There have been many outstanding and critically acclaimed documentaries on the subject of jazz and jazz musicians over the years from Aram Avakian & Bert Stern’s Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1959) to Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost (1988) and Jean Bach’s A Great Day in Harlem (1994). But what is surprising is the fact that until recently no filmmaker has attempted to document the importance of Blue Note Records and its importance in the advancement of this uniquely American, home grown music. Suddenly, we have two documentaries on the subject, Eric Friedler’s It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story (2018) and Sophie Huber’s Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes (2018), both of which are currently on the film festival circuit.
I have yet to see Huber’s documentary but Friedler’s It Must Schwing!, which recently premiered at the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, is a cause for celebration among jazz aficionados and essential viewing. The film is also a highly entertaining and accessible entry point for those who don’t know that much about the subject but are curious to learn more.
Blue Note Records was a partnership between two German Jewish immigrants, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff. Lion launched the label in 1939 and was soon joined by Wolff, who was said to have taken the last boat out of Hamburg, Germany before the Nazis put an end to Jewish immigration. Together these two men transformed a record company into something visionary with their enormous passion, energy and talent for spotting and promoting the prime innovators of jazz. Their roster of artists looks like a Who’s Who of jazz music legends; Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon are just a few of the artists they recorded. Also, Lion and Wolff’s musical tastes reflect the exciting changes occurring in the jazz world from the beginnings of be bop to hard bop and the emergence of free jazz.
Blue Note was primarily a two-man, low budget operation in the beginning but Lion and Wolff quickly established a reputation for being reputable businessmen who encouraged creativity in the studio and paid their musicians well (they even paid for rehearsal time, which was not a standard practice at most record companies at the time). The distinct, intimate Blue Note sound was perfected with the assistance of recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder and the album covers became iconic and highly collectible, thanks to graphic designer Reid Miles and the stunning black and white photography of Wolff, who hovered around the recording sessions, capturing candid images of the artists at work and play.
Director Friedler, an Australian who has spend most of his career making documentaries for German television, takes a straightforward, chronological approach to It Must Schwing! but he does come up with a rather unconventional device for dealing with aspects of the Blue Note story which lacked any visual documentation. Instead of filling in gaps with photographs, letters, newspapers clippings or some similar form of narrative coverage, he uses animation. The often startling black and white animated sequences, created by Tetyana Chernyavska and Rainer Ludwig, will be a matter of taste for some viewers but I found the graphic novel/film noir style of these passages to be completely appropriate for depicting Lion and Wolff’s early years in Nazi Germany as well as their struggles to assimilate as immigrants in the unfamiliar streets of New York City. At the same time, the animated renderings of the Blue Note founders and various musicians are occasionally eerie, if not a little bit creepy.
Still, the overall tone of It Must Schwing! is joyous and celebratory with a wealth of wonderful stories and anecdotes about the record label recalled by surviving jazz legends like Sonny Rollins, Ron Carter, Lou Donaldson, Herbie Hancock, Bennie Maupin, Wayne Shorter, Sheila Jordan (the only female singer on the label) and so many others. What becomes readily apparent is how Lion and Wolff, both survivors of religious persecution, completely empathized with the plight and treatment of African-Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era and how Blue Note became a voice for social and political change.
The ying-yang partnership of Lion and Wolff is also a fascinating study in contrasts and the perfect business marriage of an extrovert and an introvert. Lion was an enterprising, gregarious ladies-man while Wolff was the shy, intensely private artist in residence. Friedler’s documentary becomes particularly moving toward the end when Lion abruptly sells the company in 1965 to Liberty Records and soon retires while Wolff stays on with the new management but dies unexpectedly in 1971. At his funeral, Lion and fellow mourners were astonished to meet Wolff’s black girlfriend and her children; their existence was a complete surprise since Wolff never discussed his personal life.
In case you’re wondering about that title, schwing is how Lion, in his thick German accent, pronounced swing and whenever he listened to new compositions being recorded in the studio, he would push the musicians to go deeper or find the inner soul of the music if he felt something was lacking. “It must schwing!” he insisted.
No date has yet been announced for the theatrical release of It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story. Atlantans still have one more chance to see the film. As part of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, it will be shown at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center on Wednesday, February 20 at 7:40 pm. You can find details at https://www.ajff.org/
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