TJFF 2019: It Really Schwings!

May 15, 2019 | By

Meet the Schwingers – Albert Lion and Francis Wolff.


The closing film at the 2019 Toronto Jewish Film Festival was Eric Friedler’s It Must Schwing! The Blue Note Story (2018), the director’s second film in the festival, after Lemon Popsicle: Of Winners and Losers (2018).

The screening was preceded by three pieces performed by The Dave Young Trio, featuring Young, Kevin Turcotte, and Reg Schwager, footage of which might appear on TJFF’s YouTube channel, as the performances were recorded in front of the packed house.

Blue Note remains jazz’s most iconic and enigmatic label because so many greats passed through its doors and had their work showcased in extraordinarily beautiful LP sleeves. Alfred Lion was the chief producer, Francis Wolff took those great B&W stills during recording sessions, Rudy Van Gelder was the recording engineer who originally taped the sessions in a draped-off area in his parent’s living room, and Reid Miles was the graphic designer of the striking covers.

The sound stood out among recordings by other labels, the covers featured modern design that refuted the era’s fixation with big head photos and paintings, and the artists were front and centre on the covers. Blue Note was a remarkable fusion of art & commerce, launched to record, preserve, and distribute great music by primarily African American artists into the market; making big money was never part of Lion & Wolff’s mandate.

As one of the musicians opines in the doc, they got paid for rehearsal and recording time because Lion and Wolff knew the hardships facing gifted musicians and composers, and the doc is first & foremost about the friendship between two German Jewish immigrants who fled Nazi Germany, and channeled their love of jazz by providing a nearly corporate-free, artist-friendly environment for musicians working in a segregated era.

Founded in 1939 and still going strong, it’s the back catalogue of the Lion-Wolff tenure that’s still magnetic because of the extraordinary roster of titles, but for myself a desert island favourite (among many) would have to include Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’Else (1958). The album cover has no image, just fonts in white, yellow, and blue over black. The music is rich, intimately recorded, and features the best instrumental version of “Autumn Leaves” on the planet.

A close second is Herbie Hancock’s Empyrean Isles (1964). The cover’s green tinted abstract still of a cliff with scraggly grass and a water spray hover below modest credits, and the LP is one of a handful of instant classic recordings by Hancock, who appears in the doc. The pieces are modern, soft, and elliptical.

It Must Schwing! is loaded with music cuts – a licensing nightmare for anyone – but Friedland picked the right cuts which support the doc’s primary theme of friendship instead of stopping the film cold for a musical set. The music is the drama’s underscore, and within its almost 2 hour running time, it’s a beautiful homage to the two men who gambled and struggled to share the greatness of jazz with the world.

Coming next: Rouben Mamoulian’s Beck Sharp (1935) in glorious 3-strip Technicolor.

Thanks for reading,



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,


Comments are closed.