Yesterday afternoon I went over to the Castro Theatre to see Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes. This documentary by Sophie Huber was screened by the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, presumably because Blue Note was founded by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, two Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, both of whom came to the United States in the Thirties. We hear little of their voices over the course of the 85-minute film; but we learn that both of them had their “first contact” with jazz through recordings in Germany. While the film says little of how they found each other and then committed jointly to the business of making jazz recordings, the viewer still learns much about their work styles.
As might be guessed, there is not much by way of film footage associated with performances of jazz selections that made Blue Note such a first-class resource of audio documentation of jazz history. On the other hand Wolff was also a passionate photographer and was almost obsessively taking photographs of musicians at work during recording sessions. Those photographs have become as important a part of jazz history as have the many recordings that Blue Note released of almost all of the major jazz makers during the middle decades of the twentieth century.
By the time Huber set to work on her documentary, only a few of those jazz giants were around to be interviewed. Nevertheless, for those of us with intense interest in the emergence of bebop and the adventurous styles that followed up on it, the experience of listening to Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter sitting side by side and reminiscing was, at P. T. Barnum liked to say, “worth the price of admission.” The other significant voice from the past was Lou Donaldson; but Hancock and Shorter have worked together for so long that they could play off each other (as they had done so many times when playing jazz) in discussing what they did and how they did it.
The Blue Note catalog is so extensive that trying to account for it with any sense of thoroughness would require a project more in the spirit of Downton Abbey than an 85-minute documentary. The best Huber could manage by way of survey was a rapid-fire series of images of album covers (most of which probably registered with me only because I remembered them from my own collecting experiences). What made the documentary more interesting, however, was not how it reflected on the past but on Huber’s decision to include Robert Glasper and his colleagues, such as Ambrose Akinmusire, allowing them to reflect on how Blue Note recordings had influenced them and then talk about where those influences led their own jazz-making techniques.
This turned out to be just as interesting as any of the reflections on the past. Indeed, for the “grand finale” of the film, we saw Hancock and Shorter sit in with Glasper and his crew for what could be called a “jamming past and present” session. I have seen a few of these encounters in some of my past performance experiences. More often than not, they amount to the “young Turks” doing their thing after which the “masters” show them how it is really done. Huber, on the other hand, managed to catch the spirit of the dialectical opposition of past and present leading to a synthesis in which both sides contributed equally.
Mind you, my own sentiments are still back there in the days when Hancock and Shorter were two of the leading voices in Miles Davis’ second great quintet. Like many of my age, I listen to the young ones and think of how much more they have to learn. After watching the final footage of Huber’s film, however, I am beginning to think that the learning is getting somewhere, even if my own listening habits have not yet caught up with it.