Once upon a time immigrants fleeing oppression in their own countries were welcomed in America. Safely resettled, they often made beautiful music here. That is the underlying point of a new German-produced documentary about the legendary American jazz label Blue Note Records premiering at the DOC NYC Festival, Saturday, November 10, under the unlikely title: It Must Schwing!.
The title is a strongly-accented direct quote from the German-born founder of Blue Note Records, Alfred Lion, whose only demand in the recording studio was that the music swing. Lion and his co-founder and musical partner, Francis Wolff, met as jazz besotted Jewish teenagers in Berlin. Their escape from Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s saved their lives and gave birth to Blue Note Records in 1939.
As the film documents, the pair were shocked to discover, on reaching America, that the black jazz musicians they worshipped were, in fact, treated not with adulation but with the same brutal prejudice that Jews endured under Hitler. To watch some of those surviving musicians, including Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter, ardently explain today the Nazi-scourged source of Lion and Wolff’s determination to right the wrongs of American race relations through their Blue Note recordings, is eerily poignant; a display of empathy elucidating empathy.
Directed by Eric Friedler, head of German Public Television’s Documentary Division, with German film titan Wim Wenders as executive producer, It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story is as iconoclastic in its methods as the record label it celebrates. Venturing far beyond talking heads, director Friedler deploys elaborate animation sequences to reanimate seminal moments in Blue Note history long lost to time. The depiction of Lion and Wolff’s youth in Berlin is particularly haunting, but no less eloquent is the vision of a fleet of taxis in moonlight shuttling Lion and Wolff’s jazz luminaries across the George Washington Bridge to Rudy Van Gelder’s historic New Jersey home recording studio for the late-night sessions that yielded Blue Note’s incomparable recorded jazz legacy throughout the 1950s and 60s.
The film’s soundtrack encompasses that legacy; from the bittersweet blues of Sidney Bechet’s “Summertime,” to the breakout brilliance of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight,” to the hard bop simmer of Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder,” a groove that came to define Blue Note Records.
The fact that Francis Wolff also was one of the finest photographers of jazz to ever pick up a camera, supplies It Must Schwing! with its singular visual identity; frame after frame of sublime jazz images, most of them shot in the studio during the ferment of the sessions themselves. According to the musicians, Wolff was as retiring as Lion was demonstrative, allowing him to blend silently into the background, capturing the action without intruding upon it. The resulting photographs provided Blue Note with virtually every one of its iconic album covers (graphically designed by the legendary Reid Miles, who also makes a brief appearance in the film). Van Gelder, Blue Note’s incomparable audio engineer, who sculpted the label’s crystaline signature sound, also is a presence throughout It Must Schwing in what proved to be the final interview of his life.
Lion and Wolff kept Blue Note alive and thriving from 1947–1964, recording Bechet, Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and, of course, Rollins, Hancock, Carter and Shorter, among so many others. Then, in 1965, for reasons of ill health compounded by the rock and roll handwriting on the wall, they sold the label suddenly and without warning to Liberty Records; a sale that the musicians in the film have clearly still not gotten over. Wolff died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1971; Lion lived on as an expatriate in Mexico until 1987. Their enormous shared achievement has always been right there in the records. Now that achievement has been translated transcendently to film. It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story, whose world premiere took place this year at the International Munich Film Festival, and whose American premiere followed at the Telluride Film Festival, will be screened for the first time in New York on Saturday, November 10, 4:00 PM, at the SVA Theater 2, under the auspices of the DOC NYC Festival. It is, for the moment, a one-time opportunity.
For more information on the screening, visit docnyc.net.