Berlin Jews and Jazz

The German Roots of Blue Note

By A.J. Goldmann

Published December 01, 2009.
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Celebrations for the 70th birthday of legendary jazz label Blue Note Records are taking place at an unlikely venue.

The Jewish Museum Berlin is tooting its horn with an exhibition of photographs by two of Blue Note’s Jewish photographers, Francis Wolff and Jimmy Katz. Wolff, a Berlin native, helped found the label in 1939, along with his childhood friend, Alfred Lion (a fellow Berliner). It is Lion’s famous mantra, “It must schwing,” that lends the exhibit its name.

On the eve of World War II, Lion and Wolff (too bad they didn’t start a deli!) set up shop in New York. Lion, for whom jazz had been a lifelong passion, was known for taking chances on new artists as the label’s focus shifted over the years, from boogie-woogie to bebop to hard bop. He funded not only the recording sessions, but musicians’ rehearsal time as well.

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Wolff, a fellow jazz aficionado who was trained as a photographer in Berlin, would snoop around the studio and document the sessions in expressive black and white. His photos are among the most iconic of jazz images. They epitomize cool.

These candid shots often wound up on album jackets, setting a trend for the whole industry.

The show includes Wolff’s photos of John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and numerous other jazz greats. Wolff died in 1971. Katz, the other artist in the exhibit, has been Blue Note’s photographer since 1993. The label’s more recent history is seen through his work.

One of the perks of having an exhibition based on a legendary record label is the music available to visitors. At the gallery, the audio guides that lead you through the label’s musical development, feature music by the jazz greats in the photographs.

Visitors to the exhibit until December 27 should also check out the Jewish Museum’s Hanukkah Market in the Glashof (Glass Courtyard), designed by Daniel Liebeskind. Conceived of as an alternative to the myriad Christmas Markets that light up Berlin this time of year, the Jewish Museum’s version features an assortment of Hanukkah artwork and kitsch and edibles as well as a kosher variety of the German Christmastime staple Glühwein (a particularly sweet, spicy and strong mulled wine).

“It Must Schwing!” Blue Note — Photography by Francis Wolff and Jimmy Katz. On view at the Jewish Museum Berlin through February 7, 2010.


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