Further into the fifties saw debut recordings by the likes of Sonny Rollins, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Sonny Clark, Kenny Dorham, Kenny Burrell, Jackie McLean, Donald Byrd, Lou Donaldson and John Coltrane's classic, Blue Train.
With the sixties came Dexter Gordon. He was a saxophonist from the bebop era who'd spent several years dealing with drug addiction, including a prison term. He made several albums over a five year period and appeared on the debut album of Herbie Hancock - in fact, all four of the 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. Carter played double bass on many other musicians' sessions, including Freddie Hubbard, a trumpeter who also recorded for the label. In 1963 Lee Morgan scored a hit with The Sidewinder, and Horace Silver, with Song for My Father did the same in 1965 [if you know Steely Dan's Rikki Don't Lose That Number, play them both and you'll know where Becker and Fagen got their track from]. As a result, Lion was under pressure by distributors to come up with more successes, the result was many Blue Note albums opening with a catchy tune intended for heavy airplay.
With the sixties came avant garde jazz - a less commercially successful formula that was more experimental in tone. Despite the style's reputation, success did come with Eric Dolphy [Out to Lunch - Blue Note's most iconic album design from that decade, by Reid Miles], other avant garde exponents were Ornette Coleman, Bobby Hutcherson and Andrew Hill.
By the mid-sixties, Blue Note was gobbled up by Liberty Records and its founder, Alfred Lion retired two years later. Lion's partner since the war, Francis Wolff died in 1971. Despite some good albums, musical styles were changing, and jazz became less mainstream. Subsequently, the designer of Blue Note's iconic album covers, Reid Miles was fired. In 1969 United Artists acquired Liberty Records - and the end was in sight. When the music empire EMI, in turn gobbled up UA in 1979, it chose to phase out the label.
EMI Manhattan saw the potential of the new format [CD] to a new audience and relaunched the label in 1985 with some artists previously associated with Blue Note, such as McCoy Tyner, while younger musicians such as Joe Lovano, and John Scofield established reputations through Blue Note. New success was achieved with the vocalist Norah Jones, and it's released new albums by artists on the fringes of jazz such as Anita Baker and newcomer Amos Lee. Jazz trumpeter (and musical director of the Lincoln Center), Wynton Marsalis is currently signed to the label. Also hip-hop artists Us3 and Guru (of the band Gang Starr) have recorded a number of albums in a cross-over style, along with French band, St. Germain [aka Ludovic Navarre].
Today, it's come full circle - and Blue Note Records is hip again. The flagship jazz label for Capitol Jazz and is the parent label for the Capitol Jazz, Pacific Jazz and Roulette Jazz labels. It has a number of successful artists in the cross-over jazz fields and a continuing roster of more conventional jazz stars. There's also a number of clubs and venues carrying the Blue Note name. With the original, famous Blue Note Club on 131 West 3rd Street.
By 1939, Lion had co-founded the label with Max Margulis, a communist writer friend who funded the project. Francis Wolff, his long-time partner emigrated from Germany later that year and had joined up with Lion by 1941. The label's first, real hit was a performance of Summertime by the saxophonist Sidney Bechet. A great compilation is titled, The Best of Sidney Bechet released in 1994 is available digitally from iTunes and hard copy from Deepdiscount.com and others.
Newark, New Jersey-born saxophonist Ike Quebec - who recorded for the label - would later act as A&R talent scout for the label, particularly following the two year, war-time moratorium on recording between 1941-43. Although he was older [by war's end, Quebec was still only 27], he could appreciate the new 'bebop' style, created by the young turks, such as Miles Davis who had moved to New York City the year before [1944, aged 18], supposedly to take up a scholarship at the Juilliard School of Performing Arts [Broadway and 65th Street - now part of Lincoln Center], also Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. Quebec however, died in 1963 of lung cancer, aged just 44.
By 1947, Thelonious Monk recorded sessions for the label, which also saw the Blue Note debut of Art Blakey. He died in 1982 of a stroke and in 2006 Monk was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize For Music. Other musicians who recorded for Blue Note during the late forties and early fifties were Fats Navarro, Howard McGhee, J.J. Johnson, James Moody and Bud Powell.
Davis recorded many sessions for Blue Note, either as lead artist or even as 'sideman' for other stars such as Cannonball Adderley [in particular, the legendary sessions of Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Sam Jones and Hank Jones on the 1958 album known as Somethin' Else]. Interestingly, the opening 11 minute track, Autumn Leaves, was remade in the late '90s by electronic/dance artist Coldcut and is also worth a listen.
In the fifties the label was recording newer talent such as Horace Silver, the Jazz Messengers (which became Art Blakey's band), Milt Jackson (Modern Jazz Quartet) and Clifford Brown. Rudy Van Gelder recorded most Blue Note releases from 1953 until the late sixties - his brilliant engineering is considered by many to be almost as important as the music.
Another important difference between Blue Note and other independent labels, was that musicians were paid for rehearsal time prior to recording. Unusual at that time.Bob Porter, a producer for Prestige Records (probably Blue Note's only serious competition during the 1950s and 1960s), was famously quoted as saying that "The difference between Blue Note and Prestige is two days rehearsal."