Still from "Blue Note."
Saxophonist Wayne Shorter from "Blue Note Records."

Film tells tale of Jews who gave jazz a golden spindle

One can make the case that the be-bop wing of jazz took flight because its greatest progenitors found a home at a money-losing little record company called Blue Note Records.

And Blue Note itself took flight thanks to its unlikely co-founders, a pair of Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany, who came to America with little else than a shared passion for jazz.

Documentary filmmaker Sophie Huber makes that case in “Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes,” which makes its Bay Area premiere at this year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Spanning the label’s 75-year history, from its beginnings as a purveyor of Dixieland to its contemporary incarnation as a jazz/hip-hop hybrid, the film focuses on the freedom that artists such as John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis embraced as they revolutionized jazz in the 1950s and 1960s.

In interviews, stars such as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter pay deference to Blue Note founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, the German Jews who launched the label in the 1940s.

Though the film spends more time probing the music and post-modern album cover art that typified the Blue Note style, Lion and Wolff’s unconditional love was the key to the label’s success.

The two treated their musicians, most of them African American, as equals, something almost unheard of in the early days of the record business. As Hancock says of the two, they allowed “the music to emerge without being shackled.”

Neither Lion nor Wolff were musicians, but both were extreme fans of jazz, and that respect opened the door for a new approach. Making money was not their first concern. Rather, they mastered the art of getting the hell out of the way, encouraging their artists to compose original music that ended up changing jazz forever.

The film features plenty of glorious music from Blue Note’s golden age, as well as a continuous montage of cover art, most of it utilizing pictures taken in the studio by Wolff, a gifted photographer. As current Blue Note President Don Was says of the label’s classic iconography, “The Beatles looked cool. Jimi Hendrix looked cool. These guys looked cooler.”

The Blue Note story takes an unexpected twist when a couple of massive hits by Horace Silver and Lee Morgan — the first hits in the company’s history — boxed the label into a financial corner in the mid-1960s. Victims of their own financial success, Lion and Wolff sold the label to a larger company.

The mystique lived on, though in evolving forms. The label enjoyed its biggest sales success by far with the 2001 debut album by Norah Jones, which sold 50 million copies worldwide.

For true fans, the film captures a sensational Blue Note all-star recording session featuring old guard stars Hancock and Shorter performing Shorter’s “Masqualero” with the young lions of the label, among them pianist Robert Glasper.

Though younger generations of jazz artists never knew Wolff or Lion personally, it’s clear in Huber’s film that the musical freedom these artists enjoy today was born of two old German Jews and the playground they built for geniuses.

“Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes,” 3:35 p.m. Saturday, July 21 at the Castro Theater in S.F., and 4:05 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 5,at the Piedmont Theatre in Oakland. SFJFF.org

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.