'Beyond the Notes' Documentary Celebrates Blue Note's 80th Anniversary: Exclusive Clip

Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Herbie Hancock photographed on Nov. 22, 1968.

As Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes finishes its limited theatrical run and Starz airings in front of a Sept. 6 release (DVD and Blu-ray), director Sophie Huber is hoping the 80th anniversary documentary will make an impact beyond chronicling the iconic jazz label's history.

"I wanted to reach a younger audience or people who do not necessarily listen to jazz or like it very much, but to hopefully spark their interest so they can start listening or at least know about these amazing artists and musical heroes they might not even know about," the Swiss filmmaker tells Billboard. Huber was recruited for the project by current Blue Note president Don Was based on her film Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, to which Was contributed some music. Huber started researching during the fall of 2014, tweaking right up until Beyond the Notes' premiere at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

The documentary has since played at more than 50 film festivals around the world and has spent the summer touring theaters around the U.S., with Was introducing it in his hometown of Detroit during July. Watch an exclusive clip below. 

"What I love about the movie is I think Sophie laid out the continuum of the Blue Note ethos," Was explains. "So you understand how we got from 1939 to the present and the aesthetic was intact, whether it's Thelonious Monk in the '40s or Art Blakey and Horace Silver in the '50s or Herbie (Hancock) and Wayne (Shorter) and Ornette (Coleman) and Eric Dolphy in the '60s or Robert Glasper today. There's a lineage that's really connected."

Hancock also praises the film, noting that "(Huber) did a fantastic job, and it really gives the spirit of what Blue Note is about and, really, what jazz is about."

Huber, whose father played Blue Note and other jazz records at home while she was growing up, says the creative ethos that Was describes was established in 1939 by German immigrants Alfred Lion (Blue Note co-founder) and Francis Wolff (photographer/producer/exec), early supporters of the bebop movement. "It's really about the founders and how they wanted to do this without commercial motivation," Huber says. "They saw a value in the music that was larger than making money with it. I imagine because they escaped Nazi Germany it had an even more deep impact on them than just the music and helped make their alliance with the African-American musicians who dealt with their own suppression in America. That was something I wanted to focus on, the quest and the vision and the transmission that motivates people to do this."

Huber also wanted to make sure the story came from the proverbial horses' mouths, via both new interviews and archival material, including session recording outtakes with comments from Lion and recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder. "I wanted the artists to tell the story whenever possible," she notes, "not Bill Clinton talking about John Coltrane. I just wanted to try to keep it within the studio and within the artists and hear their voices."

Beyond the Notes has plenty of those, from heritage Blue Note veterans such as Hancock and Shorter to contemporaries including Glasper, Norah Jones, Terrace Martin, Marcus Strickland and more. Huber also had access to Michael Cuscuna's archive of Wolff's vintage photographs. And Beyond the Notes brings things up to date with footage of sessions featuring the Blue Note All Stars band, a young lions troupe that's joined by Hancock and Shorter for a version of the saxophonist's composition "Masqualero." "It was a truly magical experience to be in a room with these different generations that connect so many dots," Huber says. "Herbie and Wayne played with Miles (Davis) and countless other artists; They learned through Miles and then these other artists learned through Herbie and Wayne. There's such a strong tradition in jazz that one generation learns from the next, and when they come together it's very, very special."

Beyond the Notes has been one part of a Blue Note 80th anniversary celebration that also includes a vinyl reissue series, a collection of art prints featuring Blue Note album covers, a new G-SHOCK wristwatch, a Caribbean cruise, channels on Spotify and Apple Music and a fall tour featuring Kandace Springs, James Frances and James Carter. But the film is the campaign's centerpiece.

"I watched the final cut for the first time at a global jazz and classics meeting for the Universal Music Group in Madrid, and it was a beautiful experience," Was says. "There were a couple of grown men crying at the end because they were proud to be part of Blue Note, and everyone was moved by it and motivated by it. I hope it has the same effect on the audience."

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