Approaching jazz can seem intimidating for those who don't know hard bop from bebop (or maybe even "Blitzkrieg Bop"). The genre's history stretches back a century and it comprises innumerable recordings. It's the subject of academic papers and, at the same time, it appears as samples on many rap and pop albums. With all this in mind, one prestigious jazz label is trying to make its catalog a little more accessible.
Today, Blue Note Records launches its app on Spotify that emphasizes jazz discovery over snobbery and opens its vast catalog. Since 1939, the label has released landmark albums by jazz legends like John Coltrane, Art Blakey and Freddie Hubbard, as well as recent records by the likes of Norah Jones, Anita Baker and actor-singer Jeff Bridges. However, those names are just a small sampling of a bigger picture; the creators of the app aimed to present the label's approximately 500 records, which include its very first session through the most recent output, in a way that helps people navigate toward music they would like rather than music they're supposed to like.
"When they put the app on my computer, I said, 'Wow, I have this amazing record collection?'" jokes Blue Note president Don Was, a lifelong jazz fan with a big personality who made his name performing with the quirky dance-pop group Was (Not Was) and producing records for the likes of the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop and Stone Temple Pilots. "One of my concerns when I first came to the record company – not just for Blue Note but for all record companies – [is that] I understand why a 15-year-old doesn't feel incentivized to download some file. There's nothing romantic about that. What strikes me about this app is that it makes the music larger than life. I think it has a wonderful vibe to it. It draws you into the mystique of the music."
"We didn't want the app to feel like it's coming from some authority, telling what records you should like because they're important," says Walter Gross, EMI Music's Senior Director of Digital Marketing, who has led the creation of Blue Note's Spotify app from its inception in April. "The whole catalog is there for people to discover in many different ways."
The way Gross and his team present Blue Note's catalog within the app is unique, as it provides many points of entry into what may seem like an intimidating number of recordings. First, they broke it into the expected ways a fan might sort his or her catalog, allowing users to sort albums and artists by subgenres like traditional jazz, groove-oriented jazz (drawing from soul and R&B) and vocal jazz. They created a timeline for the label so users could browse the records by release date and provided a list of musicians who played on the app's many recordings.
Then they went even deeper. Users can sort the Blue Note discography by instrument, ranging from expected ones like trumpet and electric guitar to obscure percussion ones, such as the thumb-piano-like mbira, beaded-gourd chekeré and the Cuban Batá drum. Blue Note partnered with the hip-hop sample database WhoSampled.com for a feature that shows how its catalog has also been matriculated into pop, providing side-by-side examples of the original Blue Note recording and the way it was used. For instance, a drum break from bebop saxophonist Lou Donaldson's 1969 take on the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing" found its way onto Madonna's 1994 cut "I'd Rather Be Your Lover," as well as tracks by De La Soul, Joe and Puff Daddy; in the app, you can listen to them all instantly. Also, perhaps the most innovative way to work through Blue Note's catalog is by going into a record, looking at the list of musicians who played on it and playing "six degrees" by clicking from one release by an artist to another.
"What struck me was how innovative Jimmy Smith was," Was says of poking around the organist's Blue Note discography, which stretches from hard bop into jazz-funk and jazz-fusion. "I knew that – I've listened to the records – but somehow by taking in the whole thing from that interface, it became apparent it wasn't just the funky commercial grooves he played on Creed Taylor records. He was a revolutionary."
"The app tells the story of the evolution of those artists and how with each recording they would grow as writers or players," Gross adds. "It's interesting to know that John Coltrane recorded his Blue Train album on September 15th, 1957, but two weeks before that, he was on a Sonny Clark album [Sonny's Crib]."
To visually underscore the label's history, Gross and his team sought out the original cover artwork – including some iconic treatments by graphic designer Reid Miles and some Kenny Burrell LPs sporting drawings by Andy Warhol – and used them instead of the stock images Spotify usually provides. This "feel" was very important to Was. "As a kid, the album Ornette Coleman at the 'Golden Circle' Stockholm had a profound effect on me," he says. "I remember being about 13, 14 and driving my mother nuts until she went out and got me a trenchcoat and a top hat. I wanted to look just like Ornette Coleman. I have that album cover hanging in my office. You wanted to be a part of it.
"Without making it campy or nostalgic or visit the antique store, I wanted to see that aesthetic continue through to the digital age, and I think we did that," Was continues. "You get the feel of those album covers."
For Was, the ability to browse through the records as if in a vinyl store, with the option to meander through each recording's session information and players, presents the lineage he's attempting to continue. "We have a Van Morrison record coming out in October, and I think there is a clear line stemming from Joe Henderson to Van Morrison," he says, referencing the tenor sax player who recorded for Blue Note in the 1960s and 1980s. "I can see the line between them both as onstage improvisers and as guys who can just step up to the mic and be authentic."
As for Blue Note's future offerings, Was says he has a new Aaron Neville record he produced with Keith Richards coming out soon, as well as new releases on deck from Anita Baker, Terence Blanchard and classic Blue Note artist Wayne Shorter. "In the end, you want to make a bunch of great records that stand the test of time and, 40 years from now, mean something to people," he says. "Not to drop names, but I was hanging out with Chaka Khan last night. She said [that] from now on, she only wants to make music that helps heal people. I said that's a really good thing…I think it's a worthwhile pursuit. Our goal is to make records that do that and not release a bunch of shit." He jokes, "I'm going to change Blue Note's tag line: instead of 'The Finest in Jazz Since 1939,' it will be, 'No Shit Since 1939.'"
Gross raves of Was, "He's such a passionate guy. When we showed him the app, he was saying, 'It's fucking amazing. It really captures the spirit of the label.' He was using all this emotional, visceral language... To me, that's more of the reaction I want than having some jazz snob say, 'Well, it's missing the important records,' or even, 'It has them.'
"People sometimes say to me, 'I want to get into jazz; where do I start?'" Gross says. "I want the app to be for that kind of person, but also be able to satisfy the more demanding listener and jazz fan, too."