Few record labels have left a deeper imprint on jazz than Blue Note Records. Not only does its name speak for itself, but its catalogue too. Consider its roster: it reads like a who’s who of jazz greats. To underscore its milestone year, a documentary was premiered last month on German television. Titled It must schwing!, this lavish production running a little under two hours retells the story of its two founders, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff.
All begins in 1925 when two young jazz fanatics, not yet 20, first meet at a concert of the Sam Wooding orchestra in Berlin, their home town. The rise to power of the National Socialists eight years later would change everything for these sons of secular Jewish families: Lion packs his bags and sails off to New York. Wolff balks, but at his friend’s and family’s behest, he boards the last boat out before controls are imposed.
As refugees, both men go about chasing the American Dream while grooving to the sounds of jazz. Scraping their pennies together, they lure into a studio a couple of older Black musicians who had fallen through the cracks. In 1947, the budding producers turned over a new leaf after giving a first recording break to a pianist unlike any other, Thelonious Monk. From their roots in classic jazz, they were now modernists, shaping that idiom for the next 20 years and issuing an unmatched catalogue of reference recordings in American jazz.
The animated film sequences that serve to illustrate historical facts and anecdotal stories enhance the documentary considerably. There are plenty of first-hand accounts too, starting by Lion himself, interviewed shortly before his passing in 1987. Several former Blue Note artists share their insights on camera, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter topping the list, with Benny Golson, Lou Donaldson, Charles Tolliver and vocalist Sheila Jordan adding their own takes. Other witnesses include critic Dan Morgenstern, label historian Michael Cuscuna and Blue Note’s legendary recording engineer Rudy van Gelder in his last interview prior to his death in 2016.
For all of the opinions expressed, this feature never loses sight of its two main protagonists. True to his name, Lion was the more imposing of the two. He dealt head on with the musicians and urged them on in his broken English, insisting when necessary that It must schwing! Yet, in 1965, he surprised everyone by selling his interests to Liberty Records, leaving his partner at the helm of the business until his sudden demise six years later. To Lion’s vinegar, Wolff was the oil, the quiet one who hardly uttered a word to the musicians, spending his time clicking his shutter and turning out shots for the inimitable record covers created by their graphics man Reid Miles. As united as they were musically, the partners led separate lives. Only at the burial did Lion find out that his friend had a family life, sharing it with a Black woman and her children. The documentary goes no further into the label´s history, its ensuing years of decline left unaddressed. However, in 1985, it rose again from its ashes, this time under the auspices of EMI Records and its headman Bruce Lundvall. For that reason alone, Alfred Lion must have been a most happy man in his final days.