Arts Lab Experimental visual arts for social change

Jazz’s legacy of artistic freedom

The music documentary ‘Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes’ – 2018 dir. Sophie Huber – is a history of Blue Notes Records, a pioneering label that showcased some of the finest jazz artists in the 20th and 21st centuries. Currently showing on BBC I-Player, the film reveals the values that jazz embodies: freedom of expression, equality, dialogue – values we can learn from and that are as relevant today as they were when the label was founded.

When German Jewish refugees Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff started Blue Note in 1939 in New York, the two Berliners allowed their artists complete freedom and encouraged them to compose new music. Their visionary and uncompromising approach led to releases that did not just revolutionise jazz; they left an indelible imprint on art and music, including hip hop.

Film review in the Guardian – Pristine doc of tonal clarity by Leslie Felperin

‘This damn-near immaculate music documentary by Swiss film-maker Sophie Huber pays tribute to Blue Note Records, the iconic label most associated with mid-20th-century bebop jazz. Co-founded in 1939 by German-Jewish immigrants Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, Blue Note became a home for artists such as Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter (the last two are interviewed here). The label also issued key work by Miles Davis, Sidney Bechet and John Coltrane among others who largely recorded elsewhere. 

Although clearly officially sanctioned by the label’s current owners (having been passed like a parcel among corporate overlords, Blue Note is now distributed by Decca) this doesn’t feel like a slick, bland exercise in self-promotion. Instead, Huber crafts a respectful, crisply told but depth-plumbing history of the label, drawing from original recordings, vintage audio of studio chatter, and talking heads interviews. Those elements alone would have made for a great radio show or podcast, but what makes this especially cinematic are the lashings of rostrum shots of Wolff’s candid black-and-white photographs, including many rare shots from the archive’s contact prints, as well as deserved attention given to graphic artist Reid Miles’s striking cover art, an essential contribution to the company’s image.

Even more importantly, those interviewed, especially sound engineer from back-in-the-day Rudy Van Gelder, and the label’s current president, artist-producer Don Was, take pains to outline what made Blue Note sound so distinctive and coherent, given how diverse those talents were.

The level of discourse is unapologetically cerebral and serious, although not without joy and mirth – especially from the young ’uns represented here (Terrace Martin, A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad) who weigh in on Blue Note’s legacy to hip-hop. Some viewers will long for more detailed analysis of the music, while others will note the unfortunate but unavoidable near-absence of women, apart from vocalist Norah Jones. But otherwise this hits nearly every music-doc note with an exceptional clarity of tone.’