America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs

America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs

Blue Note Jazz Club
131 West 3rd Street
New York, NY 11012

The kind of teacher who expects students to be mind readers might place the following trick question on a nightmare Jazz 101 final exam:

Blue Note best describes the following:

  1. a record label
  2. a jazz club
  3. a microtonally flattened pitch, usually on the 3rd or 7th scale degree

Confusion, neophytes? A “blue note” is, in fact, an expressive, microtonal flattening of pitch characteristic of the blues, jazz, and other genres of African-American origin. A distinguished record label called Blue Note, a division of Capitol Records, was founded by Alfred Lion in 1939. In addition to the label, whose name must derive from the flattened pitch, Blue Note describes a number of flattened jazz clubs as well as a present-day club in New York City. The answer your pedant seeks is unclear. Better hope there’s extra credit.

Chicago‘s storied Blue Note was formerly a premier club in the midwest. Located at 3 North Clark Street, it flourished in the 1940s and 50s under the direction of Frank Holzfeind. Count Basie considered it his Chi-town headquarters, playing there regularly from 1949-58. The other famed Blue Note existed in Paris, managed first by Ben Benjamin and then by George Fainford (a former manager of boxer Sugar Ray Robinson). Active between the 50s and 60s, it hosted many American jazzers in temporary expatriate mode like Bud Powell and Lester Young, who made his made his final recordings there in March of 1959. In addition, the Philadelphia area was home to at least one Blue Note. Others are bound to have come and gone along with their former denizens.

RealAudio Icon
Lionel Hampton: Hamp’s Note
Lionel Hampton – vibes
Clark Terry – trumpet
Harry “Sweets” Edison – trumpet
James Moody and Buddy Tate – tenor sax
Al Grey – trombone
Hank Jones – piano
Milt Hinton – bass
Grady Tate – drums
Recorded live at the Blue Note, June 11-13, 1991
from Lionel Hampton and the Golden Men of Jazz
{Telarc Jazz 83308}
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Now, fast forward to 1981: businessman Dan Bensusan resurrects the name, trademarks it as Blue Note International, Inc., and franchises it for a new set of clubs which neither bear relationship to their historical antecedents nor to Blue Note, the record label. As they emphasize on their company fact sheet: “Blue Note International, Inc. is the world’s only franchised jazz club network.” There are currently three franchises in Japan – Tokyo, Osaka, and Fukuoka – and plans for future sites in Seoul, Las Vegas and San Francisco. Among other business ventures, the Blue Note is partners in B.B. King Blues Club (no typo- honest!), planned to open in Times Square shortly. It also owns Half Note Records, a new label which releases albums recorded live in the New York club.

The Blue Note’s website goes beyond convenience; you can log on to hear and see the club’s Monday and Thursday night performances live. Of course, you can also check out the schedule, make reservations, participate in online chats, and should soon be able to purchase mugs and T-shirts from the giftshop. If you’re getting the idea that the Blue Note is big business, you’re on the right track and its high ticket prices and expensive food confirm that. They tend to be the highest of the major New York clubs (Birdland, Iridium, the Jazz Standard, Sweet Basil, and the Village Vanguard). By contrast, the Blue Note feels like a theme restaurant. It has different stars than Planet Hollywood, but the same kind of tourist appeal. This type of entrepreneurship and jazz, an art that values individuality and spirituality over mass popularity and monetary reward, make for strange bedfellows.

The Blue Note
Photo courtesy Dan Forte

So, the Blue Note does not possess the long, distinguished history one might imagine, an illusion conjured in part by the name and furthered by the booking of many old timers alongside smooth jazz artists and crowd pleasers. Yet, because of its success, the club can afford the fees of Herbie Hancock, Cassandra Wilson, and Tito Puente, not to mention McCoy Tyner, Max Roach, Ray Brown, Jimmy Smith, and Celia Cruz. All have played the Blue Note in the recent past. Often it’s worth the price of admission to experience big name musicians like these, many of them living legends, in the atmosphere of a small club. If you’re an avid jazz fan, chances are you will find yourself here at one time or another.

From America’s Most Fascinating Jazz Clubs
by Lara Pellegrinelli
© 2000 NewMusicBox

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