A Blue Note founder’s perspective on the private side of jazz music
Most of the musicians photographed by Wolff are male, as most Blue Note musicians were male. Although there were female jazz musicians active at the time, they also, with very few exceptions, faced prejudice in the development of their careers – with the exception of singers, who were prominent , but Blue Note recorded very few singers, male or female. The label focused on instrumental music, and there was an artistic point to that emphasis. The repertoire for most jazz songs was rooted in the so-called American Songbook of Play and Film Repertoire; although many Blue Note artists certainly played these works as well, the core of the label’s repertoire was rooted in instrumental improvisation – and in the musicians’ original compositions, which the label highlighted, paying its musicians to rehearse, to prepare to record original material that was both unknown and complex. (Wolff documented many of these repetitions, as in an image of Miles Davis, pencil in hand, working on a board for a 1953 session, and in that of Bud Powell, with his son, Earl John, rehearsing The 1958 label felt like it was setting up a classic modern jazz repertoire that made black American music an instant modern American counterpart to European classical repertoire and part of the avant-garde music of the day.
Most of the musicians in the photos and in the Blue Note catalog were young, in their twenties and early thirties. Lion and Wolff – whose tastes were broadened by their close consultation with veteran saxophonist Ike Quebec, who also recorded a wide range of albums for the label – discovered that the jazz they loved was a movement of youth. In the fifties and sixties, they recorded, as bandleaders, Clifford Brown, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard and Bobby Hutcherson at twenty-two; Larry Young and Tyrone Washington at twenty-three; Sonny Clark, Grant Green, Hank Mobley and Joe Henderson at twenty-six; Lee Morgan and Tony Williams at eighteen. (The latter, a drummer, began recording for the label in 1963, in Jackie McLean’s band, aged seventeen. “Modernists”) was eighteen-year-old Sonny Rollins.