What if you were given the keys to Blue Note Records’ legendary tape vault? In 1975, that’s exactly what happened to three-time Grammy Award winner Michael Cuscuna. There, the record producer and co-founder of Mosaic Records discovered hundreds of hours of unreleased—and undocumented—sessions, which he diligently pieced together before releasing. This sleuth work made him an expert on Blue Note, from label founder Alfred Lion’s obsession with jazz in the 1920s to Blue Note’s heyday in the 1950s and ’60s to its recent success with Norah Jones. You can learn more about Blue Note at BlueNote.com. Cuscuna can be reached via MosaicRecords.com.
When I was a jazz DJ in Philadelphia, Blue Note was always my favorite label. Naturally I had a lot of jazz-musician friends, and many of them told me that they’d played in a lot of Blue Note sessions that were never released. I started to keep a list of these sessions in a little notebook, and in 1973 I started banging on the door of Blue Note to find someone to show it to.
My inquiries fell on deaf ears until 1975, when I met a guy named Charlie Lourie, who had just joined Blue Note. He said, “Oh, man. This is amazing. You got a deal. Come on out to L.A. and do something.” So I went into the vault and we started doing double albums and, later, single albums of previously unissued material.
That lasted until about 1981. By the end of the ’70s, the whole record business had crashed, and it really wouldn’t come back again until the advent of the CD in ’85, ’86. It was that long of a slump. In the early ’80s, when work was slow, Charlie and I decided to convince Capitol EMI to restart Blue Note.
We devised a plan, which included doing some box sets. I suggested a set of the complete Thelonious Monk Blue Note recordings—his Blue Note recordings were his most important work, and they were not readily available. I had also found half an hour’s worth of unissued recordings. That was not enough for a full album, but it occurred to me that if I took all of Monk’s music for Blue Note, put it in chronological order, and folded this new stuff in, I’d have a perfect four-LP set. The box set was really a solution to figure out what to do with 30 minutes of unissued Monk.
Collectors Weekly: How did Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note, get interested in jazz?
Cuscuna: Alfred was raised in Berlin; his mother was French and his father was a Berliner. He told me that when he was a little kid—six or seven years old—and his family was on vacation, his parents would put him to bed and then they would go out to the ballroom and dance. He would sneak out and get into the orchestra pit, and he’d just sit down behind the drums. All the musicians thought he was real cute, so they just protected him so he wouldn’t get caught. But he said, “I just remember loving the sound of the beat of the drums.”
His mother had some sort of commercial jazz 78s around the house, and he started listening to those. In the early ’20s, he started to find the other guys, including Francis Wolff, who were his age and were getting interested in this new music. He became close with Frank, and they really became jazz mavens.
Frank stayed in Berlin and studied photography, but Alfred was obsessed with the music. He went to New York with no money at all in the late ’20s. He literally slept on benches in Central Park, and he eventually got a job on the docks offloading boats. With every cent he earned, he would buy 78s.
One day, one of the dock workers who didn’t like immigrant labor hustling in on their jobs—a timeless American motif—whacked him in the back with a two-by-four with a nail sticking out of it. That put him in the hospital for three or four months, and then he was sent back to Germany. But he brought with him all of these 78s that he had managed to accumulate.
Alfred wanted to get back to New York any way he could. I think he told me he left Germany before Hitler was elected, but some people say it was after the election. I don’t know. For me, the important point is he was not a refugee. He was on his way to America to get close to jazz. He wasn’t running away from anything—he was running to something.
Thelonious Monk was like this fully formed alien that had just landed on earth.
He and his mother went down to South America, to Chile. He was working on lobster boats down there and eventually started an import-export business that brought him into contact with New York. In the mid-’30s, he and his mother moved to New York, where he fell in with the whole Commodore Records shop crowd, all the guys who were big mavens and collectors who became important in the record business later, like John Hammond and Milt Gabler.
So he got the bug to start recording jazz, an impulse that really hit him when he saw John Hammond’s “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall in December 1938. He saw Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and Pete Johnson doing the three-piano boogie woogie. Within two weeks, he had booked a studio with the help of a friend, Max Margulis, and they started Blue Note Records.
Margulis wrote up a mission statement for Blue Note—to really record the music the way you would hear it on 52nd Street or in Harlem or in Greenwich Village, the real music. Blue Note was the third independent label that had started in New York, after Commodore and HRS. This was when there were no independent labels, just the three majors.
Swing had become so popular that it was starting to be very stylized, and the three big labels were just recording very pop confection kinds of things. The only boogie woogie that a major label would do was Tommy Dorsey and his band doing orchestrated charts of boogie woogie solo piano. The music was very commercialized, and all the real hardcore jazz fans said, “This isn’t jazz. They’re strangling the life out of it. We’ve got to make every effort to record some stuff that shows what the music really is about.” So that’s what they did.
Collectors Weekly: What was New York like in the ’30s?
Cuscuna: It was an incredible mecca for jazz in a lot of ways—it still is. Everybody who’s talented in Cleveland or Paris or Chicago or Detroit or Philly comes to New York. It’s always had the best talent pool, and there are always guys—for lack of a better word, ring leaders—who created an orbit of talent around them. They find a lot of young talent, and they create sessions and open-door policies and bands that allow musicians to grow. Around them, seeds get planted and nurtured.
In the ’40s, as famous as all the clubs on 52nd Street were, one of the most important components of 52nd was Gil Evans, who had an apartment behind the street and left his door unlocked all the time. His apartment became a haven where musicians came and went all hours of the day or night. They’d sit down and play records and write and play music together. It became an incubator for so many different ideas and things that were going on at the time.
Collectors Weekly: Tell us about Blue Note’s famous late-night sessions.
Cuscuna: The problem for Blue Note at the very start was that everybody was working either in Harlem or on 52nd Street at different clubs. It was impossible to pull everybody together. During the day, they’d have other obligations.
Alfred talked to one of the radio stations and got permission to rent the studio at three in the morning. He got all the musicians to come after their gigs to the radio station’s studio, where he recorded them. He told me that it was great because their chops weren’t blown out even though they’d been working all night. They were really relaxed, but they were up, and they really wanted to play. So the results were great.
At one of his first sessions, with the Port of Harlem Jazzmen, he was very nervous. The only way to get upstairs was to call from the sidewalk downstairs. One of the musicians said, “Billie Holiday is standing outside. She wants to come up.” Alfred said that he didn’t know what he was doing, and that he was so nervous that he wouldn’t let her up. He told me later how much he regretted that—she could have come up and sung something great, but he was just too nervous.
Collectors Weekly: How did Blue Note change from 1939 to the mid-’50s?
Cuscuna: It was an interesting metamorphosis because the big independent labels—Commodore, HRS, Blue Note, and Keynote—were all recording New York-style trad, New Orleans music, boogie woogie, and small-group swing.
Something happened in 1947: Alfred stopped recording for almost a year. He kept in business, but he stopped recording. The swing tenor player Ike Quebec was close to Alfred and Frank, and he turned them on to a lot of the young bebop musicians—Tadd Dameron, Art Blakey, J.J. Johnson, Fats Navarro, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and all those people.
Alfred stopped recording for almost a year just to wrap his brain around these massive changes in jazz. The other labels, like Keynote, HRS, and Commodore, didn’t make the change, and they just faded away. Alfred made the change; it was a struggle, but he stayed in business. He recorded Bud Powell’s first session and did the same with Thelonious Monk, Howard McGhee—a lot of important people.
It wasn’t always a profitable thing to do. Some of it sold okay, like Bud Powell. Thelonious Monk didn’t sell at all. Half of the press gave him glowing reviews, thought he was a visionary and unique, but the stuff never sold. I suppose that was the biggest indicator that Alfred was not the world’s greatest businessman. In October of ’47 he recorded a Thelonious Monk session with six tunes. Then he did another with six tunes, and then another with four in the following spring. And he hadn’t yet released a single 78.
So he spent all his money recording this guy, and he didn’t know how well or how badly he would sell. And he sold horribly. But he stayed with Monk for a couple of years after that. There were just certain people—and I know the feeling—that when you hear them, you’ve just got to capture it and record everything.
Alfred told me that there were three people in his life that when he heard them, he just flipped and had to record everything they did. The first was Monk, the second was Herbie Nichols, and the third was Andrew Hill, where he didn’t care how much money he made or lost. He just had to record this music.
Collectors Weekly: What sessions from this early period were particularly significant?
Cuscuna: In the early days, Alfred did a couple of sessions that really showed how far his thinking was going. He did an Edmond Hall session with Meade Lux Lewis on celeste, Charlie Christian on acoustic guitar, and Israel Crosby on bass. That was almost chamber music meets swing. It was very unusual, gorgeous stuff, a great session.
Blue Note had the misfortune of having one hit right after another.
There was another Edmond Hall session with Meade and Red Norvo that was of the same ilk. He was doing experimental stuff, but it was soulful and had jazz running through its veins even early on. Those were the earliest memorable ones, the ones where Alfred was trying to do something no one else had done. Musically, it was working.
When you jump to the modern era, starting in ’47, the sessions with Thelonious Monk must have been fairly astonishing to hear. Even me hearing them 10 years later was astonishing. Monk was like this fully formed alien that had just landed on earth. The thing about Monk is that everything sounds wrong, but it’s absolutely perfectly right. It always sounds like it’s going to fall over the cliff, but it never does. Everything fits in place. It always works. Those were, I think, absolutely major sessions.
Unfortunately, I don’t think people were ready for it at all. Monk went to Prestige in ’52 for about two or three years, and he sold horribly on Prestige, too. Then he went to Riverside, a startup label. Riverside really hammered away at trying to get Monk recognition. Little by little, it grew and people got it. By the time he got to Columbia in the ’60s, he was on the cover of “Time” magazine, selling loads of records, touring the world, making great money. But it took a long time for the world to catch up to him.
Herbie Nichols took even longer to catch on. In the beginning, his records sold minus 10, but when we started Mosaic, one of the first things I did was put out a complete Blue Note recordings of Herbie Nichols. In the music business, if a record is successful when it comes out, it will be successful as a reissue. If it was unsuccessful when it came out, it will be equally unsuccessful as a reissue. I’m talking about surf music, R&B, Cajun music, everything. But Herbie Nichols finally caught on after we put out the Mosaic box. Young musicians started recording his works, and suddenly his music started to get a lot of attention. Every now and then you can change history with reissues.
Collectors Weekly: How did the introduction of the LP in the late ’40s impact Blue Note?
Cuscuna: The technology was a godsend for everybody, but along with the 10-inch LP came a major, major piece of overhead that had never existed before: album art and liner notes.
Before the LP, you went in, you recorded four tracks for X amount of dollars, and in a week you could have the 78s out because all you had to do is make a label. The record plant can press the label and record in a matter of hours. Suddenly you’re in a business where you have to convert your catalog to LPs, and then you’ve got to create covers. Relatively speaking, there’s a major expense involved in that.
Columbia started putting out 10-inch LPs in ’49, and Decca followed soon thereafter. But it was a killer for the independents. It took them time to really catch up; Blue Note didn’t even put out LPs until the fall of 1951. I think part of it was there was additional studio cost to take the old masters on acetates and dub them to tape and make an LP master.
Then there was the real big expense of creating covers, paying the artist, the photographer, and the designer, and then printing these things up. It added a whole layer of inventory, costs, and print runs. It’s something we take for granted now, but it was a big, big thing then.
In fact, there were times when Blue Note almost went out of business. When Blue Note started putting out 10-inch LPs, they got on an even keel. Then in 1954, Columbia did one better and introduced a 12-inch LP. That quickly became the standard because the 20-minute playing side was more desirable than the 12-minute playing side.
Alfred told me, “I was totally socked when this happened. I had 80 or 90 10-inch LPs in print, and suddenly stores weren’t going to carry them anymore. Everybody had to convert everything to 12-inch, which meant new covers, new masters, and new plating.” It was an enormous expense. Alfred almost sold Blue Note to Atlantic Records for a paltry sum, but he decided to stick it out.
It was lucky he did because during that tough time was when all the elements that became the Blue Note sound fell together. Sticking it out changed his fortunes considerably.
Collectors Weekly: What was studio engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s role in Blue Note’s development?
Cuscuna: Rudy was a self-taught engineer who captured a unique sound that no one else could get. He grew up in Hackensack, New Jersey, and would go to Newark and see all these live concerts, which really inspired him. He was also a total geek, a ham radio operator who built his own little hi-fi. In the mid-’50s, Blue Note really hit its stride because of several elements, one of which was Rudy Van Gelder.
Rudy loved the way music sounded live—he’d go home from a concert and feel that records didn’t really sound like the live show. He thought he could make records sound better and closer to the live experience. So he just self-taught himself, improvised his own studio, and eventually changed the way we hear jazz on record. He made it bigger, more exciting, and more cutting edge than any other engineer in the ’50s. He changed the way jazz was heard on record by making it closer to the live experience.
Blue Note was the label of quality, and when Alfred did something, all the other independent labels were watching him. Within months after he started using Rudy, Prestige, Savoy, and a lot of other independent labels started to record with Rudy. Blue Note essentially set his career in motion.
Rudy’s studio was in his parents’ living room. That’s not as outrageous as it sounds because they were building a new house. At that point, Rudy had been doing some recording with a makeshift set-up, and he said he really wanted to build a recording studio. So, in the living room, they built all kinds of alcoves, nooks, and little archways that they designed because Rudy had ideas for them acoustically. Right at the end of the living room, he built a control room with soundproof glass and all that. So it was professional, but it was still their living room.
Everybody who’s talented in Cleveland, Paris, Chicago, Detroit, or Philly comes to New York.
Rudy recorded at a very high level in terms of decibels, or dB. If you listen to a Rudy Van Gelder 1955 tape, he filled it with music. He was always on the verge of distorting, but he never did. If you listen to another ’55 tape from Mercury or Columbia, you’ll hear a lot of tape hiss because the engineers recorded at a cautious, lower level. Rudy got players like Art Blakey to sound like they did if you had heard them in a club.
He also had a way of capturing drums. Rudy engineered a McCoy Tyner record on Impulse called “Reaching Forth.” If you put the record on and listen to it, you can hear every detail of Roy Haynes’s drums, every piece of the drum kit. It’s all just beautiful.
If you open up the jacket in the album, there’s a big picture of Roy Haynes and Henry Grimes in Rudy’s studio. In front of the drum kit, there are just two mics on stands aimed at the level of the mounted tom-tom, and that’s all he used. But he was able to capture all this stuff. How he did it, I don’t know, but he just was the best at what he did.
Collectors Weekly: Tell us about Blue Note’s golden years, starting with the Jazz Messengers.
Cuscuna: I’ve gotten the story firsthand from Alfred, Horace Silver, and Art Blakey. It’s one of the few times when everybody’s story syncs up! Horace was signed to Blue Note in ’53 because Lou Donaldson had to cancel a date. The rhythm section was Horace Silver, Percy Heath, and Art Blakey, I think. So Alfred had them do a trio record instead.
Art Blakey had been a close friend of Alfred’s since 1948 or ’49. He was Alfred’s favorite drummer. As time passed, Horace made a couple more trio records. Finally, Horace was working somewhere in a club uptown with a quartet, with Hank Mobley and Doug Watkins. Alfred saw him and said, “What about this time? Let’s do a date with horns.” And Horace said, “Yes, let’s do that. I’ll bring Hank and Doug, and if you could get Art Blakey and Kenny Dorham, that would be my dream group.” Alfred called them up and they were good for it.
They went in and rehearsed for this quintet record, the Horace Silver quintet. At that time, it was for a 10-inch LP; it was toward the end of that era. Blue Note was unique in that they planned everything out and paid for rehearsals. They were really hands-on. At this session, Horace started rehearsing “The Preacher,” and Alfred came over to him and said, “That’s a really corny tune. Maybe you could do a blues instead of that.” Horace said, “Well, I don’t know.”
Blakey got wind of the conversation, and he hustled Horace over in the corner and said, “Don’t let them tell you what to do. If you want to record this tune, you tell them he has to cancel the date and you have to go back and write another tune, and it’s going to be another couple of months. That’ll stop them.”
Horace did just that, and Alfred said, “That’s okay. Alright. We’ll do the tune.” So they did it, and of course it became a big hit. I checked that story with Art, and he said that was the way it happened. I checked the story with Alfred, and Alfred’s response was, “Yes, I still think it’s a corny tune.”
It makes you wonder: What if Coltrane had signed to Blue Note instead of Prestige?
The group loved playing together, so they came together again six weeks later for another 10-inch record. Art and Horace started talking about making it a cooperative group, since they seemed to agree in a lot of ways.
Both Art and Horace were very, very aware of what they wanted to do. They wanted to get away from the jazz scene of the early ’50s, which was the Birdland scene—you hire Phil Woods or Charlie Parker or J.J. Johnson, they come and sit in with the house rhythm section, and they only play blues and standards that everybody knows. There’s no rehearsal, there’s no thought given to the audience.
Both Horace and Art knew that the only way to get the jazz audience back and make it bigger than ever was to really make music that was memorable and planned, where you consider the audience and keep everything short. They really liked digging into blues and gospel, things with universal appeal.
So they put together what was to be called the Jazz Messengers. Horace came up with the name, inspired by Art Blakey’s old big band in the ’40s, Art Blakey and the 17 Messengers. That was the birth of what’s still called the Blue Note sound.
Collectors Weekly: The packaging of the albums also came together around this time, right?
Cuscuna: Yes. It was very carefully planned out. There was nothing accidental or haphazard or evolutionary about it. Blue Note had been with Rudy Van Gelder for two years, and they were just at the beginning of the 12-inch LP era. Frank Wolff had been shooting every session, but I think only just for his own enjoyment.
They brought in Reid Miles to give Blue Note a new look and great cover images. Frank dug his photography out and Reid started designing covers around ’55. He did Blue Note covers all the way up to the time they sold the company to Liberty, which was in ’66. Reid did every cover except for some, like a few he gave to his friend Andy Warhol, who was a struggling illustrator at the time and needed the work. Leonard Feather, Ira Gitler, Nat Hentoff, Robert Levin, and two or three others wrote all the liner notes.
It all just came together. This company that had been about to go into the quicksand just reemerged like a phoenix and caught the audience’s attention. For the next 12 years, Blue Note evolved, varied, changed, and morphed, but that tradition of rehearsals, careful planning, attractive compositions, great packaging, and great sound became the Blue Note formula from that point on.
The year after the Jazz Messengers were recorded, vocalist Babs Gonzales led the label to Jimmy Smith. They heard one song in a Harlem club and signed him on the spot. They were just flabbergasted by this guy. He was amazing. He created a whole industry, a whole soul industry that had piano players switching to the organ. Hammond, the organ company, was cranking out B-3s like they were trumpets. It was unbelievable how quickly that whole thing exploded. That was an important part of keeping Blue Note alive, too.
Collectors Weekly: Tell us about the key sessions of the golden age, like Coltrane’s “Blue Train.”
Cuscuna: “Blue Train” was in the middle of the Prestige era, and it got made because Coltrane wanted to honor his verbal commitment to make a record for Blue Note.
The British Invasion was pretty irrelevant to the jazz scene. There were no 12-year-old girls trying to decide between “Love Me Do” and the new Archie Shepp.
There’s nothing wrong with Coltrane’s Prestige recordings at all, but if you listen to “Blue Train” against any of those records, there’s something special about the Blue Note recording. It had an air about it. It’s like Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”: every musician played his solo perfectly. There’s not a note you’d want to change to make it any better, and it’s just the perfect feeling, the perfect length, the perfect notes. Everything is perfect. It fits. And it’s timeless music. That’s the reason it has sold well every year to this day.
Of course, it makes you wonder: What if Coltrane had signed to Blue Note instead of Prestige? What kind of legacy would he have left during those years as opposed to what he did for Prestige? Who knows?
Other examples of that are Cannonball Adderley with “Something Else” and Eric Dolphy with “Out to Lunch.” They only made one record for Blue Note, and each is head and shoulders above anything that they made in the several years before or after that date with other labels.
Part of it was the planning and the rehearsal, and part of it was the fact that Alfred was encouraging people to do something new, something great. It wasn’t the Norman Granz and Bob Weinstock attitude of, “You’re great players. Don’t worry about it. Let’s just go in and jam for 40 minutes and come out with an album.” It was, “Let’s do something great.”
Collectors Weekly: What were the relationships like between Blue Note musicians?
Cuscuna: Theaters have repertory companies where people begin in small roles and grow into lead actors. Painters mentor other painters. It’s a process that feeds upon itself and perpetuates itself. At Blue Note, there was a bond that was created, a connection that stayed with these musicians. They all remained friends.
In those days, they were working all the time, preferably around the New York area so they weren’t away from home. They were playing in each other’s groups—“Hey, it’s Donald. I got a job at the Coronet in Brooklyn. You want to come and play?” And Hank Mobley would come and play with him, and two weeks later Hank would have a gig at the Cafe Bohemia and Donald Byrd would be his side. There was a camaraderie and a cooperation in those days that I think we’ve gotten a little far away from within the musicians’ community.
As time went on, when people were off doing different things, new blood would come in—Herbie Hancock, Butch Warren, Tony Williams, and Pete La Roca, for example. Around 1959, ’60, and ’61, new names started showing up with more frequency.
Musicians would turn other guys on to their protégés, students, or friends that they believed in as musicians. It was this constant seeding of tributaries into the main river, the main river being the recording scene. It kept replenishing itself until the end of the ’60s, when a lot of elements came together to kill it, or at least take away its momentum.
Collectors Weekly: How did rock music affect jazz, starting from the British Invasion?
Cuscuna: I think the British Invasion, if you’re talking about The Beatles, was pretty irrelevant to the jazz scene. There were no 12-year-old girls trying to decide whether to buy “Love Me Do” or the new Archie Shepp record. There was no crossover there. But in ’67, ’68, a lot of us were into jazz. At the time, I was doing jazz radio in Philadelphia on the University of Pennsylvania station. Little by little, I was getting turned on to album rock, progressive rock.
Actually, I remember a radio show that Leonard Feather did where he was extolling the virtues of Jefferson Airplane and other bands. So it wasn’t just people that were my age, 18 or 19, that were listening to this, but older people, too. We were really getting interested in a lot of these album rock groups, groups that were playing interesting stuff. If you wanted to hear what they did, you had to listen to the entire album.
A lot of us realized that this progressive rock would never get heard on top 40 radio, but it was really interesting, so we brought album cuts to FM radio. Little by little, that blossomed. This was a time when the only rock and roll on the air was essentially top 40. If it was Otis Redding playing, you were lucky. If it was the Archies or the Monkees, too bad—that’s what you heard.
Even I got sidetracked into that, for quite a few years. That sucked away part of the jazz audience. This is from a New York perspective. I don’t know what was going on elsewhere, but in New York there was a lot of avant-garde jazz music that was extremely militant or angry or both. That scared a lot of white kids away from the music. It also alienated a lot of middle-aged, black, urban-area people, both attitudinally and musically.
So some jazz players retreated back to organ soul records, and the white audience was getting sucked into the album rock thing. People like Horace Silver, Art Blakey, and Max Roach were left without an audience and without a platform.
This is all simplification, but the general trend was that everyone was being pulled into soul jazz or FM rock or avant-garde. And I don’t mean avant-garde like Andrew Hill—I mean avant-garde like screaming saxophones. The great art of hard bop was left to languish. As if those guys weren’t already in enough trouble, then fusion came along, which really put the nail in the coffin.
In the ’70s, I was very much involved in the loft scene with Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton, Oliver Lake, and those people. I was also involved in straight-ahead jazz with Woody Shaw, Bobby Hutcherson, and Dexter Gordon. This was all going on at the same time.
For the most part, though, the scene had shrunk drastically, to the point where, in the ’70s, a lot of music students coming up didn’t know Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” or “Speak like a Child.” All they knew was “Chameleon” and the Headhunters. They didn’t know Chick Corea in terms of the ’60s. All they knew was “Romantic Warrior” and Return to Forever. In the ’70s, a lot of these kids lost role models in the acoustic jazz tradition, so they turned to other avenues of expression—funk, R&B, fusion, whatever.
Wynton Marsalis was an anomaly. In the ’80s, when Wynton came along, there were not a lot of other young people his age that were schooled in and wanting to play acoustic jazz. There was like a hole in the talent stream that took a few years to build back up, and Wynton’s early notoriety may have helped build it back up more quickly than it would have otherwise.
I remember when Bruce and I restarted Blue Note in ’85, we were hard-put to find young guys that were in the tradition but also offered something new. We found Kenny Garrett and Geri Allen, but we were really shaking the bushes to find them. They weren’t around because there was this hole in the evolution, this time slot that was like a nether land.
Collectors Weekly: Tell us about the demise of Blue Note in the late ’70s.
Cuscuna: Blue Note had the misfortune of having one hit right after another. They had “The Sidewinder” and then “Song for My Father.” Both made the pop charts and sold tens of thousands of copies. Neither one was a record that anyone knew was going to be a hit. It’s not like Alfred or Lee Morgan or Horace Silver knew, “This is going to sell better than anything.” They didn’t have a clue, but it just organically hit.
In those days, independent labels had a different distributor in each territory, regional distributors. They had maybe 12 or 13 distributors throughout the country. You had to ship product 60 days before you get paid. That’s if you were lucky.
A lot of distributors never paid on time. Once you had a hit, they never paid you until you had another hit. When “The Sidewinder” was a hit, they were paying on time and ordering product up the wazoo. Once that faded away, they kept ordering but stopped paying. Alfred said, “I used to call them. You’re 120 days overdue on these invoices.” They would say, “When are you going to make another ‘Sidewinder’? Come on, make another ‘Sidewinder’ and I’ll pay you.”
Blue Note was drawn along. They couldn’t afford to press their inventory and keep the company going between hits because nobody was paying them.
After “Song for My Father” hit, it got to the point where they just couldn’t sustain it anymore. They didn’t have any cash reserves to float the company during the little dry pockets. So they had to sell it, and the buyer was Liberty Records in ’66.
Alfred was having some health problems, but he just couldn’t stand it. He said, “After running my own company for 30 years, I just couldn’t work for other people. They had these meetings and they had these forms, they had all this pointless stuff.”
Blue Note had become part of a larger bureaucratic company. They weren’t just doing everything alone anymore. They had a sales director. They had an art department. Reid Miles wasn’t doing the covers anymore—some other design agency was doing them. Everything got out of their control except for the music, recording the music. Alfred realized the mistake he’d made and just bailed.
Collectors Weekly: What was it like to have access to the Blue Note archives?
Cuscuna: The day I signed the deal and went into the vault was probably the greatest and worst day of my life. Charlie Lourie was with me. It was on 3rd Street in Los Angeles, right off of La Cienega. The Blue Note vault was on the second floor of this building down the block from the studio.
We walked in and there were all these Scotch 3M boxes of tape on shelf after shelf, row after row after row. I said, “This is great.” I cut open a cord that was wrapping all the six reels from a session, and it said Jackie McLean, April 14, 1963 or something. I opened it up, and there was no paper inside. There was nothing written on the back besides the artist name, the date, and the reel number.
So I went back down the street to the studio and said, “So where’s all the paperwork for this stuff?” They said, “There is none.”
My dream had come true, and now it was my worst nightmare. So I had to do things in a very convoluted way. Let’s say I had a Jackie McLean session from ’66. I would take the reels down the street and listen to them. I’d say, “That sounds like Elvin Jones, so it’s probably Jack DeJohnette. That sounds like Woody Shaw, but I’m not sure who the piano player is.”
Then I would call my friend Don Sickler in New York: “Find out what tunes Blue Note’s publishing company registered within 14 days after April 14, 1966.” He’d come back and say, “A Lamont Johnson tune, a Mickey Bass tune, two Woody Shaw tunes, and three Jackie McLean tunes.” Now I knew what the tunes were and who some of the musicians were. Then I’d send cassettes out to Jackie and to each of the musicians, and little by little we’d be able to identify the tunes and the sidemen, but it was a really painstaking process.
There were times when Blue Note almost went out of business.
A few years later, somebody in Japan found a Xerox copy of a file that Alfred had left that detailed most of the unissued sessions, which would’ve made my life a lot easier early on. But it was kind of fun and exciting to do the detective work myself. I think I probably got more out of it by doing it that way, the hard way, and then getting confirmation later.
There were a few people who were almost frightening, like Andrew Hill. One day in my apartment in 1974, I said to him, “You must have some unissued stuff.” He said that he did, and then he named a huge number of dates, plus every musician on every date. Later on when I was able to corroborate his memory, I found out that he only had one bass player wrong. Everything else was letter perfect. Musicians don’t usually remember that kind of stuff.
The greatest finds were the Monk material, especially the alternate take of “Well You Needn’t.” If that had been chosen as the master take, nobody ever would’ve played it because the way he plays the melody is so much more complex. It’s just brilliant and exciting.
I also found the rest of the Sonny Rollins live set at the Village Vanguard with Elvin and Wilbur Ware. There was also Lee Morgan. At the time, he was strung out, so he was always looking for advances and an excuse to make a record. Half the stuff that was unreleased was better than the stuff that was released. I found one album called “The Procrastinator” that was absolutely incredible.
The other junkie at the label at the time was Grant Green. He recorded an amazing amount of unreleased material that was not only truly magnificent, but different from what was coming out at the time. His records tended to be concept-driven—an album of Western songs or an album of spirituals.
Green’s unreleased albums were with Sonny Clark, Sam Jones, and Louis Hayes, with amazing playing by all concerned, but especially by Grant. I also found a couple albums by him with McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. These albums really shed a new light on Grant Green as a player. They added to the historical perspective of who Grant Green was.
Collectors Weekly: What was Blue Note like when it was revived under Bruce Lundvall?
Cuscuna: Bruce grew up loving Blue Note. When the opportunity came for him to come to EMI and revitalize the label, he jumped at the chance. Bruce never produced a record in his life; I think he’s been in a recording studio maybe three times in the 50 years he’s been in the business. But Bruce had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do with Blue Note.
When we first sat down, he hired me to put together a concert of all the old Blue Note giants, a Town Hall concert that we’d record and videotape to re-launch the label. Then he wanted me to do 20 reissues. Then he wanted me to stay and produce.
So we sat down and he laid out three areas to address. The first was recording Kenny Burrell, Freddie Hubbard, Tony Williams, Stanley Turrentine—any of the great people that were still around and still playing in the classic Blue Note sound. The second one was to find some young people to carry on the tradition. We both knew that we would have to really start beating the bushes and going to clubs and talking to musicians to find the young players.
And then he said, “This has to be a profitable label because we’re part of a corporation. We’ve got to have some hits. The only way I know of to have hits is to find unique artists who by their uniqueness and attractiveness will cross over.”
He thought that all of this would be an extension of the integrity of Blue Note Records, and I agreed. We did disagree about other things. I’m 13 years younger than Bruce, so I have a different kind of sensibility. I wanted to sign Bonnie Raitt and James Taylor and people like that. Bruce didn’t think they had a place in Blue Note.
I thought, on the other hand, Blue Note should represent adult music and quality, not just the jazz tradition. At the time, Alfred Lion told me that he was listening to a lot of Prince and Michael Jackson, so I realized that even Alfred wouldn’t just be doing what he used to do if he were still running the show.
At first we had a lot of younger groundbreaking players like Jason Moran and Greg Osby, a lot of great straight-ahead players. We did the best job we could.
But I was absolutely thrilled when Bruce signed Norah Jones. She was a jazz artist, playing piano and singing standards with an acoustic bass and a jazz drummer. When her demos started to show more pop and country directions, Bruce, with his whole concern about the integrity of Blue Note, offered to sign her to the Manhattan label, which was more pop-oriented. But Norah said, “No. I want to be on Blue Note. That’s who I signed with. I love that label. I grew up with that, and that’s where I want to be.”
Once her record came out on Blue Note, it opened up another avenue for all of us. First of all, we thought it might sell 200,000 copies. We would’ve been thrilled if it had done that, but it ended up selling 10-million copies on its own steam. It was very bizarre, one of those really bizarre things to watch happen.
After that, Bruce began to relax his jazz-only stance. Van Morrison came into the fold and wanted to be on Blue Note, and Bruce said fine. One day I called up Bruce and said, “I heard that Al Green and Willie Mitchell are back together again. I want to go down there. I want to make a deal, but I want to do it for Blue Note.” He said, “Okay. Fine.”
Then he signed Anita Baker. We were, for awhile, chasing James Taylor. There were all these other artists that were going to be on Blue Note. At the time, five years ago, I felt that made it more self-sustaining. Today I don’t know how you can make any label viable, even if you have Coldplay. I don’t know where things are going now. I only know it’s going to change drastically, at least for jazz.
Collectors Weekly: Why is it important for Blue Note to be around today?
Cuscuna: Two reasons. First is the importance of recording people like Jason Moran and Ambrose Akinmusire, who’s a young trumpet player. Ambrose brought in a tape that he had done live at the Jazz Standard, where the band included Gerald Clayton on piano and Walter Smith, Jr., on tenor. It was amazing; it was like hearing the Miles Davis band with Wayne Shorter and Tony Williams for the first time.
We went down to hear him at a club, and it was just breathtaking. This is what being in the record business is all about—being able to sign and record somebody like this for the first time with amazing music that’s rooted but breaking new ground. So he signed, and Ravi Coltrane has been signed. Blue Note captures great contemporary jazz.
The other role for Blue Note is, of course, the canon of great music, which serves the fans but also functions as a teaching course, as a curriculum for young players learning the music. When we first started in ’85, so much Blue Note stuff had been off the market for a long time, and I had a very aggressive release campaign on reissues.
To me, it was very important that young kids—16, 17, 18, even 14—would have access to all this great music. There’s a commonality of language that they all learn, and it takes an incredible degree of musicianship to get to that level. Great records create important teaching guides and standards for up-and-coming musicians.
Now, unfortunately, everything is available digitally, so I don’t know what the future of physical product is going to be with reissues. At this point, physical product is almost completely dead, and I don’t know if it’s going to get beyond that. I don’t know if we’re ever going to put out more CDs or if we’ll quietly put things up on iTunes and hope that people find it.
Collectors Weekly: What types of audiences does Mosaic Records target with the Blue Note reissues?
Cuscuna: Several. The record collector is one. The academic completist junkie is another, which would be a record collector taken to the extreme. I don’t mean that derogatorily; I’m one of them. Also young people, kids at the University of Miami or North Texas State studying trumpet who should really hear Bix, or Louis in his prime, or Woody Shaw. It’s amazing how many people in their early 20s are buying box sets from us.
There’s also another audience that we never expected to get: the coffee-table-book people. They’ll say, “I like jazz,” and they’ll call up and ask, “Hey, you have a Paul Desmond box. What’s he like? Is he like Sonny Stitt or is he different?” The last person in the world I expected to want a Mosaic set would be the neophyte just getting into the music.
Thankfully, it’s helped keep our doors open—we got the young people I was hoping for as well as the lunatics, and we also got this middle ground of people. It’s helping spread the music to a lot of people in different age groups.
Collectors Weekly: Can you give us an example of a super-collector or lunatic?
Cuscuna: My friend Larry Cohn is one of them. Larry’s got maybe 27 or 28 copies of “Blue Train,” all different—different pressings, different countries. He says, “There was a run of ‘Blue Trains’ where side A has the Lexington Avenue address on the label and side B has West 63rd Street.”
I said, “Larry, all that means is they ran out of one label and not the other and then the plant reprinted the labels, and when they got an order for more ‘Blue Trains,’ they grabbed a box of labels. There was no thought involved in this. It’s just all physical stuff.” And he said, “Yes, I know, but I find it fascinating.” I said, “Okay.” He’s deep into that. In fact, he and Fred Cohen of the Jazz Record Center are about to put out a Blue Note collectors’ guide that includes a lot of that stuff.