Blue Note Records: The Biography
Blue Note Records: The Biography
by Richard Cooke

Justin, Charles & Co., May 2003
ISBN: 1932112103
review by Greg Masters
copyright © 2003 Greg Masters

This history of the label that brought hard bop to market sometimes drags with the arcane details of individual recording sessions, but ultimately the profile that emerges sustains a reader's attention with the momentum of a dramatic narrative.

As we proceed through the decades, the story weaves from the label issuing semi-popular LPs to the music's evolution to an art form fashioned for connoisseurs, its popular appeal skewered. Along the way, the vast catalog is assessed in a sober accounting, valuable as a buyer's guide, perhaps too tedious for the general reader.

While Cooke's passion for the label is evident, he retains a critical ear throughout, never descending into the sort of hyperbole often used in similar investigations. He points out clunkers and rescues some achievements from obscurity. Though one can argue with his assessment of individual players -- Herbie Nichols fails to garner the accolades he deserves, and Cooke's dismissal of Elmo Hope as an "oddball" is unsettling -- there's no quibbling with the author's thorough listening.

The picture that emerges is not just of a catalog of titles, but a look into a family stable of musicians sharing sideman duties, blending into ensemble units and shining as individual voices, all of this fostered by the nurturing vision of founders Alfred Lion and Francis Woolf, and eventually preserved and resuscitated by Michael Cuscuna and Bruce Lundvall.

The final section of the book assesses the changes in the record industry over the past few years, consolidation leading to corporatization, making it nearly impossible to sustain what Blue Note did -- nurture an environment where musicians could come together in always shifting ensembles to forge oftentimes brilliant music.

Greg Masters writes music and book reviews for a number of print and online publications. He can be reached at

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