Richard Cook, Blue Note Records: the Biography

Richard Cook, in his Blue Note Records: the Biography, doesn’t consider the most important question about his subject: why did what was surely the best label in jazz sustain a long-term relationship with none of the music’s greatest practitioners and release none of its most important records?

To clarify a bit: when I say greatest, I’m talking about people like  Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk (more later), Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Sonny Rollins.  When I say most important records, I mean things like Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, Saxophone Colossus, and Brilliant Corners.  These are the crowning achievements of artists who were themselves at the top of their fields.   None of these major statements came out on the best jazz label there was.  That’s fairly astonishing.

I’ll go a little further in my astonishment, too.  Miles is one thing: he got a lucrative deal with Columbia which was something a small label like Blue Note couldn’t match.  Monk later went to Columbia for what was for most critics (myself included) the least interesting phase of his recording career, despite a number of good (by his standards, great by others’) records on the label.  What is interesting is something like Saxophone Colossus, on Prestige, or Brilliant Corners on Riverside.  These weren’t bigger labels than Blue Note, and they  didn’t pay for two days’ rehearsal like Blue Note did, either.  Miles has his great series of quintet records on Prestige, too.  The label as an operation seems to have been less of a quality operation than Blue Note, but the peaks were higher.  Leave Columbia out of it, but the comparison to Riverside and Prestige are on point.

Cook is hemmed in, I imagine, by marketing.  There’s not a huge audience for jazz books, and the obvious audience he’d aim at would be people who are Blue Note obsessives.  I imagine these people listen to Song for My Father (a fantastic record, no doubt) more than they do Mingus Ah Um, or something like that.  I don’t, but I respect it enough.  That said, you won’t sell to that crowd if your thesis is that while Blue Note had high valleys, it had low peaks.

This limitation, that of marketing, we can forgive Cook.  His own limitations, however, are his own.  His judgement often left me alternately shaking my head in confusion or simply aghast.  It’s beyond me, but he goes in on Dexter Gordon, of all people:

Mannerism invades much of even Gordon’s best work…Gordon’s taste for quoting from other melodies in the course of an improvisation could become tiresome and often he would seem to doze on his undeniably impressive tone…(140)

I couldn’t disagree more.  Mannerism is not how I would describe Gordon’s undoubted orthodoxy.  His Blue Note records are the ones that most typify, to my ears, the sound of the label, and indeed its significance.  Gordon was no Rollins, to be sure, but this was a man with much to say.  A student could take a course on Marxism and have a wonderful, even life-changing experience with a fantastic prof who wasn’t Marx.  Gordon is like that, to me.  Few musicians who work through others’ developments have made statements as enduring as Gordon’s.

Cook then indulges–same topic–a habit of what we might call orthodox contrarianism:

…next to, say, Hank Mobley, [Gordon’s] Blue Note work has not worn so well as many would have it. (141)

and

Next to [Ike] Quebec‘s own sessions for the label, Gordon’s albums can sound almost tame. (141)

I am all about giving Hank Mobley his due, who more than any musician I know of was poorly served by his association with Miles Davis, something almost no-one else can claim.  Coltrane was a hard act to follow, etc.  I’ll say that you do score some hipster points with me by pointing that out: if you praise Mobley, you obviously are scratching below jazz’s surface.  That said, it’s not such an uncommon position to be profound in any way.  Worse, as an exercise in judgement, using Gordon as a foil to praise Mobley and Quebec comes off as willful perversity.

This tendency shows more broadly in Cook’s consistent, if subtle, attempts to rewrite hard bop’s place in the broader narrative of jazz history.  To rehearse it for the non-obsessives (no shame in being a non-obsessive), bebop exploded on the scene in the 1940’s.  The 1950’s saw a number of trends, none of which had the feeling of radical newness that the original bop had, despite all kinds of great music made.  Hard bop of the 1950’s, the general line goes, made for a lot of great music but in its solidification of bebop norms was somewhat antithetical to bop’s spirit, which was not about norms.

Making a case for the value of hard bop, Blue Note’s stock-in-trade, at least until the mid-1960’s, is a very legit enterprise, but Cook’s poor judgment kicks in.  Describing a Freddie Hubbard session:

‘Birdlike,’ from that date, shows the telling difference between original bebop and hard bop’s sublimation of the form: over two extended solos, both Hubbard and [Wayne] Shorter annihilate the licks-based improvising of bebop routine…(153)

If it’s routine, it’s not bebop.  It was the hardening of bebop into the hard bop that was Blue Note’s niche that brought routine, though I wouldn’t use the word myself.  Licks are not the source of bop, they became in lesser practitioners the outcome.  Hard bop was not a sublimation of the form, it was the formalization of the sublime, so to speak.  Cook’s problem is that by even engaging in this type of terminology, and more so by getting the stuff wrong, to be blunt, he distracts from the actual music.  I swear to you, I can listen to Grant Green any day of the week, on his own terms, and be very happy.  Trying to pretend he’s Charlie Christian will kill it for me.

It was, to move into Blue Note’s 1960’s output, precisely the formalism of hard bop that got people digging Ornette.  I will here qualify the premise of the question I posed in the first paragraph.  Blue Note did put out one record that stands as one of the true peaks of jazz, and that’s Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures.  Of Taylor’s two Blue Note releases, I’ll note that I actually prefer Conquistador!, but I’m interested in the pantheon, and Unit Structures is the one in the pantheon.  The problem here is twofold: first, Cecil Taylor is I think without doubt the least popular major innovator in jazz, and second, more importantly, from outside Blue Note’s actual norm.  Alfred Lion recognized the importance of both Ornette and Taylor, and gave them contracts on terms they could take.  Lion was in it for the music, but neither was what we think of as a “Blue Note artist.”

Blue Note didn’t do unadulterated free jazz.  They went in for people who were influenced by it but began from more conventional assumptions, like Andrew Hill–worthy of all accolades, no doubt–or Eric Dolphy, who was the one Blue Note regular (unfortunately, just that one record, Out to Lunch, under his own name) who might have developed to that top level through Blue Note.  Noting this, we have to conclude, though, that Hill was not the equal of Taylor, and Dolphy not of Coltrane.

Blue Note generally didn’t do work with the real innovators.  The exceptions to that rule were that Blue Note would work with people considered commercial poison by more mercenary labels, viz. the early Monk (and they blew it on the marketing) and then, later, Ornette and Cecil Taylor.  Coltrane cut his first fantastic album on Blue Note, but it by no means is on the level of his later, real masterpieces.  Ornette and Taylor had already made their reputations before their arrival on the label, and only Taylor made his signature album on Blue Note.

That said, best label in the business, hands down.  Intuitively obvious, I’d say, almost a categorically imperative obviousness.  No Saxophone Colossus, though.  Cook missed the story.

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