Early this morning, I’ll be off to Portland, Oregon, one of my favorite former home towns. I lived there for three years long ago when my television news career was getting into gear — the second-gear phase, I suppose. The occasion is the first weekend of the Portland Jazz Festival, rescued from the budget shortfall that canceled it for a time. For details of the bailout go here. It has nothing to do with the Obama stimulus plan. For the festival lineup, go here.
It is a joy to be in Portland under almost any circumstance, but in this case even more so because the festival is concentrating on Blue Note Records and its musicians during the label’s 70th anniversary year. The Blue Note 7 all- stars are wending their way through the United States in a three-months series of one-nighters, so they won’t be in Portland, but plenty of others who record for the label will be. My only official involvement –not a duty, but a pleasure– is to engage in an hour of conversation with Joe Lovano this evening at 5:00 p.m. Otherwise, I’ll be kicking around town for three days taking in as many concerts and other events as I can accomodate, and taking notes. I will blog when possible.
As for Blue Note, several weeks ago the postman brought a DVD called Blue Note: A Story Of Modern Jazz. I wasn’t in the mood for what I assumed would be just another record company promotion, so I put it in the stack of DVDs to be viewed some day. That turned out to be yesterday. I watched it as I worked out on the Nordic Track, where I could keep an eye
and ear on it as I skied to nowhere. Well, the film is a record company promo, but a cut above most in the genre. A well-made documentary by the German film maker Julian Benedikt, it concentrates on the remarkable story of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, who fled Nazi Germany for the US and founded Blue Note in 1939 on less than a shoestring.
Benedikt’s production values in telling Lion’s and Wolff’s story are superb. Flaws in other aspects of the film keep it from being the major documentary achievement it could have been. The interviews with musicians and other people close to Blue Note are generally valuable. But, however popular they may be in their fields, it was misguided to recruit Carlos Santana, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and a hip-hop figure named DJ Smash to underline the importance of the label. Blue Note’s track record (heh, heh) speaks for itself in the music. The time devoted to, not to say wasted on, them would better have gone to film and tape of musicians performing. Still, we get a splendid complete Freddie Hubbard solo and significant stretches of Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and a few other artists.
The documentary emphasizes the importance of Francis Wolff’s remarkable photographs. His cover shots are an important part of the label’s cachet. There are sections in which Benedikt adopts the slam-bang, quick-cut technique that has made so much of television and Hollywood film unwatchable, but his approach to the historical segments is solid, informative and often fascinating. The opening sequence recreating Alfred Lion’s initial exposure to and seduction by jazz when he was a teenager in Berlin is masterly. Benedikt uses flashbacks of those moments to great effect throughout the production.