this is one that I really like. I said, great, who's playing the piano? She said, I am. I said, you're on Blue Note. She was shocked. I said yeah, get yourself a lawyer. I want to sign you right away. Didn't go for more than one tune. I heard the other two tunes - one was "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" and the other one was a pop song. There was no doubt in my mind that this was a true original, and we had to have her.
CONAN: Not just the style you've been criticized for, but the also the fact that there's more vocal music now available on Blue Note. And some critics have said, wait, this is just, you know, easy, accessible music, not like real jazz.
Mr. LUNDVALL: I would beg to differ. I think that Cassandra Wilson and Dianne Reeves are great jazz singers, two of the greatest in the world. And I think that Norah Jones is on her way to becoming something more than just the jazz singer, but nonetheless, at heart, a really great jazz singer certainly.
Mr. LUNDVALL: Brunelli is also another one we had on the label who did very well, and Bobby McFerrin. I see no difference between vocalists and instrumentalists when it comes to true quality. If the sound is right, if they're original and if they're artistically important and they're really truly interested in the art form, they can be on Blue Note if they're a vocalist or an instrumentalist.
CONAN: Michael Cuscuna, do you have any sympathy with these arguments?
Mr. CUSCUNA: Yeah, completely. Of course, I was born in 1948, so I'm of a generation where my first love was R&B, my second love was jazz. And by the time I got into college, all kinds of things were happening with the - some revolutions in R&B and album rock. And so, my generation is a very eclectic one. And I - even when Bruce was a little skittish about having artists outside of the jazz realm on the Blue Note label itself, I was all for it, because I thought that the quality music is what it should be about.
The Blue Note of the '50s and '60s - that whole scene doesn't exist anymore. There's not 85 brilliant players that play together in different combinations week after week. And there's not one studio and one photographer and one album designer and one producer anymore. Things are, like, happening on too many other levels. And to me, to have Van Morrison or Al Green on Blue Note is no different than having Lee Morgan or John Coltrane. But that's because that's the generation I'm from, and that's the music that spoke to me.
CONAN: We're talking with Michael Cuscuna and with Bruce Lundvall about the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records - 70 years ago today, made its first recording. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's go to John. John's with us from Hartford, Connecticut.
JOHN (Caller): Hi, guys. How are you?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
Mr. LUNDVALL: Good.
JOHN: Good. Now, the Blue Note Record moment for me, when I was about 23 years old, was Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage." I had been going to a local - you know, locally-owned record store, and he was kind of walking me through the process. I really didn't - I was this jazz virgin, so to speak. And he walked me through all these different artists, and Blue Note Records kept coming up time and time again. And myself, coming from the South, I was a very unlikely candidate for listening to jazz. And you were talking earlier about how that - it seems like, well, most jazz is almost inaccessible and it doesn't seem like - well, it's was not in a mainstream - it's not going to make the Top 40 charts. However, with Norah Jones - that seemed to break that standard.
CONAN: Mm hmm.
JOHN: And I think that really leads into making sure that people have access to somebody like Norah Jones, which then can, in turn, lead them to other artists and people that - and musicians that they wouldn't have otherwise known about. I wouldn't have known about Thelonious Monk or Herbie Hancock, if it hadn't been for him and for that record store owner. But in the case of, you know, just a teenager off the street who might not ever get to listen to a Coltrane CD because they've - didn't know he existed, but because they were introduced to jazz through Norah Jones, can then, in turn, lead to other records, which I think is culturally important.
CONAN: And not to put too fine a point on it, Bruce Lundvall, all those Norah Jones records can support some lesser selling albums.
Mr. LUNDVALL: Indeed. In fact, for three years in a row, we were the most profitable label under the EMI banner. Thank you, Norah Jones, and thank you for our great Blue Note catalog and a lot of the artists that are recording for us still today. And Norah's still on Blue Note, is planning a new album for release next year. Don't know exactly what it's going to be. I've heard some of the songs she's written. They're quite brilliant. So, we're eagerly awaiting the next one - will be album number four.
CONAN: How big a business is Blue Note Records?
Mr. LUNDVALL: It's a big business. In it's best years, it's a $50, $70 million business.
CONAN: And how much of that is the old catalog material?
Mr. LUNDVALL: It was about 50 percent, but the catalog has been out for a long time now. So, it's about 35 percent of our business now is the catalog. And a lot of it's becoming Internet business, too, digital business.
CONAN: Michael Cuscuna, that means that these records are never - Blue Note will always exist?
Mr. CUSCUNA: Yeah, these records are not going away. I mean, with - and - I mean, the best indicator - well, maybe the best indicator is sales reports. But for me, the best indicator is each generation of musicians, the commonality of language is often in Blue Note Records. I was doing a session with the young, excellent pianist Benny Green and bassist Christian McBride and Benny was trying to get Christian to do something on a tune that he was rehearsing. And he said, you know, the baseline from "Face of the Deep." And he'd go, oh, OK. And "Face of the Deep" is an obscure song on a - one of the lesser-known Wayne Shorter "All Seeing Eye" albums. But the fact is, it's this - a common language among people.
CONAN: With us are Michael Cuscuna and Bruce Lundvall. We're taking about the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records, this from Sarbajheed(ph) in Campbell, California. Great program. Happy Birthday, Blue Note. My Blue Note moment as a college student at Calcutta, India - my first jazz album was Coltrane's "Blue Train," which Blue Note has kindly re-released in India in the early 1980s. More of your calls and emails when we come back. Stay with us. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
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CONAN: Today, it's the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records' first release; 2009 also marks 25 years since the label was reborn under Bruce Lundvall. He still heads Blue Note Records and joins us from our bureau in New York. Also with us, Michael Cuscuna, jazz writer, producer and archivist and co-founder of Mosaic Records.
This email from Nick in Des Moines, Iowa. One of my favorite Blue Note records isn't really an original release or a record, but I love that Blue Note issued a best-of Django Reinhardt CD. I seem to play that disc hundreds of times during the summer, and it never seems to get old. I also love that EMI has Wynton Marsalis as a flagship artist. Keep up the jazz revival, gentlemen.
Joining us now is - to mark the 70th anniversary, the Blue Note label is set to release an album called "Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note." The tribute band behind the disc calls themselves the Blue Note 7 and performs under the musical direction of pianist Bill Charlap. The group's 50-city North American tour begins tomorrow. And Bill Charlap has made a stop in our New York bureau. Thanks very much for being with us today.
Mr. BILL CHARLAP (Pianist, The Blue Note 7): Glad to be here. Thank you.
CONAN: And I have to ask you, before we talk about this new project, what was your Blue Note moment?
Mr. CHARLAP: It was Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers playing "Room 608."
CONAN: Why that tune in particular?
Mr. CHARLAP: Well, there were some cassettes that were made for me by an actor at one of the first gigs that I did when I was about 15 years old. I worked for a company called The First Amendment, which was an improv company - an actor's improv company, like "Whose Line is It Anyway" or the Second City of Chicago - and I was like a silent movie pianist. I would underscore whatever they did in terms of improvised sketches. One of the actors was a great jazz fan, and he had made some compilation cassettes for me. And the first piece on there was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with Horace Silver, or actually, Horace Silver with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
CONAN: Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. (Laughing) Yeah.
Mr. CHARLAP: That's the way that the album came out. And the piece was "Room 608," Horace Silver's composition, and it was unlike anything I'd ever heard, in terms of the way the rhythm section was recorded, in terms of small group jazz, the soloists, the players, the combination, the chemistry - it's Art Blakey at the drums, Doug Watkins at the bass, Hank Mobley, the tenor saxophone, Kenny Dorham at the trumpet and Horace Silver at the piano.
CONAN: Well, you've now got a new group. Are they in some way comparable to the Jazz Messengers, the Blue Note 7?
Mr. CHARLAP: It would be hard for me to say that we're comparable, but we're certainly influenced and we certainly emulate the finest players on the label. I would say that this is a group made up of seven of - I can speak about six of them, not myself - but six of the finest jazz musicians around today who have the experience but also the vitality to play this music with our own verve and our own sense of how to approach it.
CONAN: Well, let's let listeners judge for themselves. Here's one of the Blue Notes 7's songs, led by pianist Bill Charlap.
(Soundbite of the Blue Note 7)
CONAN: Just a bit of the Blue Note 7. And Bill Charlap, you've been associated with Blue Note for a long time. Is this an example of what I've read about how the record seems to - how the label seems to have a farm system, like baseball teams, to bring along young musicians who will later rise to prominence?
Mr. CHARLAP: Well, all I can say is that I'm very honored and grateful to be a Blue Note artist and to have been for a number of years. I think that Bruce Lundvall is very humble about his gifts, but he does have an incredible gift at knowing when an artist is ripe.
CONAN: When an artist is just ripe - Bruce Lundvall, what do you think about that?
Mr. LUNDVALL: I think Bill's being very, very kind.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LUNDVALL: But I've been listening to this music since I was about 12 years old. I think I can hear when an artist is pretty well ready. There's one artist that we signed recently by the name of Aaron Parks, whose mother brought him to the office when he was 15 years old. When I listened, I could hear that he had a real gift, but he wasn't really ready. And I said, you know, come back when you're 20. And he's now signed to Blue Note.
And Bill, of course, has been around before - with Gerry Mulligan and other groups, and Phil Woods. And I went in to see Phil Woods one time at the old Iridium Club. And I heard Bill Charlap - really, you could use the phrase "I slept on him" because I knew his playing, I loved his playing, but I wasn't really seized by it until that night. And I said, oh, my God, you've got to be on Blue Note. That's how it all started for Bill and I.
CONAN: Mentioned earlier - Herbie Hancock. Of course, there was a great album that he introduced called "Empyrean Isles" that had a tune on it called "Cantaloupe Island" that was remade on Blue Note some years later.
(Soundbite of "Cantaloop" by Us 3)
CONAN: And Bruce Lundvall, what was the idea behind allowing that to be sampled, as it were?
Mr. LUNDVALL: Well, this was a tough moment for me because I was out in Los Angeles at Capitol Records and the head of A&R there said, there's a guy in England who has something he wants you to hear. It's by a group called Us 3. They want to put it out themselves on a little independent label in England. And sure enough, it was "Cantaloop," or "Cantaloupe Island," but re-titled "Cantaloop" with samples of Art Blakey and Pee-Wee Marquette, the old emcee from Birdland, and Lou Donaldson and so on. And God, we drove around in our convertible car all through Los Angeles for hours, trying to decide whether to put this out on Blue Note or Capitol. And finally, Tom Everett, who was then working for me as the head of marketing, said, man, this has got to be - Alfred Lion would put this out. I said, you're right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LUNDVALL: It's got to come out on Blue Note, so…
CONAN: Alfred Lion would put this out.
Mr. LUNDVALL: He would've put it - he would've put it out. I'm sure of it, you know. Of course, he's long gone at that point, but - so, we decided to go to London and meet with these guys. It was two producers who put this thing together. They wanted to put it out on their own label, and we said, look, you can sample the entire Blue Note catalog, and we want to put it out on Blue Note. They almost fainted dead away. And we had a record that ended up selling a couple of million units. It was a huge hit. I'm not at all embarrassed by it, I still love the record.
CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Steve, Steve in San Francisco.
STEVE (Caller): Yeah, good afternoon, guys.
CONAN: Good afternoon.
STEVE: Thanks for having me on board. Just a quick anecdote about a Blue Note moment - one of my favorite albums - there's so many good titles on Blue Note, I could go on all afternoon, but Horace Silver's "Song For My Father." And you know, it wasn't easy being a jazz fan when you were in high school in the 1960s.
(Soundbite of laughter)
STEVE: You took a lot of abuse. It was not socially in. And a lot of us - well, the few of us - the few, the proud and the brave who were jazz fans - we clung to Blue Note releases to keep our sanity in a very different musical environment. But the anecdote is this - 30 years later, I'm taking my daughter to daycare, and she's three years old and I'm driving her. And I have "Song For My Father" in the, you know - well, it was a cassette tape in those days, and she started being able to pick out the various instruments. So, that's how she learned what a saxophone sounded like, what a piano sounded like. She started to be able to hear the bass, the percussion, and you know who the die-hard - I mean, now it's like - well, 20 years later, she's a dyed-in-the-wool jazz fan now, along with her two siblings.
Mr. CUSCUNA: (Laughing) That's great.
STEVE: So, that ear training around that record went on time and time and time again. And to this day, that CD is still in my car. CONAN: We don't have, as a matter of fact, "Song For My Father" queued up, but here's a little bit of Horace Silver. This is "Safari."
(Soundbite of "Safari" by Horace Silver)
CONAN: And Michael Cuscuna, you have Horace Silver, who was at Blue Note Records, I think, for 25 years?
Mr. CUSCUNA: Yeah, he was there from 1953 till 1981.
CONAN: That is an enormous body of work and one of - just a man who helped define the sound of the label, I think.
Mr. CUSCUNA: Yeah. You know, that caller just reminded me of a story. I got a call from Pete Townsend of The Who one day, and we started talking about Blue Note. And he said, you know, one of my proudest moments as a father was coming down the stairs into the living room on a Saturday morning, and my 12-year-old daughter had all my Jimmy Smith Blue Note albums laid out and was playing them on the phonograph. And he said, I just felt like it was - like a heritage being carried on. So, Blue Note does have a lot of ways of reaching and carrying on.
CONAN: And Steve, clearly, it's reaching and carrying on with you, too.
STEVE: Well, indeed it is. And of course, I think a lot of those titles have really created the new generation of jazz fans. And jazz is much more acceptable to like these days than it was 40 years ago.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Steve. And keep it up.
STEVE: You bet. Take care.
CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. We're talking with Michael Cuscuna, who's a jazz writer, producer and archivist, co-founder of Mosaic Records and works extensively with Blue Note Records, the CEO of which is Bruce Lundvall, and they are both with us from our bureau in New York along with Bill Charlap, who's a pianist who has many albums out on Blue Note Records and musical director of the Blue Note 7 tribute band, which begins a big North American tour tomorrow. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
And here's a email from Devon in San Francisco. Can you talk about why you decided to enter the hip-hop market by releasing "Shades of Blue" by Madlib? And I guess, Bruce Lundvall, that's to you.
Mr. LUNDVALL: Well, it's part of the vocabulary of jazz today certainly. Jazz has always borrowed on pop music and all forms of music that were current during the period of time that the artists - the jazz artists were playing. And it's no different now, so I think Greg Osby is one of the artists on Blue Note who did an album of - combining jazz and hip-hop that was not terribly successful, but it was a groundbreaker for us. So, then we began to put together compilations and bringing in hip-hop artists to put together the samples and so on.
Mr. CUSCUNA: I think...
Mr. LUNDVALL: I think it's very valid.
Mr. CUSCUNA: I think it's also another way to reach a new audience.
Mr. LUNDVALL: Well, that's a marketing idea.
CONAN: Marketing idea. Well, marketing is no small part of the business, Bruce Lundvall. I mean, you've - as you look ahead in this economic environment, and jazz is an art form - what - it sells what? Three percent of the records sold in the United States are jazz?
Mr. LUNDVALL: Yeah.
CH: Yeah, about three percent.
CONAN: And as you look forward, are you optimistic that this is a business that's going to succeed?
Mr. LUNDVALL: The artists drive the business forward, and when original artists come along, the business will pick up. There's no question about it. We're just middle men in this business, those of us that run record companies and work at record labels, but the artists drive the music, and the artists drive the public, ultimately. So, you have to choose the right artists. And I think we have a lot of those. And we'll continue to find the right ones.
CONAN: Get another caller.
Mr. LUNDVALL: As long as I'm there anyway. I promise you that much.
CONAN: Get Deborah on the line, Deborah with us from Nashville.
DEBORAH (Caller): Hi. Thank you so much for taking my call. I don't usually do this, but I was sitting in my car listening to your program today, and you were asking people to call in with their Blue Note moment. And I thought, I do have a Blue Note moment. When I was about 10 years old or so, my mom brought an album home. And we never listened to the music together or anything like that, she'd just bring this different music home and put it down, and I would always listen to it. And the first Blue Note that I listened to was Lou Donaldson, "The Caravan." And I still have that album today. I'm in my 50s, and I still listen to it from time to time. So, with her bringing Lou Donaldson into our home and me listening to that, I love Wes Montgomery, especially "Wes Bound," and Jimmy Smith and organ music. I love all of that, and so I just hope Blue Note continues forever. Thank you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LUNDVALL: Thank you.
CONAN: Well, let's listen - we don't have Lou Donaldson ready for you, Deborah, but let's listen to a little bit of Jimmy Smith.
(Soundbite of song by Jimmy Smith)
CONAN: That great sound of the organ of Jimmy Smith rumbling on below there. Deborah, that must evoke some memories for you. I think Deborah's left us. Anyway, we thank her for her call. Here's an email - this is for you, Michael Cuscuna. Does Michael recall "One for Lenny" from the "New York Stories" album? Can you comment about the sessions with Danny Gatton? That's from David in Charleston, South Carolina, by the way. Go ahead.
Mr. CUSCUNA: Well, I didn't produce that record, I just visited the session. But it was kind of an unusual session because it was very much of a jam session. It was one of Josh Redman's first recordings, and it was my first real intense exposure to Danny Gatton, who, of course, is no longer with us, but was an extraordinary and very versatile guitarist - very much on the level of what Bill Frisell is doing today, in terms of covering so many genres. But - that was a jam session album, but it was a fascinating one.
CONAN: This from Rick in Cincinnati, just on the basis of that last tune. I grew up in the mid 1960s, when everybody had one of those silly spinet organs in their living room. My favorite organist as a young spinet organ player was the Cincinnati Reds' organist playing between the action on the Hammond organ. Then I heard Jimmy Smith on Blue Note. Well, that was it - a revelation. I've loved that funky Hammond organ sound ever since. We just have time really for one last question. Bruce Lundvall, where do you think the label goes from here?
Mr. LUNDVALL: As far as the musicians will take it, frankly. I'm very optimistic about the future of Blue Note, I'm very optimistic about the artists that are out there playing. I'm hearing a lot of young people now that I'm very excited about, who are not on the label, who I'd like to bring to the label now. Good Lord willing and money doesn't dry up, we'll sign some more people in the coming year, particularly in the 70th.
CONAN: Well, Bruce, we wish you the best of luck and another 70 years for Blue Note Records.
Mr. LUNDVALL: Thank you.
CONAN: Bruce Lundvall, current CEO of Blue Note Records, joined us from our bureau in New York. Also there is Michael Cuscuna, who's a jazz writer, producer and archivist. He, along with Charlie Lourie, founded Mosaic Records, a company that releases box sets of previously unheard jazz recordings, with us from our bureau in New York. And Michael, good luck to you, too.
Mr. CUSCUNA: Thank you.
CONAN: And we'd also like to thank Bill Charlap, a pianist with Blue Note Records who goes out on tour with the Blue Note Seven, starting tomorrow, is that right, Bill?
Mr. CHARLAP: That's right.
CONAN: And where's your first date?
Mr. CHARLAP: In Seattle.
Mr. CUSCUNA: And who are the artists in the band?
Mr. CHARLAP: The artist in the band are Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Ravi Coltrane on tenor saxophone, Steve Wilson on alto saxophone, Peter Washington at the bass, Peter Bernstein at the guitar, Lewis Nash at the drums. And all of these musicians are individuals. You can hear the past, the present, and the future in their playing, all at the same time.
Mr. LUNDVALL: Amen.
CONAN: Well, good luck to you in Seattle and on the tour. Thanks very much for your time today.
Mr. CHARLAP: Thank you.
CONAN: Seventy years ago, the first recording made for Blue Note Records by Alfred Lion. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.