An unexpected guest showed up to a panel discussion on April 12 about the rich history of jazz’s preeminent recording label, Blue Note Records. Celebrated saxophonist and jazz composer Joe Lovano joined Ingrid Monson, Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music, Michael Heller, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Music, and lead discographer of Blue Note Records, Michael Cuscuna for the event. Lovano was every bit the eccentric musician—sporting a beret and tea shades—as he attempted to bow out of the impromptu invitation to join the panel. “I don’t want to crowd the space,” he said. The three discussants eagerly called him up, with Heller insisting, “You’re part of the history!” To which Cuscuna laughingly shot back, “Yeah, you’re that old.”
In the historical context, however, both Cuscuna and Lovano are relative newcomers to Blue Note Records. The label was officially founded in 1939, when jazz-obsessed German immigrant Alfred Lion and photographer Francis Wolff decided to create a label with the purpose of recording of “hot jazz” and swing. The pure creative force of the burgeoning genre inspired Lion. “Hot jazz...is expression and communication, a musical and social manifestation—and Blue Note Records [is] concerned with identifying its impulse,” he wrote in the label’s first brochure.
Harvard’s Office for the Arts has attempted to capture the spirit of Lion’s pioneering enthusiasm with a sprawling yearlong tribute, “Blue Note Records: Then and Now.” The panel discussion was part of the week-long finale to the homage. In addition to the discussion, the OFA worked with the local Brattle Theater to screen the documentary, “Blue Note: A Story of Modern Jazz,” and curated a small exhibition of Wolff’s black and white portraits from Blue Note’s early days in the Holyoke Center.
The culmination of the celebration occurred on Saturday in Sanders Theater with “Blue Note Records: It Must Schwing!” a concert that featured performances from Lovano and fellow Blue Note recording artist, Greg Osby. In this final week, The OFA built upon their yearlong homage, diving fully into the rich past of Blue Note in an attempt to connect its vivid history with the present jazz scene.
During the panel discussion, Cuscuna was disarmingly casual as he spoke about Blue Note’s astounding collection of artists. In its early days, the label produced albums by giants in the genre, men who redefined the scene, including Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, and Harvey Nickels. After its heyday, however, Blue Notes came on hard times and might have disappeared altogether if not for Charlie Lourie and Cuscuna, who began the painstaking process of reissuing old pieces and releasing unheard sessions from Blue Note’s vaults.
The process of issuing unheard sessions was at once exhilarating and grueling for Cuscuna. He described the first time he was allowed into Blue Note’s vault. “[It] was both the greatest and the worst day of my life...the whole room was shelving, all dedicated to unissued Blue Note tapes. What I had to do was listen to an entire session, start to finish...and little by little piece together who was on it...[it was] really grueling detective work.”
The integrity of the artist is, and has always been, the cornerstone of Blue Note Records’ philosophy. During Saturday’s concert in Sanders Theater, Tom Everett, the director of Harvard’s “Monday Jazz Band” described the relationship between Blue Note and its artists. “[They] took artists and encouraged them to do their thing, not to be told what to do...they took a great risk—for the music.”
Indeed, the unique relationship between Blue Note Records and its artists was most clearly revealed by the choice to dedicate Saturday’s concert to the memory of Sam Rivers, a Blue Note recording artist and producer who passed away in December of last year. Cuscuna and Lovano alike spoke warmly of Rivers during the concert. “There was nobody like him—he was an unstoppable creative force. He could exhaust you and seduce you at the same time,” Cuscuna said.
Ultimately, the spirit of Rivers and others like him are at the heart of Blue Note’s legacy. Harvard College and the Office for the Arts at Harvard devoted a year to the celebration of the pioneering record label, honoring the unique sounds of hot jazz and boogie-woogie and the Blue Note artists who defined and then redefined those genres. In the final week, the artists and discographers themselves arrived on campus to sing the praises of the recording company, bringing the sounds of the early days of Blue Note into the present scene as they played and spoke alongside Harvard student groups the Sunday and Monday Jazz Bands, respectively. In the ever-evolving world of popular jazz, Blue Note retains a respect and admiration for the raw art. As Cuscuna said of his reissuing work for Blue Note’s earliest sessions, “I was smart enough to leave [the music] alone. People said, ‘you did a great job on this.’ Well, all I did was not destroy it.”