Blue Note was also a record label of the 40s-60s, famous musically for their immense catalogue of seminal jazz albums, famous graphically for their characteristic duotone covers. They recorded mainly in the bebop/hard bop/afflafflabop tradition, featuring Thelonious Monk (whose career was notably built by Blue Note to a great extent, in the face of a lengthy period of poor sales and critical reception), Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, titans of their era of jazz, as well as less famous, yet typically highly respected, musicians such as Art Blakey, Hank Mobley, Herbie Hancock and Ornette Coleman. Commenting on these various albums would be a Herculean task and certainly beyond the scope of this one writeup; there are, in short, probably jazz aficionados out there who could build play forts out of nothing but their Blue Note vinyls. Laid flat.
The label was founded in 1939 by one Albert Lion, a German Jew who supposedly immigrated to New York in the 20s entirely out of love for jazz music; soon after establishing the label, he was joined by his longtime friend Francis Wolff, who had inexplicably begun to find Berlin hostile. The first Blue Note recording, made before the arrival of Wolff, was a dual feature of the piano playing of »Lux« Lewis and Albert Ammons, though I will be fucked sideways if I can find any information on the form in which it was released; the last made under the auspices of Lion himself, a renowned workaholic, was Lou Donaldson's Alligator Bogaloo.
An important fixture of Blue Note from 1952 on was deranged genius sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder, whose obsession with detail and sound quality meshed well with Lion's own meticulousness — he would pay his session musicians to rehearse for days before recording, a unique act in the industry at that time — and gave Blue Note's records incomparably high quality. This is perhaps all the more remarkable since Van Gelder's original studio was more commonly known as »his parents' living room«; however, in time, Van Gelder's skill came to be sought after by a great many jazz labels and he was able to have a dedicated studio built in scenic Englewood, New Jersey, with carefully planned acoustics. Van Gelder was not without his critics, however — Lion himself would often chide him gently for laying on too much reverb, and Charles Mingus refused to record with him, claiming that he »changed the sound«. Given, however, that Mingus was even more obsessive by several orders of magnitude, and also famous for his volatile personality, this perhaps does not say much about Van Gelder's skills.
Despite these massive musical achievements, the fact is that, taken in hindsight, the innovative cover designs of the 50s were probably more influential than the music they enclosed; certainly they were the greatest innovation of the label itself, as opposed to the music, which they merely recorded. Most of you reading this have probably never seen one, but you almost certainly know what they look like: monochrome photographs, typically of the headlining musician himself, tinted (frequently some shade of blue), with titles &c. arranged in what was fairly bold typography for the time, typically along the top of the image. The exemplar of the style is probably the cover of Blue Train, John Coltrane's 1957 classic. The covers became so popular that other labels immediately began to ape them; for instance, Coltrane's own A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965; recorded, incidentally, at Van Gelder Studio, Englewood, NJ) displays a blatant influence. The style bled from there into the rest of the field of graphic design and has had a great deal of lasting impact.
The photographs were primarily the work of founder Francis Wolff himself, who took copious amounts of pictures during recording, to the point of Lion complaining that he was »clicking up my takes, Francis!«; the design was the work of one Reid Miles. Andy Warhol also did a few covers for Blue Note, which I guess is sort of a big deal these days, although Lord knows why.
These days the Blue Note catalogue is owned by EMI, not that it really makes a difference which one of them it is. Their CD releases of the catalogue tend to contain masses of bonus tracks in the form of alternate takes, made possible by Lion's characteristic care — most labels of the day would just record and have done with it, whereas Lion paid the musicians to play until he got a take the way he wanted it. Few people would argue, I think, that it didn't pay off, artistically or economically. Blue Note somewhat bombastically claims in its logo to be »The Finest In Jazz Since 1939«; perhaps more fitting is Alfred Lion's own classic assessment of his life's work: »Yeah, dot's fenky.«