Hitting the Blue Note in Jerusalem

The stirring tale of a stellar recording outfit graces the capital’s Jewish Film Festival

The stirring tale of a stellar recording outfit graces the capital’s Jewish Film Festival (photo credit: Courtesy)
The stirring tale of a stellar recording outfit graces the capital’s Jewish Film Festival
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Simply put, jazz today would be a very different prospect had it not been for a couple of German Jewish refugees who escaped Hitler’s clutches in the late 1930s. The said gents, a certain Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, were responsible for founding and maintaining the Blue Note record label from 1939 through to the mid-’60s. The company still exists, 80 years on, but now under different ownership.
The incredible, stirring and emotive tale of the stellar recording outfit is told in Eric Friedler’s lovingly and painstakingly crafted documentary quirkily titled It Must Schwing: The Blue Note Story, which will be shown at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, as part of this year’s Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival (December 19-26). Screenings will take place on December 19 and 20, 5:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., respectively.
The roll call of jazz giants whose work has been captured for posterity on Blue Note reads like a Who’s Who of the art form’s pantheon. Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, Ron Carter, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and so many more all benefited from Lion’s and Wolff’s guiding hands and support, which were almost limitlessly provided across the board.
There are several subthemes that come up in the documentary. One inescapable conclusion is that the owners, and particularly Lion, were totally devoted to Blue Note, to the point of obsession. Lorraine Gordon, Lion’s first wife, who later became owner of the famous Village Vanguard jazz club in New York City’s Greenwich Village neighborhood, left Lion because he didn’t want to have children. “Blue Note is my baby,” he says in one of the many seamlessly inserted animation slots in the tale.
There are numerous subtexts to the narrative which cover a wide range of topics. The Holocaust is, naturally, in there with, apparently, Wolff getting out of Nazi Germany on the last boat to sail for New York that was not subjected to inspection by the Gestapo, in October 1939. Lion left earlier. Then there is the incredibly incongruous fact that it took a couple of German Jews to champion the cause of the downtrodden African-American jazz artist.
While Friedler doesn’t give the impression of being fixated with the legendary record label, It Must Schwing was certainly a labor of love.
“I think all films are, somehow, made with a labor of love,” says the filmmaker, who was born in Australia to Jewish German parents who returned with him to Hamburg when he young.
Even so, The Blue Note documentary is special to him. “Yes, I’m a jazz fan, too. My father had a small collection of Blue Note records, so I was somehow introduced to that at a young age. Later on I forgot about jazz, but the older you get, the more you get back connected to jazz,” says the 65-year-old filmmaker. “You fall in love again.”
Before we go any further, the strange film title begs some explaining. It seems that Lion and Wolff never lost their thick German accent in English, as is clear from the archival footage with some comments by Lion. Wolff was a retiring character, so we never get to hear him speak on camera.
We are told by Golson, and others, that Lion – who was responsible for most of the company’s operations, while Wolff, an accomplished photographer, was less hands-on – was not a musician, but that “he had the feel.”
“That’s right,” says Friedler. “It must schwing,” he laughs. “The most critical thing Alfred Lion could say to a musician during a recording was, you know, it has to shving [the ‘w’ becomes ‘v’ in German]. It must schving. That gave the title of the film, which is, of course, a very obscure title, but it shows, you know, also where they came from.”
The incongruity of the Africa-American German Jewish matchup comes up at various junctures in the documentary.
“The musicians made fun of them, because of their accent, and sometimes they didn’t even really understand what they were saying, because the accent was so German and so deep,” Friedler notes.
But, although initially apprehensive – in the States of the 1930s-1950s, long before the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King came on the scene, who could blame them? – the artists gradually realized that Lion and Wolff were on their side, and learned to appreciate their dedication and support.
Slipping animated sections into a documentary can be a tricky business. If not done well, it comes across as a contrived patchwork effort, to compensate for the lack of film footage of the particular subject. That is definitely not the case with the Friedler effort. The animation plays an organic role in the unfolding narrative, and conveys the episode in question in succinct fashion.
“We found some audio recordings with the voices of Alfred and Francis, in the German language, made by a very famous music and jazz critic called Alfred T. Vogel, who is also in animation in the film. So there is his voice, and I always thought, How can you bring all these voices to life again? Just showing photos wouldn’t be enough. And we have so much to say, and so many stories to tell. You can either do that with actors or you have to do it with animation.”
It was an inspired choice and puts the viewer right there – for example, when Lion and Wolff go to the threadbare apartment of iconic pianist, one of the founding fathers of modern jazz, the mercurial Monk. You really get the vibe as the Blue Note pair settle down on a bed, sitting next to Monk’s wife, as the groundbreaking artist works his magic on the ivories. It is a touching moment, and one that demonstrates Lion’s and Wolff’s dedication to the art form and their deep love of the music, and the artists who created it.
IT WAS jazz that brought the Berliner pair together. One day, back in the ‘Roaring Twenties,’ a billboard advertising a concert by the Sam Wooding Orchestra caught 16-year-old Lion’s eye. He found his way into the auditorium and was gobsmacked by the sights and sounds that careened over him from the stage. Wolff had also come along to the show, was similarly smitten, and the two became fast friends.
Lion first got out of Germany long before Hitler took over, in 1926, and worked in the New York docks. However, racism reared its ugly head there, too, and, after being beaten up by an anti-immigrant fellow worker, he returned to Germany to convalesce. In 1933 he moved to South America and worked for German import-export companies, returning to New York only in 1938. Lion’s epiphanic moment came when he attended a concert, in the From Spirituals to Swing series at Carnegie Hall, and he was duly inspired to found his own record label.
But, while Lion and, later, Wolff, were all agog at the musical vibes they encountered in the Big Apple, they were in for a rude awakening. They discovered that African-American jazz artists were discriminated against, and largely ignored, by the general public in the US, the discipline’s homeland.
Friedler says it was perfectly natural for the Berliners not only to be drawn to the sounds and energies of black music, but also to offer some fresh input. “The Europeans always had another way of love to jazz, while, for the Americans, OK, so it was a music genre. But when Alfred came to the United States, he thought that the icons he fell in love with would have statues [put up] and get a lot of recognition, but he found out that the musicians he loved and adored so much were discriminated against, and he was disappointed.”
Possibly that made him even more determined to give the artists their due. He was the first to pay artists for rehearsing ahead of a recording session, and he always made sure they had tasty solid and liquid sustenance to hand. He’d bring them to the recording studio – initially that meant setting things up in Lion’s living room – and send them home by taxi.
Lion and Wolff either didn’t care about the sociopolitical ramifications of their befriending and working with black musicians, or were so driven by their quest that they simply didn’t notice the peripheral white noise. At one stage they got legendary sound engineer Rudy Van Gelder on board, and ferried the artists to Van Gelder’s home, where his recording studio was located, in an all-white neighborhood in New Jersey. The documentary includes a moving interview with Van Gelder, his last before he died at the age of 91 after a long and illustrious career.
It is interesting to note the unspoken “pact” between some American Jews and African-Americans.
Barney Josephson is a case in point, as is Abel Meeropol. The latter was a Jewish English-teacher who also wrote songs and poets under his pseudonym of Lewis Allan. He is best known for writing the chilling lyrics of “Strange Fruit,” in 1937, a song about the lynching of African-Americans in the Deep South. After a slew of artists, including black musicians, refused to record the protest song, because they felt it was politically too hot to handle, Billie Holiday agreed to take it on and convinced Jewish record producer Milt Gabler to get it down on wax. Holiday also performed the number at the Café Society jazz venue in Harlem, owned by Josephson, the only place blacks and whites could listen to jazz together.
While Friedler pointed out that injustices suffered by African-Americans and the annihilation of six million Jews in the Holocaust are not in the same category, he feels that Lion and Wolff were sensitive to the black musicians’ lot.
“I think, for Alfred and Francis, it was a natural thing to behave in the way they behaved,” he says. “They saw them as equals, and somehow supported the music. They supported the music but also the artists, who did not have a chance to get to the right label. Actually, Blue Note was one of the first [jazz] labels owned by white people, and which also put the faces and pictures of these musicians on the record cover.” Of course, the vast majority of the artists in question were black, and other record companies generally preferred to put abstract noncommittal artwork on their covers.
Besides the artistic gems captured by Blue Note over the years, the visual aesthetics of the album sleeves are a wonder to behold. Much of that is down to the delectable shots taken by Wolff, but also the designer acumen of Reid Miles, who, apparently, was even particularly into jazz.
At the end of the day, it is all about the music, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that, without Lion’s and Wolff’s almost obsessive devotion to jazz, our understanding of the art form would be very different and far more limited.
“Out of over 1,000 recordings [on Blue Note], probably 900-950 are classics to this day,” Friedler notes. The filmmaker feels that record label’s back catalogue informs all kinds of fields. “You can hear this music again and again, they will stay classics forever, and are used in advertisements up to this day, or in films. A lot of people don’t even know where this music is coming from. These are standards which influenced other musicians, too, like, of course, good music always influences others, like good literature or good films.”
After eight decades Blue Note is still very much a going concern, and keeping the embers of Lion’s and Wolf’s love of jazz glowing brightly.
For tickets and more information: *9377 and www.jer-cin.org.il