Film: It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story (2018)

May 15, 2019 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer:  n/a

Extras: n/a

Label:  n/a

Region: n/a

Released:  n/a

Genre:  Documentary / Jazz / Blue Note

Synopsis: Detailed portrait and homage to the founders of Blue Note Records, Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff.

Special Features:  n/a




Although the history of the iconic jazz label has been chronicled in prior films, Eric Friedler’s It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story is exclusively about German-Jewish co-founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, the lifelong friends who became enraptured by jazz during their teen years in swinging Berlin. The two became huge fans of the music, buying records and attending concerts before and after the Nazis came to power and pushed jazz underground.

Lion left Germany first, landing in NYC, where he slept in park benches and took odd jobs to survive, while photographer Wolff followed soon after, and with investor funds, the two pals established the company by recording black artists often ignored by major labels, and whose music was ghettoized under the nomenclature “race music” – a term also applied to ‘race films’ made for the African American market.

The pair maintained a steady recording schedule during their core tenure from 1939-1964, often bringing musicians to the studio right after a club performance, and taking advantage of the energy and the peculiar creative clarity that exists during the witching hour.

The list of artists who passed through Blue Note’s doors during the Lion-Wolff stewardship is gargantuan and intimidating, especially with biggies Miles Davis and John Coltrane, but instead of trying to pack the film with concert performances, Friedler’s through-line is the unwavering friendship between the Lions & Wolff, and the musicians.

Wolff’s masterful B&W shots taken during the session were used on the LP covers, emphasizing black artists in striking, modern graphic designs by Reid Miles. The quality of music was always top-notch – it’s no wonder Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Charles Tolliver, and Sheila Jordan were delighted to share anecdotes for Friedler’s camera – as was the sound engineering by Rudy Van Gelder, a genius whose humble setup in his parents living room and eventually a proper studio miked artists in a close, intimate, natural fashion.

The doc’s title comes from Lion’s mandate that the recorded music must swing: be alive, artful, riveting, and grab listeners. Hancock, who crafted a string of exquisitely cerebral yet delicate albums for the label describes jazz as a reaction against hardship, and the ultimate weapon against hatred by infecting people with music’s positive energy.

Because few archival film and audio clips exist of Lion & Wollf, let alone the musicians, there is a heavy reliance on animation to dramatize the passage of time and key events during the company’s growth; it’s a bit of a contemporary cliche to advance narratives, but the process is effective in humanizing otherwise dry dates and facts.

The stewardship of Blue Note changed when its founders sold the company to Liberty Records in 1964. Lion retired from the scene, and Wolff remained an important creative executive until his sudden death in 1972. Blue Note remains active, and while aspects of jazz have changed in the passing decades, its golden years remain magnets for fans, as well as newcomers wanting to investigate the idiom’s evolution from Dixieland and Boogie-Woogie to Be-Bop, Hard Bop; and the modernism that flowed in the late 1950s, and flourished in the 1960s.

It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story (2018) had its Canadian Premiere at the 2019 Toronto Jewish Film Festival.

Other documentaries include Julian Benedikt and Andreas Morell’s Blue Note – A Story of Modern Jazz (1997), and Sophie Huber’s Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes (2018).



© 2019 Mark R. Hasan





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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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