Blue Note Records is arguably the definitive jazz label. It championed the style from day one, rarely straying from it over the next 80 years even while enduring the inevitable mergers and acquisitions experienced by most record companies, thus proudly standing by their slogan: “The Finest in Jazz Since 1939.”
Alfred Lion was a German Jewish immigrant, newly returned to New York City (after a first, ill-fated stay) in 1938 when he witnessed one of the historic From Spiritual to Swing concerts organized by Columbia< A&R (artist and repertoire) man at Carnegie Hall and was inspired to found Blue Note with partner and investor Max Margulis, a writer, musician, music teacher, and left-wing activist
Naming their label after the so-called “blue note” common to both jazz and blues (a note intentionally played slightly off the standard pitch to convey different emotions), the duo began recording the era’s popular swing, hot jazz, blues, and boogie-woogie, often renting off-hours studio time to capture artists like Albert Ammons, Meade “Lux’”Lewis, Earl “Fatha” Hines, James P. Johnson, and Sidney Bechet (whose 1939 version of “Summertime” was Blue Note’s first hit) after their night’s work in the city’s clubs.
As jazz started evolving at an accelerated pace in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, Blue Note embraced the rising crop of bebop and hard bop artists, including Art Blakey, Bud Powell, James Moody, Horace Silver, Hank Mobley, Howard McGhee, and Miles Davis. Legendary producer Rudy Van Gelder generally oversaw their sessions while photographers Francis Wolff and Reid Miles (who also acted as graphic designer) provided a distinctive, unified aesthetic that’s still revered today.
All these ingredients can be found in John Coltrane’s sole Blue Note release, 1957’s landmark Blue Train. The label continued to invest in innovative styles like modal and free jazz into the 1960s — a philosophy, which, along with their artist-friendly fees, attracted a whole new generation of groundbreaking artists such as Lee Morgan, Jimmy Smith, Jackie McLean, Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon, Cecil Taylor, Bobby Hutcherson, McCoy Tyner, and Ornette Coleman.
However, as jazz’s popularity and cultural influence gradually declined in the latter half of the 1960s, so too did Blue Note’s – not helped by a succession of leadership changes (Lion, Wolff, and Miles all retired or left around this time) and the label’s 1966 merger with Liberty Records, then United Artists a decade later. Top executive George Butler oversaw a brief period of jazz/pop crossover success in the early ‘70s via artists like Donald Byrd, Ronnie Laws, Bobbi Humphrey, and Earl Klugh.
Sold once again in 1979, this time to EMI, Blue Note was effectively shuttered until 1985, when it was relaunched under Capitol subsidiary Manhattan Records, then decoupled from Manhattan in 1989 to encompass all of EMI’s jazz roster (now including John Scofield, Jason Moran, Wynton Marsalis, etc.) and, after Norah Jones’ blockbuster success in 2002, expanded into the Blue Note Label Group in 2006, overseeing an eclectic range of jazz and non-jazz adult artists like Al Green, Anita Baker, and Van Morrison.
And in 2012, Blue Note, as well as all of EMI, was purchased by Universal Music Group and artist/producer Don Was was installed as president. The label continued to diversify its roster, both in and out of jazz, with artists like Gregory Porter, Kandace Springs, Gogo Penguin, and Robert Glasper while upholding its rich legacy with an aggressive reissue program for its timeless jazz catalog, some of which has also resurfaced by way of widespread sampling by rap and hip hop artists.
From the very beginning, in 1939, Blue Note labels utilized the L-shaped layout and bold, simple fonts that would become the company’s trademark, but color schemes varied (red and black, yellow and blue) until the classic white-and-blue combination took hold in the 1940s.
Except for the occasional change of address and other copy (e.g. from “microgroove” to “stereo”), this design would remain faithfully untampered with for the next three decades (though singles sometimes sported evenly split blue/white or royal blue labels) until Blue Note’s merger with Liberty yielded a short-lived reissue series identified by a black label featuring a slim, baby-blue trim to the left.
The 1970s introduced a sequence of solid blue labels topped with a new logo composed of a small music note inside a large, lower-case “b,” but this look too was eventually abandoned for a return to Blue Note’s revered, L-shaped white and blue scheme.