Blue Note Nuggets, Vol. 1: 1939-1954
by Seth Colter Walls | April 8, 2014
In honor of Blue Note's 75th anniversary, we're launching a series that takes a look back at hits and obscurities from one of the most important catalogs in all of jazz. From blues to hard bop -- and onto fusion and the avant-garde -- Blue Note has been there. Now you can be, too!
Before Blue Note became the home of hard bop -- and before it had developed its iconic cover-art style -- it was just a way for super-fan Alfred Lion to spread his love for jazz. Not yet powerful enough to help shape the direction of the genre, his label at first contented itself with reflecting the variety of already-existing approaches to swing. That meant the "Boogie Woogie Blues" of Albert Ammons, and "The Blues Part 1" of Meade "Lux" Lewis, both recorded early in 1939. The New Orleans influence was carried on the label by (among others) Sidney Bechet, starting with "Summertime," in 1939. (Our attached playlist has a particular affection for Bechet's later take on "Jackass Blues," too.)
Click play on our mix, and you'll hear that Blue Note had good taste, right from the drop. Released on 78s of the 10" and 12" variety, the first few dozen cuts released by the label boasted all sorts of heavy hitters. There was Pete Johnson's "Barrelhouse Breakdown." And then there was stride piano innovator James P. Johnson, who led a group of "Blue Note Jazzmen" in the early 1940s.
On these sides, Johnson may not have been in as highly rambunctious a mood as in his solo sides from the late 1920s and early 1930s (which you can find in our Late Night Piano playlist dedicated to him), but he was still churning out interesting new compositions, such as "Victory Stride." (Most often, it appears in compilations dedicated to saxophonist Ben Webster, but back in the early 1940s, Johnson got top billing as bandleader.) Other records cut by Johnson in this period included his versions of "Tishomingo Blues." And then there are his comparatively rare solo performances, like "Mule Walk (Stomp)."
The big leap forward for the label, though, came in 1947, when Blue Note recorded the Thelonious Monk sextet in the piece named after its revolutionary leader. "Thelonious" was hardly the end of their relationship, though, as Blue Note proceeded to record the balance of tunes that would make up both original volumes of Genius of Modern Music. (Our playlist features "Well You Needn't," "'Round Midnight," "Evonce" and "Ruby My Dear." But why not go ahead and add that whole album to your library?)
After recording Monk, the floodgates were more than open to the new, thrillingly fast and melodically abstract sounds of bop. Clifford Brown ("Brownie Speaks"), Art Blakey ("The Thin Man") and Horace Silver ("Opus De Funk") wouldn't be far behind. Miles Davis shows up in our mix, too, with "Tempus Fugit," a piece written by Bud Powell, whose own early recordings ("Un Poco Loco," "Dance of the Infidels" and "Glass Enclosure") assured that Blue Note's brand was strong, right as the 78 rpm recording came to an end. In our next edition of Blue Note Nuggets, we'll tackle the label's first long-playing records. Until then, dig into these 50 immortal tunes!