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DVD Review: Blue Note – A Story of Modern Jazz

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Blue Note was a legendary modern jazz label. It was known for its top-notch quality and willingness to take risks on unproven artists who made "difficult" music. Jazz pioneers such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and others recorded on it. Coltrane's Blue Train, Davis' Birth of Cool, Monk's Genius of Modern Music albums, and Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch are few of the legendary albums recorded for the label.

The DVD's title is a bit misleading; it is a story of modern jazz but not a history. The documentary starts with a young Alfred Lion discovering jazz in Germany. He later immigrated to the United States, and soon after started Blue Note. A few years later, his good friend Francis Wolff joined him in the States. Wolff took the moody photos that graced Blue Note's covers.

After the introduction to the main characters, the movie does not follow a strict historical through line. It skips from topic to topic. Lion's relationship with music turns into his talent for recognizing visionaries, which bleeds into how the records were produced. Ultimately the documentary is more about what Blue Note was about and why it was successful than a chronological document of the label.

The bulk of the documentary is told through interviews. Wolff and Lion's former wives, Blue Note performers, jazz critics, and jazz fans are interview subjects. The majority of the information comes from the wives and the jazz critics. The majority of the personality comes from the musicians. The jazz fans chosen seem a bit jarring at first. DJ Smash samples Blue Note records for his club music. His interview seems out of place in context of the rest of the documentary. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Carlos Santana comment throughout the movie. At first, their contributions do not seem to make sense, but their interviews actually give the subject context.

The free flow of the documentary would be bothersome if it did not so fit the subject. A few times a jazz performance is used as a bridge between topics.

Sadly, there are no extras on the disk. A photo gallery of album covers, studio stills, musician bios, and taped performances would all have fit the DVD perfectly. On the plus side, the packaging is gorgeously designed. The liner notes are a more academic summary of the movie.

A Story of Modern Jazz is not a scholarly look at the label's history. It is much more a documentary about a feeling that the label had — a feeling sometimes called the blues… here called jazz.

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About Mark Kalriess