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Reviewed by:
  • Blue Note: A Story of Modern Jazz dir. by Julian Benedikt
  • Maristella Feustle
Blue Note: A Story of Modern Jazz. DVD (Blu-ray). Directed by Julian Benedikt. [Berlin]: EuroArts, 1997, 2015. 2005674. $29.99.

Blue Note: A Story of Modern Jazz tells the story of Alfred Lion, Francis Wolff, and the record label they founded. In a genre such as jazz, where the recorded performance takes precedence over the printed page as a “work,” Blue Note had a far-reaching impact on “sound, style, and technical standards,” particularly in the “hard bop” genre. It is fortunate that the film was made while so many of the musicians it featured were still alive; many have died since its release in 1997 (Bob Belden, Freddie Hubbard, J.J. Johnson, and others).

Originally a made-for-television movie, Blue Note is highly accessible to a general audience, and notably gives extensive space for interludes of music, accompanied by film excerpts and Wolff’s photos. The soundtrack repertory is well chosen and representative of the label, with classics including “Sidewinder,” (Lee Morgan), “Blue Train” (John Coltrane), and “Un Poco Loco” (Bud Powell). The film does not neglect Wolff and his photography, but it is decidedly more focused on Alfred Lion, and on Blue Note’s musicians.

A section on sampling of the label’s recordings in rap and hip-hop remains thought provoking almost two decades after the film’s premiere. Blue Note foreshadows the segment with sampled material before the chapter which specifically discusses sampling. The discussion invites speculation on whether sampling jazz records in current popular music may lead fans of the latter back to the former. It also demonstrates how sampling extends the cultural memory of “standard” tunes, and may charge the work which appropriates it with a broader range of meaning in the ear of the beholder. Blue Note’s positive attitude toward sampling, rather than being cynical or alarmist, is still a novel approach.

Blue Note does leave the viewer wanting more, however. While recalling that the film was made for a general audience, it is natural for a researcher to wish for more interview footage; in addition to being a work unto itself, Blue Note thus also serves as a directory of primary sources for further exploration.

Maristella Feustle
University of North Texas


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