Blue Note Jazz: Beyond the Notes

The Lyon, the Wolff and the impro space probe

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A scant score of people turned up last night to Killarney Cinecentre to catch what may possibly be the only Joburg showing of Beyond the Notes, director Sophie Huber’s widely-praised history of the Blue Note jazz record label. Not even some opening live music from Pops Mohamed, Kaya Mahlangu and Ashish Joshi tempted more out. That’s a pity: the silvery combination of kora, tabla and soprano sax produced some quite unexpectedly beautiful textures, particularly on a re-visioning of Miles’ All Blues – the archetypal Blue Note track, if ever there was one. The many Killarney-based jazz fans (warning: I know where you live) mustn’t spend their time complaining about the dearth of live jazz when they don’t attend even when it’s on their doorstep .

But, the movie? The praise for Huber’s work is largely justified. The cinematography is gorgeous: each scene framed by an eye that respects, and translates into movement the style of label co-founder Francis Wolff’s iconic still photographs. There are also historic jazz clips galore.

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Blue Note artist Sheila Jordan: invisible

The narrative – although clearly part of the marketing for Don Was’s current kaisership of the enterprise and for the Robert Glasper-led Blue Note All Stars – is not limited by that. It’s honest about the history, and respects the politics. Wolff and Alfred Lyon founded a label that was able to document superb creativity because they deliberately turned their backs on the market. In human terms, they gave the musicians respect, space and freedom to express themselves; in practical terms, they paid for lots of rehearsals. The film respects its musicians too, listening to what they have to say rather than sticking some talking-head “critic” in front of them.

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Blue Note artist Anita Baker: invisible

From that, comes a discourse that gets the politics of jazz improvisation right. Whereas Cold War politics – and many critics since – represent improvisation as the apogee of heroic America individualism, all these musicians – from veterans Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter to Glasper, Derrick Hodge, Ambrose Akinmusire and more – present it as a collective and collaborative enterprise. You’re liberated to speak, they asserted, by the annihilation of ego fostered by the empathetic support of your playing peers. “When I improvise,” said Hodge, “I disappear.”

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Blue Note artist Rachelle Ferrell: invisible

But the discourse goes wider, presenting the music throughout its history as a direct response to the society that birthed it, and particularly to American racism, segregation and inequality. Jazz emerges clearly as a community music, not only then, but also now: the working-class, black, hip-hop generation started sampling jazz because it was already richly embedded in their sound-world, via the record collections of parents and relatives. That, in turn, led to Kendrick Lamarr and Kamasi Washington. Anybody who wants to explore ideas about collective musical work should see this film, which gives very useful space to – although it certainly does not complete – that discussion.

And yet…and yet. One woman speaks in the film: an anodyne Norah Jones, who was responsible for the first big hit of Bruce Lundvall’s ‘new’ Blue Note label. She affirms sweetly that the label treated her right. A couple more females flash past us in a montage of album covers. Nellie Monk gets a namecheck as “always around the studio.”

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Blue Note artist Dr Geri Allen: invisible

But we know that many women worked, and work, at Blue Note – Lundvall affirms that it was “a secretary” who first drew his attention to Jones’s singing. (If she were male, would she have received the title ‘talent scout’?) As for recording artists, many supremely talented women musicians have led sessions for Blue Note over the years; more have guested or been support players.

They have included – take a deep breath – Geri Allen, Anita Baker, Patricia Barber, Tina Brooks, Rosanne Cash, Rachelle Ferrell, Gwyneth Herbert, Jones, Sheila Jordan, Stacey Kent, Dianne Reeves, Suzanne Vega and Cassandra Wilson. From among those still living, surely some might have had something to contribute to the label’s story? All have contributed to its earnings. Their absence reinforces the exclusionary (and false) construction of jazz as a highly gendered, male, space.

There were half a dozen articulate, jazz-appreciating, young women in the audience last night. Where, I wonder, did they see themselves in the picture?

Cinematography: *****

Discourse: ****

Gender politics: 0

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