"It Must Schwing!": Harvard Celebrates Blue Note Records

by Gabrielle Lochard

As part of a year-long celebration of Blue Note Records, a series of talks, a photo exhibition and film screenings last week at Harvard highlighted the label’s history. The week culminated in a performance on April 14 at Sanders Theatre, where the featured attractions were the Harvard Jazz Bands, directed by Tom Everett and Mark Olson, and guest artists Greg Osby and Joe Lavano.

The program, dedicated to the late musician and composer Sam Rivers, was a sweeping retrospective, which at once covered Rivers’ career, the history of Blue Note, and the history of jazz since the label’s founding in 1939 by German immigrants Alfred Lion and Max Margulis. Head bobbing abounded (as did foot tapping, probably, but that was all strictly under the benches). In a mid-concert talk, Michael Cuscuna, who has been a major figure in the revival of Blue Note and in the recent history of the label, pointed out that this was an event centered around a record label, as opposed to an individual composer or era. That's indicative of the weightiness that Blue Note has accrued over the decades that it has been active.

For Cuscuna, the interest in Blue Note began early.

"The draw of Blue Note began when I was about 12-years old around 1960-61," Cuscuna told me. "I grew up in Stamford, Connecticut, so New York was completely accessible. It was the jazz capital of the world. There were a lot of recordings going on and a lot of clubs, but there was something about Blue Note that separated itself from other jazz labels at the time. What we didn’t intellectualize at the time was that Blue Note found a way to get people to write new material and get in the studio to nail it while the players were still fresh. So there were also great solos. Unlike most of the jazz labels of the day, where a record was you gather a bunch of names and got together a jam session, Blue Note paid for rehearsals, which no other label did at the time. All of those elements, all of that preparation, created a body of work that’s really unparalleled in the jazz world."

Osby's and Lavano’s contributions were evidence that this standard has continued into Blue Note's present-day activity. Osby’s set with the Monday Jazz Band began with an improvisational call to order, a shot of light brought in by the virtuosity of his alto sax playing. During the second half of the program, Lavano and Osby came together for a free improvisation, in which one could only marvel at the intimacy of their dialogue and the skill of their spontaneity.

Throughout the concert, Lavano and Osby pulled student musicians along with them, and dialogue onstage seemed to be as much about performance as about pedagogy. The benefits of this kind exposure were part of what motivated Cuscuna in his efforts to reissue Blue Note sessions: "When we re-started the label, we started signing new artists and recording them, and at the same time we started a very aggressive re-issuing campaign. In 1985, there had been a draught in jazz, so what we were doing was reintroducing a lot of the classic repertoire, which is important for the foundation of every young musician today. Not having these recordings would be like studying viola and not having access to the Beethoven quartets. It’s not just about mastering the instrument, but also about learning a language. That’s a language that Blue Note created, and it’s still very much viable."

[Caption: Saxophonist/composer Joe Lovano performs with the Harvard Jazz Band rhythm section at Sanders Theatre (photo by Mark Olson).]