The belief that jazz is not marginal but essential drove the success of the fabled 75-year-old Blue Note label, which attracted geniuses such as Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis, and made jazz seem ineffably cool. A thrilling Blue Note at 75 celebration at the London jazz festival showed how well the label’s current guardians and players measure up.
The saxophonist Ian Hendrickson-Smith has caught his share of deflected stardust: as a former foot soldier with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, as a hired gun for the likes of Al Green and as a member of “The Tonight Show” band (which is to say, the Roots). For the rest of this year, as part of the Loston Harris Trio, he’ll appear Thursday through Saturday nights at Bemelmans Bar, the hobnobby lounge in the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan.
“Live at Smalls,” Mr. Hendrickson-Smith’s new album, belongs to a different scale of accomplishment. It’s a sturdy, uncomplicated set of vintage-style soul jazz, recorded in one of New York’s least pretentious clubs, possibly as an afterthought. If it’s a token of artistic independence, it’s a modest one. But the welcoming gleam in Mr. Hendrickson-Smith’s playing, and the assertive support of a rhythm section with David Hazeltine on piano, are worth the trouble. The album has a spark of life, a reason for being.
It happens to be one of several albums out in physical form this week on SmallsLive, a record label associated with that Greenwich Village jazz haunt. And SmallsLive, in turn, is one of several notable labels to have grown out of the New York club scene. Half Note, affiliated with the Blue Note Jazz Club (but, it should be said, not Blue Note Records), has been in business for years. Smoke Sessions, the imprint of the Upper West Side club Smoke, started up just this year, proving itself right out of the gate.
Herbie Hancock, Kevin Spacey, Quincy Jones and a litany of major jazz musicians saluted President Bill Clinton on Sunday at L.A.’s Dolby Theater for his efforts in using jazz as a diplomatic force over the last 25 years.
Clinton, whom Hancock introduced as “the commander in chief of swing,” received the Thelonious Monk Institute’s Maria Fisher Founder’s Award for his contributions to the perpetuation of jazz music and the global expansion of jazz and music education in schools. Clinton chronicled his own relationship with jazz as a saxophonist, starting at age 6 and ending around 16 when he decided he could not follow in John Coltrane’s footsteps. In addition to praising the underpaid pioneers of jazz culture, Clinton said the teamwork learned in jazz education could play out in other areas.
“Sometimes a frustrated jazz musician,” Clinton said, “winds up in another field and it works out well.”
Around 8 p.m. on a recent Saturday, a few dozen people were gathered in a narrow, dimly lit Harlem brownstone. Couples smoked in the backyard beneath Christmas lights; a group of Chilean expats sought a corkscrew; a man and his young son searched for seats.
From the basement downstairs, Bill Saxton, a bebop saxophonist, could hear the anticipatory chatter. All these people had come to his place. A few minutes later, standing with his band in the tiny parlor, he honked his sax loudly. The track lights dimmed.
It is well known that the Nazi regime denounced modernist art as “degenerate”, but not so well known that the Third Reich also proscribed “Entartete Musik” or “degenerate music”. Another name for this was jazz. It makes complete sense, therefore, that the most renowned of American jazz recording companies – Blue Note Records – was founded by refugees from Hitler’s Germany.
Blue Note survives in name, if not – some would argue – in spirit. This weighty book helps to explain the mystique that continues to surround the label, though in that regard the pictures are more helpful than the text. One of the crucial points about Blue Note records was that they looked beautiful – and distinctive.