Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes (2018) is a documentary directed by Swedish filmmaker Sophie Huber telling the story of the legendary Blue Note jazz label from their humble beginnings to present. Huber’s film documents the ambition and inclusion of Blue Note through its German Jewish immigrant founders, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, who started Blue Note in New York, in 1939. Blue Note began as an independent jazz label in an era where xenophobia and racism were social norms. The Blue Note story is paramount because it highlights the collaborative relationships between German Jewish immigrants and African American musicians. The film features interviews with legendary jazz musicians, Herbie Hancock, Lou Donaldson and Wayne Shorter plus commentary with contemporary jazz artists, Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire and Norah Jones. The film also features rare archival footage with John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis and newer recording sessions contrasting the intersectionalities and positionalities between jazz and hip hop with interviews including Ali Shaheed Muhammad (A Tribe Called Quest) and Terrace Martin (hip hop producer). Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes is Huber’s second documentary after her debut and critically acclaimed first documentary, Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (2012).
The history of Blue Note Records spans over eight decades and a catalogue of over a thousand records. Blue Note has supported jazz genres including Hot Jazz, Boogie Woogie and Swing, Bebop, Hard Bop, Post Bop, Avant Garde, Soul Jazz and Fusion. Huber states, “The Blue Note story is about people who followed their passion and – against all odds – built a lasting platform for a music they loved, a music that was cathartic for them, that represents freedom to German Jewish immigrants and to African American musicians” (2018). Lion and Wolff’s Blue Note philosophy is still applicable today. Don Was, producer and bass player from Was (Not Was), is now Blue Note’s president who works with the new generation, plus living jazz legends who record on Blue Note. Alfred Lion originally described Blue Note music as, “Any particular style of playing which represents an authentic way of musical feeling is genuine expression” (https://bluenoterecords-film.com/en/).
The Blue Note label has now crossed over to meld jazz, R&B and hip hop. Blue Note records have been sampled by countless hip hop/rap legends such as Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Dr. Dre, Tupac and Beastie Boys; plus today’s artists such as J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West. Blue Note records and jazz music are part of the evolution of hip hop and rap. Both jazz and hip hop/rap genres are born from African American historical and social culture in the U.S. Jazz origins began in New Orleans within the Creole and European traditions, encompassing military music with ragtime, and the blues. African slave descendents created jazz music to cope with racial abuse from colonialist white society. African slave descendents from the ghettos of New York created hip hop and rap to cope with systemic racial abuse, gang violence and social inequities stemming from inequities passed down generationally by colonialist white society.
Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes contrasted powerful imagery between jazz and hip hop/rap. Huber’s juxtaposed scenes documenting jazz legendary artist John Coltrane who was influenced by living in the civil rights era; using his masterpiece song “Alabama”, Huber showed images from lunch counter protests, law enforcement spraying African American protesters with fire hoses, beatings and lynching, which reflects current discourse on systematic racist violence still being perpetrated upon black people and legitimized through institutionalized colonialist white societal standards. Huber contrasted images from protests of police killings and the Black Lives Matter movement. The sounds on Blue Note jazz records were embedded into the creative minds of many. Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest connected the empowerment of hip hop with the U.S. government’s elimination of funding for afterschool music programs, which forced them to use records and turntables as instruments.
Huber’s film also features eye candy glimpses into Wolff’s photo archives with rare shots from the Blue Note archive contact prints, plus commentary highlighting Reid Miles’ cover art which contributed to the label’s signature success. Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes provides a human perspective into the relationships and music that inspired the Blue Note label. It is an insightful and extraordinary film that honestly documents the evolution of the historic Blue Note record label.
Written by Karen Lee (Weekend Family Music Hour)