Few genres are as protective of their past as jazz. Some might say it's all they've got.
The discipline is largely defined by the classic record labels that brought the sounds to the masses. Jazz nerds will argue the superiority of one golden recording era versus another just as stubbornly as basketball fans argue Kobe vs. LeBron.
So when, in early 2002, inoffensive songstress Norah Jones won the multi-platinum sweepstakes with her debut album Come Away With Me, it was a little surprising to see Blue Note Records — easily one of the greatest jazz labels ever — stamped on the back of those millions of CDs. Although Jones is hardly the only one to blame for diverting Blue Note's legacy, nearly a decade later it appears that the road has been permanently forked.
Tomorrow, December 2, adopted-Angeleno and current Blue Note artist Priscilla Ahn will provide her brand of low-key pop/folk for an evening at the El Rey. Her demure songs, aided on record by other sun-dappled six-stringers like Eleni Mandell and Charlie Wadhams, float by on whispered optimism and barefoot promises. She is a gentle and talented songwriter with a pure voice that would never have lasted a minute on Blue Note, had it not been for Norah Jones.
Started in 1939 by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, the imprint hit its stride following World War II by recording some of the most significant jazz musicians of the era in a no-frills environment. Entire albums were often recorded in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey over the course of an afternoon with a carton of cigarettes. Theirs was a “good enough” approach, that succeeded largely because of the artists involved, including Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, John Coltrane, and Art Blakey.
In the mid-'90s the label released the work of mainstream hip-hop troupe Us3, who used the imprint's back catalog as source material. They were also Blue Note's first million selling act. Before long saw the emergence of Jones, who had dabbled in the New York jazz scene. She included standards like “The Nearness of You” on her debut, but the work was still a bit of a fluke for Blue Note. When that fluke went on to sell more records than their entire catalog — combined — she became the centerpoint of a unfortunate re-branding. This has led management to redirect much of the focus of a great jazz history towards radio hits and soccer moms.
These days Blue Note is equally divided between young jazz musicians like trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Robert Glasper and dusty coffeehouse strummers like Amos Lee. (Not to mention a moonlighting Jeff Bridges.) Former CEO Bruce Lundvall was recently replaced by Don Was, who has made more of a name for himself producing records for the B-52s and Garth Brooks than for preserving the legacy of jazz.
Thus, performers like Jones and Ahn have been tasked with revitalizing a record label that they have very little historical connection to. Their recordings make it fairly clear that they are not looking to follow in the footsteps of Thelonious Monk.
This is not their fault, of course, but it's a distressing sign of the times, and goes against the principles that have long buoyed jazz. Pianist/songwriter Mose Allison once said in an interview that he refused to record an album with the famed Muscle Shoals rhythm section in the mid 60s. “If it was a hit I would have to keep doing them. If it failed I'd probably lose my recording contract. So I passed.”
Now that Blue Note has had a hit they have been forced to decide between making jazz or making money. Is there any question about which goal is winning?