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Blue Note's High Notes: The Jazz Label Celebrates 80 Years

In 1939, a German-Jewish immigrant (Alfred Lion) and a writer-musician-activist (Max Margulis) founded Blue Note Records, a jazz label, in New York. 2019 marks its 80th anniversary, making it among the oldest American record labels as well as home to some jazz’s most iconic albums -- and most relevant contemporary artists, including Robert Glasper, Norah Jones, and Ambrose Akinmusire.

Through several ownership changes and a brief dormant period in the early 1980s, the label endured, a testament to its remarkably consistent output and savvy navigation of music’s ever-evolving technology. After 80 years, jazz -- and Blue Note -- has as much cachet as it did when the label was launched in 1939, with boogie woogie pianist Meade “Lux” Lewis’ 78 RPM single, “Melancholy”/”Solitude.” Here’s how they kept the (blue) train going.

1940s: Blue Note continued to release 78s through the war and after, capturing both already-renowned “hot” jazz musicians -- like Sidney Bechet, whose rendition of “Summertime” could be found on 1939 year-end lists, including Billboard’s -- and some of the earliest work of then-unknown future legends like Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, and Bud Powell.

1950s: The LP era had technically dawned in the late 1940s, but was cost prohibitive for the still-struggling independent label. Their first 10-inch LP to not merely compile previously-released 78s was Milt Jackson’s 1952 Wizard of the Vibes, which featured Thelonious Monk on piano.

By the mid-1950s, 12-inch LPs -- the kind that are still used today -- were the new standard, and Blue Note’s first were Miles Davis, Vol. 1 & 2 in 1956. Both of those covers were among the earliest designed by Reid Miles, whose graphic, modern album art quickly became one of the label’s calling cards.

“Reid never heard a note of any Blue Note album -- he hated jazz,” says Michael Cuscuna, co-founder of Mosaic Records and former director of Blue Note’s archives and reissues. “But he made every album cover totally individual, and yet they all looked like Blue Note covers. Your eye went right to it in the store.” Then, they had to shift from mono to stereo recording in the late 1950s -- a task for their go-to producer Rudy Van Gelder. Over the course of a decade, the way music was released had completely changed.

1960s-70s: Blue Note saw some of its biggest hits to date -- trumpet player Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder and pianist Horace Silver’s Song For My Father -- but they weren’t enough to keep the label independent, as most releases were selling 2,000 to 5,000 copies. Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and Ornette Coleman all released some of their most memorable albums with the label during this period, but a slumping record industry caused Blue Note to go dark in 1981 after first selling to Liberty records in 1966.

1980s: Fueled in part by the success of Blue Note reissues in Europe during the label’s official dormancy -- and by leveraging of some of the music industry’s earliest box set releases (Cuscuna’s first was for Blue Note’s 40th anniversary in 1979) -- the label relaunched in 1985 with a series of reissues and previously unreleased albums. Soon after, the proliferation of CDs would ignite the music industry as a whole. “Every label realized they could recycle their bestsellers, and everyone would buy them again,” says Cuscuna. In jazz, which by then attracted completist collectors and audiophiles, the success of CD reissues allowed Blue Note and other jazz labels to invest in then-new artists like Cassandra Wilson and Stanley Jordan.

1990s-2000s: The CD reigned supreme, but as the well of reissues began to run dry -- at least compared to the cost of keeping even a small percentage of the label’s vast catalog in print -- the label had to look for new hits. “That connoisseur, upper-echelon attitude serves jazz well, but it does not preclude the fact that you need best-sellers,” Cuscuna says. “We had to look to the things that could cross over, and primarily that was guitarists and singers.” Enter Norah Jones and her debut Come Away With Me, which spent four weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and was eventually certified Diamond by the RIAA. 

2010s: At the start of the decade, jazz had a serious reputation problem. “We'd ask people if they liked jazz, and they said, ‘No, I hate jazz,’” says Blue Note president Don Was of the market research they did when he started at the label in 2010. “But we'd put on The Sidewinder and they’d say ‘Oh, I like that, what's that?’” Since then, streaming has made the label’s vast catalog instantly accessible -- if you already subscribe to a streaming service, you don’t need to pay $16.99 to hear John Coltrane’s Blue Train.

Playlists and YouTube videos offer an easy way into a genre that was viewed for so long viewed as niche; now, catalog streaming makes up 41 percent of Capitol’s (Blue Note’s current parent label) jazz revenue. It’s also just a far cheaper way to keep older titles accessible than maintaining a stock of CD copies: On the label’s list of albums that still need to be digitized, only about 50 titles remain, all of which should be available in the near future. For new and living artists, playlist placement is as important as it is for pop musicians, and as it always has been to promote to radio. Charles Lloyd, for example, has generated seven million streams off two track placements on Spotify’s “Coffee Table Jazz” playlist.

The resurgence of vinyl has also been a boon for the label, which will reissue 60 titles to mark the 80th anniversary on top of the 40 or so that they regularly keep in print. The Blue Note Review, the label’s own premium, limited-edition subscription service, as well as canvas prints of classic Blue Note album covers, also help sate the jazz fan’s desire for physical product. Together, streaming and vinyl have made Blue Note’s catalog easier to hear -- and to leverage towards new artists -- than ever before. “Blue Note always had cachet with every generation of musicians,” Cuscuna concludes. “We just tried to capitalize on that.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Jan. 12 issue of Billboard.

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