Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes – Film Review

The film successfully builds a bridge. With reflections from jazz lions like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, the foundation of the crucial jazz label is built. Musicians signed more recently to the label admit to standing in the shadows of the jazz giants that came before, but they are confident in charting new territory.

The still imagery used in the film is magnificent, the dozens of album covers evoking magnificent works of art that remain influential today. Each musician on the label is introduced with the year signed to Blue Note.

Rudy Van Gelder, noted engineer, provides historical perspective on how the label’s founders were chased out of Nazi Germany. The seeming ease with which the neophyte founders could “put out records they liked” is an amazing story. Shorter and Hancock marvel at how the founders had no real intention “to make a hit.”

More recent artists (Robert Glasper, Norah Jones, Don Was) provide contemporary perspective, against the backdrop of vintage footage and more recent recording sessions.

Filmmaker Sophie Huber first met Was when she was making a documentary on Harry Dean Stanton. Was played bass on a few tracks, and they stayed in touch. Huber was commissioned by the BBC to do a film about Blue Note, and funding was raised in Europe.

Wayne Shorter, Sophie Huber, Don Was

With jazz generally regarded as the only truly original American art form, Blue Note plays a pivotal role in musical history. Essential albums were recorded for the label by the likes of Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Art Blakey. Not each of those artists was critically received immediately, but that did not deter the label from sticking to their vision. The groundbreaking nature of those artists’ work on Blue Note shaped and reshaped the art of jazz.

The early footage of the enigmatic Monk is compelling, and Was (Blue Note’s current label president) speaks eloquently about the era. The label’s next pivotal pianist Bud Powell further burnished the label’s prominence. Seminal dates with Miles Davis imprinted the label’s importance.

WAYNE SHORTER / saxophone / on Blue Note since 1964
“When we were in the studio at that time, in the 60s, we questioned whether or not what we were doing would be heard, what effect would it have 20 years from then? Will it do anything in the world, will it create some kind of value? The kind of value you can’t put a price on.”

The label soon grew out of recording in Van Gelder’s parent’s living room, and a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright was hired to build a proper studio. The cathedral ceiling was integral to the resulting sound of the records.

The seemingly lost art of album photography and design is well-represented in Huber’s film. Fans of newer jazz will enjoy the film’s last third, where Shorter and Hancock talk about and undertake collaboration with younger artists. Also interesting is the art vs commerce discussion the label faced with two unexpected hit albums in 1966 from Horace Silver and Lee Morgan. The label chose the path of art. The film also veers into the role of hip hop and jazz samples. Norah Jones was a breakout artist for the label a couple decades ago, bringing fresh blood and focus to the label.

The film has already garnered a bouquet of well-deserved prizes at film festivals, and it is enjoying a sprinkling of theatrical releases across the nation.



Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.