Change (Makes You Wanna Hustle)– Blue Note till it wasn’t Blue Note Anymore

Change (Makes You Wanna Hustle)– Blue Note till it wasn’t Blue Note Anymore

Change is an inevitable part of the universe. Matter and humankind  are born, they morph, they die.  “Change, (Makes You Wanna Hustle)” the title of the Mizell Brothers track on Donald Byrd‘s 1975 hit album Places and Spaces had a point.  Likewise, since the record industry shift to streaming, the old model of buying physical media has shifted, and what’s left of old guard corporate conglomerates shuffle to try to make sense of the current climate.  I’ve been a Blue Note Records fan forever, and the label has a massive historical imprint on the music we call Black American Music or jazz, but the label is nothing more than a brand now— it’s a far cry from what label founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, both German immigrants who fled Nazi Germany began in 1939.  Blue Note was Blue Note until it wasn’t anymore.


Lion and Wolff  were at the cutting edge of jazz, recording everyone from Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Sidney Bechet, to plunging into modern jazz, taking a risk no one one wanted to take, recording an individual pianist by the name of Thelonious Monk, and also utilizing the services of a then little known optometrist by day, recording engineer by night, Rudy Van Gelder.  They’d push further by signing Jimmy Smith, a musician who played the novel Hammond organ, which had primarily a place in churches and skating rinks.  With one seismic shockwave on his second album A New Sound A New Star Volume 2,  “The Champ”, the organ became a modern jazz instrument overnight. Lion and Wolff would ride the crest of the hard bop wave with Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Hank Mobley and Lee Morgan.   When the pair sold the label to Liberty in 1966, lots of defining music followed, then a sale to Transamerica Corporation and United Artists in 1971, while artists like Donald Byrd had their biggest successes, the label crashed by 1980– lying inactive until 1984, but a major concert at Town Hall reactivated the label in 1985–and  if it wasn’t for the concert, One Night With Blue Note, subsequently released as a 4 LP/CD and dual volume concert film, the label wouldn’t be where it is today.  What I will say is this: Don Was is following the original label mission by featuring, interesting, individualistic music, but there’s a point where some of it is like “what is this?”

Blue Note has a lot of great artists, like the phenomenal keyboardist James Francies, the saxophonist Melissa Aldana, pianist Gerald Clayton,  but then there are also signings that were head scratchers, like Roseann Cash, and the keyboardist with Tom Petty (though that was a really good album) but every now and then I get press releases from them that make me go “huh?” For example DOMi and JD Beck, which is a co production with Anderson Paak’s label Apeshit Music.  Ok, I get it– expanding the audience great, but for every callback to the label’s past like Ronnie Foster resigning  or a Tone Poet reissue; there’s a point where, the rebranding of Blue Note is such to the point it’s not Blue Note anymore, it might as well be a complete rebrand. There’s the recent Blue Note Africa label, but for these other projects like DOMi and JD Beck, create some sort of sub label of Blue Note.  There used to be Blue Note Contemporary and Metro Blue in the 90’s.  Sort of like  the way Concord Jazz was after founder Carl Jefferson died: they aren’t claiming to be that label anymore, a traditional, heavy purist jazz label.  So Blue Note shouldn’t necessarily claim to be The Finest In Jazz Since 1939 in all cases, some projects go far outside the purview.  There’s also new remix albums with Blue Note Re:imagined, cool, no problem with that, but 1996’s The New Groove, Volume 1 anyone?


In case no one got the memo— there was a rebranding of Blue Note that started around under the auspices of the infamous Dr. George Butler in 1973 and reached its peak with the “Blue Note Hits A New Note” campaign in 1976, yeah… that one… it practically killed the label for years.  After the rechristening of the brand in 1984, the label pumped out some incredibly dated, forgettable messes like Bill Evans (saxophonist) The Alternative Man (and what was that supposed to be?) to startling debuts like Stanley Jordan’s Magic Touch to some very good and great music the likes of Tony Williams, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, John Scofield and Don Pullen.  The label was still hitting a wall despite cranking out albums in the late 80’s and early 90’s– no one really knows about them unless you were around then. If albums sold under 500 copies, they were deleted, and until 2002 when Norah Jones Come Away With Me became a surprise hit, Blue Note was in trouble again.  For the fans of Gogo Penguin and DOMi and JD Beck, are they gonna go the extra mile to collect Tone Poet’s and dare I say CD’s of deep catalog items like Charnett Moffett Net Man or the aforementioned One Night With Blue Note Preserved (which to this day is unavailable streaming and there is much unreleased music from the concert)? I think you know the answer. Change (Makes You Wanna Hustle)


Shizuka Shearn is a lifelong Blue Note Records fan, collector and historian who takes pride in her audiophile Blue Note Analogue Productions SACD and Blue Note Audiowave XRCD collections