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Blue Note Records is a jazz record label, established in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Max Margulis. Francis Wolff became involved shortly afterwards. It derives its name from the characteristic "blue notes" of jazz and the blues. Blue Note Records is currently owned by the EMI Group and in 2006 was expanded to fill the role of an umbrella label group bringing together a wide variety of EMI-owned labels and imprints specializing in the growing market segment of music for adults (see History-Resurrection, below).

Historically, Blue Note has principally been associated with the "hard bop" style of jazz (mixing bebop with other forms of music including soul, blues, rhythm and blues and gospel). Horace Silver, Jimmy Smith, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey, Lou Donaldson, Donald Byrd and Grant Green were among the label's leading artists, but almost all the important musicians in postwar jazz recorded for Blue Note on occasion, albeit most often only once.


Early years

Lion first heard jazz as a young boy in Berlinmarker. He settled in New Yorkmarker in 1937, and in 1939 recorded pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis in a one-day session in a rented studio. The Blue Note label initially consisted of Lion and Max Margulis, a communist writer who funded the project. The label's first releases were traditional "hot" jazz and boogie woogie, and the label's first hit was a performance of "Summertime" by saxophonist Sidney Bechet, which Bechet had been unable to record for the established companies. Musicians were supplied with alcoholic refreshments, and recorded in the early hours of the morning after their evening's work in clubs and bars had finished. The label soon became known for treating musicians uncommonly well - setting up recording sessions at congenial times, and allowing them to be involved in all aspects of the record's production.

Francis Wolff, a professional photographer, emigrated to the USA at the end of 1939 and soon joined forces with Lion, a childhood friend. In 1941, Lion was drafted into the army for two years. Milt Gabler at the Commodore Music Store offered storage facilities and helped keep the catalog in print, with Wolff working for him. By late 1943, the label was back in business recording musicians and supplying records to the armed forces. Willing to record artists that most other labels would consider to be uncommercial, in December 1943 the label initiated more sessions with artists such as pianist Art Hodes, trumpeter Sidney DeParis, clarinetist Edmond Hall, and the great Harlem Stride pianist James P. Johnson, who was returning to a high degree of musical activity after having largely recovered from a stroke suffered in 1940.


Towards the end of the war, saxophonist Ike Quebec was among those who recorded for the label. Quebec would act as a talent scout for the label until his death in 1963. Although stylistically belonging to a previous generation, he could appreciate the new bebop style of jazz, largely created by Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

In 1947, pianist Thelonious Monk recorded his first sessions as a leader for the label, which were also the Blue Note debut of drummer Art Blakey. Monk's recordings for Blue Note between 1947 and 1952 did not sell well, but have since come to be regarded as amongst the most important of the bebop era. Other bebop or modernist musicians who recorded for Blue Note during the late forties and early fifties were pianist Tadd Dameron, trumpeters Fats Navarro and Howard McGhee (featuring trombonist J. J. Johnson), saxophonist James Moody and pianist Bud Powell. The sessions by Powell, like those his close friend Monk recorded for the label, are commonly ranked among his best. J. J. Johnson and trumpeter Miles Davis both recorded several sessions for Blue Note between 1952 and 1954, but by then the musicians who had created bebop were starting to explore other styles.

Hard bop and beyond

In 1951 Blue Note issued their first vinyl 10" releases, and the label was soon recording new talent such as Horace Silver (who would stay with Blue Note for a quarter of a century), the Jazz Messengers (originally a collaborative group, but soon to become Art Blakey's group), Milt Jackson (as the leader of what became the Modern Jazz Quartet) and Clifford Brown. Rudy Van Gelder recorded most Blue Note releases from 1953 until the late sixties, and his often-praised engineering was, in its own way, as important and revolutionary as the music. Another important difference between Blue Note and other independent labels (for example Prestige Records, who also employed Van Gelder) was that musicians were paid for rehearsal time prior to the recording session; this helped ensure a better end result on the record. Producer Bob Porter of Prestige Records once said that "The difference between Blue Note and Prestige is two days rehearsal."[13541] Organist Jimmy Smith was signed in 1956, and performed on the label's first 12" LP album of new recordings.

The mid to late fifties saw debut recordings for Blue Note by (amongst others) Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Herbie Nichols, Sonny Clark, Kenny Dorham, Kenny Burrell, Jackie McLean, Donald Byrd and Lou Donaldson. Sonny Rollins recorded for the label in 1956 and 1957 and Bud Powell briefly returned. John Coltrane's Blue Train, and Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else (featuring Miles Davis in one of his last supporting roles) were guest appearances on the label. Blue Note was by then recording a mixture of established acts (Rollins, Adderley) and artists who in some cases had recorded before, but often produced performances for the label which by far exceeded earlier recordings in quality (Blue Train is often considered to be the first significant recording by Coltrane as a leader). Horace Silver and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers continued to release a series of artistically and commercially successful recordings.

The early sixties saw Dexter Gordon join the label. Gordon was a saxophonist from the bebop era who had spent several years in prison for narcotic offences, and he made several albums for Blue Note over a five year period, including several at the beginning of his sojourn in Europe. Gordon also appeared on the debut album by Herbie Hancock - by the mid sixties, all four of the younger members of the Miles Davis quintet (Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams) were recording for the label, and Hancock and Shorter in particular produced a succession of superb albums in a mix of styles. Carter did not actually record under his own name until the label's revival in the 1980s, but played double bass on many other musicians' sessions. Many of these also included Freddie Hubbard, a trumpeter who also recorded for the label as a leader. One of the features of the label during this period was a "family" of musicians (Hubbard, Hancock, Carter, Grant Green, Joe Henderson, Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley and many others) who would record as sidemen on each other's albums without necessarily being part of the leader's working group.

In 1963 Lee Morgan scored a significant hit with the title track of The Sidewinder album, and Horace Silver did the same the following year with Song for My Father. As a result, Lion was under pressure by independent distributors to come up with similar successes, with the result that many Blue Note albums of this era start with a catchy tune intended for heavy airplay in the United States.

The avant garde

Although many of the acts on Blue Note were recording jazz for a wide audience, the label also documented some of the emerging avant-garde and free jazz players. Andrew Hill, a highly individual pianist, made many albums for the label, one featuring multi-instrumentalist Eric Dolphy. Dolphy's Out to Lunch! (featuring a celebrated cover by Reid Miles) is perhaps his most well-known album. Saxophonist Ornette Coleman released two albums recorded with a trio in a Stockholm club, and three studio albums (including The Empty Foxhole, with his ten-year-old son Denardo Coleman on drums). Pianist Cecil Taylor recorded a brace of albums for Blue Note, and saxophonist Sam Rivers, drummer Tony Williams, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and organist Larry Young also recorded albums which diverged from the "hard bop" style usually associated with the label. Saxophonist Jackie McLean, a stalwart of the label's hard bop output since the late 1950s, also crossed over into the avant-garde in the early 1960s, whose notable avant-garde albums included One Step Beyond and Destination Out.

Though these avant-garde records did not sell as well as some other Blue Note releases, Lion thought it was important to document new developments in jazz.

Cover art

In 1956, Blue Note employed Reid Miles, an artist who worked for Esquire magazine. The cover art produced by Miles, often featuring Wolff's photographs of musicians in the studio, was as influential in the world of graphic design as the music within would be in the world of jazz. Under Miles, Blue Note was known for their striking and unusual album cover designs. Miles' graphical design was distinguished by its tinted black and white photographs, creative use of sans-serif typefaces, and restricted color palette (often black and white with a single color), and frequent use of solid rectangular bands of color or white, influenced by the Bauhaus school of design.

Though Miles' work is closely associated with Blue Note, and has earned iconic status and frequent homage, Miles was only a casual jazz fan, according to Richard Cook; Blue Note gave him several copies of each of the many dozens of albums he designed, but Miles gave most to friends or sold them to second-hand record shops.A few mid-fifties album covers featured drawings by an as-yet-little-known Andy Warhol.

Lion and Wolff retire

Blue Note was acquired by Liberty Records in 1965 and Lion, who had difficulties working within a larger organisation, retired in 1967. Reid Miles' association with the label ended around this time. For a few years most albums were produced by Wolff or pianist Duke Pearson, who had filled Ike Quebec's role in 1963, but Wolff died in 1971 and Pearson left in the same year. George Butler was now responsible for the label, but despite some good albums, the commercial viability of jazz was in question, and more borderline and outright commercial records were made (often by artists who had previously recorded "straight" jazz for the label - Bobby Hutcherson, Lou Donaldson, Donald Byrd, Grant Green, Horace Silver).

Reissues & new albums

EMI purchased United Artists Records in 1979, who had absorbed Liberty Records in 1969, and phased out the Blue Note label which laid dormant until 1985, when it was relaunched as part of EMI Manhattan Records, both for re-issues and new recordings. Some artists previously associated with Blue Note, such as McCoy Tyner made new recordings, while younger musicians such as Joe Lovano, John Scofield, Greg Osby, Jason Moran and arranger / composer Bob Belden have established notable reputations through their Blue Note albums. The label has also found great commercial success with the vocalist Norah Jones, and released new albums by established artists on the fringes of jazz such as Van Morrison, Al Green, Anita Baker and newcomer Amos Lee, sometimes referred to as the 'male Norah Jones'. Two of the leading trumpeters of the 1980s Jazz Resurgence, Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard signed with the label in 2003.

Blue Note has also pursued an active reissue program in recent years. Bruce Lundvall was appointed to oversee the label at the time of the revival and Michael Cuscuna has since worked as freelance advisor and reissue producer. Some of Blue Note's output has appeared in CD Box sets issued by Mosaic Records (also involving Cuscuna), and there has been a series of reissues of older material, much of it in the "RVG series", remastered by Rudy Van Gelder. Today, Blue Note Records is the flagship jazz label for Capitolmarker Jazz and Classics and is the parent label for the Capitol Jazz, Pacific Jazz, Roulette and other labels within Capitol's holdings which possessed a jazz line.

In 2006, EMI expanded Blue Note to create the Blue Note Label Group by moving its Narada group of labels to New York to join with Blue Note, centralizing EMI's approach to music for the adult market segment. The labels newly under the Blue Note umbrella are Angel Records, EMI Classics and Virgin Classics (classical music), Narada Productions (contemporary jazz and world-influenced music, including exclusively licensed sub-label Real World Records), Back Porch Records (folk and Americana), Higher Octave Records (New Age music), and Mosaic Records (devoted exclusively to reissuing jazz recordings in limited-edition boxed sets). As of June 2007, Bruce Lundvall, founder of Manhattan Records, continues as President/CEO of the Blue Note Label Group, reporting directly to Eric Nicoli, the Chief Executive Officer of EMI Group.

In 2008, The Blue Note 7, a jazz septet, were formed in honor of the 70th anniversary of Blue Note Records. The group recorded an album in 2008, entitled Mosaic, which was released in 2009 on Blue Note Records/EMI, and toured the United States in promotion of the album from January until April 2009.[13542] The group consists of Peter Bernstein (guitar), Bill Charlap (piano), Ravi Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Lewis Nash (drums), Nicholas Payton (trumpet), Peter Washington (bass), and Steve Wilson (alto saxophone, flute). The group plays the music of Blue Note Records from various artists, with arrangements by members of the band and Renee Rosnes.

Hip-hop producer Madlib recorded Shades of Blue in 2003 as a tribute to Blue Note. The album features samples recorded by the label throughout.


  • In 2003, hip hop producer Madlib released "Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note," a collection of his remixes and interpretations of classic Blue Note music. Pete Rock, J. Dilla, and DJ Spinna have likewise been involved in similar projects.

  • In 2008, hip hop producer Questlove of The Roots compiled "Droppin' Science: Greatest Samples from the Blue Note Lab," a collection of original Blue Note recordings sampled by modern-day hip hop artists such as Dr. Dre and A Tribe Called Quest.



  • Cook, Richard. Blue Note Records: A Biography. ISBN 1-932112-10-3.
  • Cuscuna, Michael & Ruppli, Michel The Blue Note Label: A Discography. ISBN 0-313-31826-3 [2nd ed 2001]
  • Marsh, Graham & Callingham, Glyn. Blue Note: Album Cover Art. ISBN 0-8118-3688-6.
  • Marsh, Graham Blue Note 2: the Album Cover Art: The Finest in Jazz Since 1939. ISBN 0-8118-1853-5 [US edition]
  • Wolff, Francis et al. Blue Note Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff. ISBN 0-7893-0493-7.

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