It is well known that the Nazi regime denounced modernist art as “degenerate”, but not so well known that the Third Reich also proscribed “Entartete Musik” or “degenerate music”. Another name for this was jazz. It makes complete sense, therefore, that the most renowned of American jazz recording companies – Blue Note Records – was founded by refugees from Hitler’s Germany.
Blue Note survives in name, if not – some would argue – in spirit. This weighty book helps to explain the mystique that continues to surround the label, though in that regard the pictures are more helpful than the text. One of the crucial points about Blue Note records was that they looked beautiful – and distinctive.
The covers were works of art in themselves. They had a look that combined typography derived from the Bauhaus – bastion of modern design in Weimar Germany – with brilliant photography, often starkly black and white and resembling the work of a master of the camera such as Cartier-Bresson or Robert Frank. Those designs were visible evidence of an attitude more common in Europe than America: that jazz was not merely a novel form of entertainment but something to be taken with the same seriousness with which one might approach Beethoven or Debussy. It, too, was art.