Marybeth Hamilton, author of In Search of the Blues

May 23rd, 2008

PH He was a prisoner of war as well, right?

MBH  Yes, he was a prisoner of war and wrote some very high profile articles about the ill treatment that southern prisoners received in northern prisons, which was considered to be scandalous as it made its way into the halls of Congress. So, he told her about the songs he remembered from his childhood, and also told her the story that many southerners of his generation would tell — about the good old days on the plantation when black people “knew their place,” and when there was a sort of “family feeling” among blacks and whites, and where as a young boy he would steal away to the servant’s quarters, where his beloved servant Uncle Billy taught him how to play the banjo. He talked about how those days are gone, and how the fellowship feeling between the races was gone, and how blacks who went to the city had lost their manners, their sense of generosity and kindness and openness of spirit that had characterized the relationship between the races before. W.E.B. Du Bois called this a great plantation fairy-tale — a vision that infused the writings of southern history, including in Gone With the Wind, a gracious world where blacks and whites lived together in a kind of familial harmony until the northern troops marched in and everything changed. So that was the story he told her, and then, extraordinarily, he got up and danced for her, reenacting these songs and dances he remembered learning as a boy.

What interested me so much about this is that it wasn’t just some bizarre spectacle being carried out by Scarborough. It was Howard Odum going to black people and asking them to sing into his recording device who was the exception during this period of time. Scarborough had a recording machine as well, but she didn’t record black people with it — and that was true, by and large, of folklorists of that time. Folklorists wanted “genuine Negro songs,” and you didn’t go to “genuine Negroes” to get those, because they were listening to race records, which is not what the folklorists wanted. So, they got their material from elderly white southerners instead.

PH  Yes, from the “white informant.” She wasn’t likely to go to any of her neighbors in Harlem to ask if they could provide an answer to a question like, “Can you remember any of the songs your grandmother might have been singing while she was doing the wash?” They would have slammed the door in her face….

MBH  Absolutely, but what is interesting about Scarborough is that she does eventually have to bump against those neighbors in Harlem, because, as a highly regarded writer and teacher of creative writing at Columbia, she was asked to judge a short story contest held by the African American journal Opportunity.  While judging these stories written by African American writers, she was also writing her own book, On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs, which made her come to terms with the fact that there was a new generation of young, urban, black intellectuals who were outspoken about the fact that this was their culture, and they would be the ones with the authority to say what constitutes real folk music and what doesn’t. This seems to influence the way she ends up writing On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs, because there is a hesitancy about her authority that comes through in the book. Also, when the book first came out she said it would be the first in a series of books, and that she would write lots of books about Negro folk songs. In fact, she never wrote about the subject again — she actually stopped collecting that material altogether. The next book she wrote was published posthumously and was a book on the folk songs of white Appalachians, written as a compassionate social investigator who was making a critique of the poverty of these people’s lives.

Scarborough never let social criticism infiltrate her writing about black music — she really doesn’t have a language for doing that. But in the very final stage of her writing Negro Folk Songs, she visited W.C. Handy in his New York office and asked him where the blues came from, which was the most interesting story of all. She wrote about this in a very neutral, almost repressed way, very clearly not saying all that she felt. She records what he said about the origins of the blues without much comment, almost as if she didn’t really know what to do with his opinion on the music — that it is a music coming out of a specifically black experience, and that only black people can really understand its origins.

While she doesn’t comment on that at all in her book, her draft manuscript makes it clear that she was actually quite taken aback by the experience of meeting Handy. His office was smoke-filled, and filled with professional entertainers — black and white, male and female — and nobody paid any attention to her. She was told by his secretary in a very non-committal way that he was very busy and probably wouldn’t have time to see her. So, what really seemed to be at the heart of what was so troubling to her was being rebuffed by this black entrepreneur, and confronting this new world of African American music and culture she was trying to come to terms with, but ultimately could not. It was so different from the imagined world of the genteel family relationships she depicted from her southern past.

PH  One can only imagine what the Times Square offices of W.C. Handy would have been like. I am sure it was quite a scene — and here is this white, genteel, southern woman sitting in the middle of it, probably not knowing what was going on. It had to be completely out of her element, but that wasn’t something she was willing to admit, except to herself….

MBH  That’s right.

PH John Lomax and his son Alan are much more prominent in the history of American folklore, but John comes into this with an agenda. It was thought at the time that there was no music indigenous to America, and he seeks to prove that wrong….

MBH  He is a fascinating character — not a particularly complicated character, but an easily caricatured character in ways that he left himself completely open to. He became interested in folk songs at a very early point, 1910, and had seemingly been interested in Negro folksongs at around that same time too. He got married, worked in a bank, and had a family of four children, of whom Alan was the third. He wrote about music in a sustained way in 1933, in the wake of his wife’s death and the Great Depression, when he lost his job at the bank. In the midst of all of this, and in complete defiance of all practically — as a single father with no income — he decided to write a book about folk song. He managed to get a contract for a big book about American folk song, and also persuaded the Library of Congress to give him a big, purpose-built recording machine that could make high quality recordings on the spot, which then allowed him to play them back to the people who sang to him.

John Lomax thought that there was indigenous American folk music, and believed it resided with what he called “the down and out” classes — the sailor, the miner, and the Negro convict. The most immediate reason for his emphasis on the Negro convict was because he was after what he called “uncontaminated Negro songs” — songs sung by singers who were untouched by the phonograph and what he called “modern Negro jazz.” The most reliable method he could think of to define these “uncontaminated” songs was to go to racially segregated penitentiaries where he could find people who had been away from the force of the modern world for 10 or 15 years — and even if someone had been confined for only five years, he held a theory that a black man in confinement reverts to the ways of his forefathers and sings songs he knew as a child. From this, he felt prisons were a place to get this kind of pure, uncontaminated material.

PH   In isolation……

MBH  Yes, in isolation. So, he and his 17-year-old son Alan — who had just been bounced out of Harvard for getting involved in a Communist Party demonstration — set out in his Ford across the South. Politics was a great bone-of-contention between them because John was a right-wing reactionary politically who was absolutely horrified by his son’s flirtation with communism, and this percolated through their relationship until the end of John’s life. But they had this kind of transformative experience of roughing it together, driving down rutted, empty roads into completely isolated areas where these penitentiaries were located, recording what both of them felt to be extraordinary songs.

At one of the prisons they visit — Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana — they were about to give up since Angola did not allow prisoners to sing while they worked, but they end up meeting a prisoner who had special status because he was such a good entertainer. He was Huddie Ledbetter, or “Leadbelly” as he was called by the other prisoners, and on the very last day of the Lomax’s stay, Leadbelly sang for their recording machine. They were completely overwhelmed because they hear this person who seemed to be a walking jukebox, and who could sing everything he ever heard. They made a dozen recordings of different numbers with Leadbelly singing, and then leave. A year later they came back to record him again, at which time Leadbelly records a plea to the governor of Louisiana, asking to be let out of prison. John Lomax takes it to the governor’s office and got him let out of prison. Now it looked as if Leadbelly would have been let out without this recording, on a good behavior clause, but Leadbelly claims to believe that it was Lomax taking that record who saved him. After he was let out of prison in 1934, Leadbelly turns up on Lomax’s doorstep a month later, when they set off on an extraordinary excursion across America.

PH The story of Leadbelly is remarkable…The idea that he makes a recording that is so great that it won his freedom! What better publicity could there be than that?

MBH  Exactly. John Lomax initially found Leadbelly to be the most wonderful kind of “demonstration tool” to use on this continuing recording trek through southern penitentiaries. Even though Leadbelly was now a free man, when they went to these prisons, while John and Alan slept with the prison warden in comfortable accommodations outside the cell blocks, Leadbelly was in a cell with the convicts. It was completely bizarre. But Leadbelly sung to the inmates, showing them the kind of songs John Lomax was after. The convicts then got the idea that if singing these songs got this guy out of prison, then maybe it would get me out too. So, he literally had a captive audience who could give him what he wanted.

PH  Lomax felt Leadbelly was uncorrupted by the radio……

MBH  Yes. John Lomax was an interesting man, partly because he was a very smart man, but also because he wasn’t very self-reflective. He had this extraordinary singer who, as you say, Lomax believed was absolutely uncorrupted by the radio and untouched by the phonograph, but that subsequently was clearly not the fact. Leadbelly had listened to the phonograph, and loved listening to the radio — in fact, he learned songs off phonograph records, but Lomax didn’t know that. So he thought he has the uncorrupted black singer right there at his fingertips, and part of him was absolutely desperate to show him off. When he was invited to bring him to New York City to showcase him for, of all things, the Modern Language Association, a convention of English professors, Leadbelly proved to be a tremendous sensation. When word of this got out, Leadbelly was being invited to perform on the radio, he was being written about in national magazines, and he was being made the subject of a newsreel made by the March of Dimes. It was an absolute media frenzy, and Lomax became terrified that Leadbelly would be corrupted by exposure to the “wicked North,” and by exposure to Harlem’s city-fied black people. Lomax was so terrified of Leadbelly being spoiled by contact with the North that he whisks him out of New York City and hides him away in a house in Connecticut. Outside the confines of this house, Leadbelly was being trumpeted in the press as the greatest Negro singer in America, but in the confines of the house, he is cooking the meals, making the beds, and driving Lomax hither and yon. So, not surprisingly, Leadbelly got pretty fed up with this, and over a period of about six or eight weeks, their relationship grew more and more hostile, until, according to Lomax, Leadbelly pulled a knife on him. Lomax subsequently sent he and his wife Martha back to Louisiana.

But the story really doesn’t end there, because Leadbelly made a comeback and became an icon of the American left, partly through the continuing relationship he had with Alan Lomax. This became the most interesting part of the story, because Lomax was unearthing the voices of these African American convicts at the time of the Great Depression, the moment when the Communist Party had significant mainstream influence on American political and social life. It was also a time when the left is actively involving itself in black politics — in particular in the case of the Scottsboro boys, seven black youths accused of raping two white women in Alabama, which eventually became an internationally famous trial. So, the eyes of the world were on the Scottsboro boys at the same time that John Lomax was recording the voices of black prisoners. This became a highly politicized subject, in a way, but John Lomax never realized this. Alan Lomax, meanwhile, was becoming involved in the ideas of the left, and had a very different sense of what documenting black convicts meant. While John saw it as a way to uncover uncontaminated voices from the margins, Alan saw their music as songs of struggle and resistance. That is what he was out to capture, and that is what he increasingly saw and heard in the music of Leadbelly. As their differences became more pronounced, Leadbelly became an emblem that exposed the divide between them.

PH Yes, John had no use for the people that Leadbelly began associating with, and in fact was cast in the light of the “exploiter,” who was seen as a man who collected the money that Leadbelly earned during his performances in the South. The other side of the story is that if John Lomax had not helped him, Leadbelly may have never got out of jail….

MBH  While John Lomax had reactionary views about race, he also had a completely visionary sense that the music coming out of these singers from the South was something that constituted an indigenous American art form. He also knew the importance of saving recordings so they would still be playable 50 years in the future, which was quite visionary for the time. His reverence for technology, and his zeal to make recording machines do things that they hadn’t done before was a big part of his vision.

PH  His understanding of the importance of making recordings — and saving them — is an important legacy. He was the pioneer, and we have certainly come a long way from the 300 pound recording studio he kept in the back of his Ford to the shirt-pocket recording devices used today…

MBH  Yes we have.

PH I would like to talk about the importance of certain record collectors, among them a trio of men — Frederic Ramsey, Charles Edward Smith and William Russell — who you describe as being a group responsible for sparking a huge revival of interest in the jazz of New Orleans….

MBH  When I first began pulling the book together, one of the things I found interesting was how, at the outset, people like Scarborough and John Lomax had a very enthusiastic sense about what recording machines could do, but who were also absolutely adamant about the belief that anything that was recorded commercially could not be folk music. So, while they went out with their recording machines looking for living singers, they were actually looking for black voices. I wanted to understand how the trading of old records began, and how for some of the traders, the story of their scavenging through Salvation Army record bins and record stores was really the story about their search for authentic black singers. How it became possible to hear authentic black voices within mass market recordings that had been tossed aside interested me a great deal. These recordings were recycled rubbish, really, being put to new uses.

That story really started with the rediscovery of New Orleans jazz. The three collectors you mention — Russell, Ramsey and Smith — began listening to old Hot Jazz recordings, particularly those made by Jelly Roll Morton during the late 1920’s. These men were middle class whites — even approaching elite status. Ramsey was a student at Princeton, Russell was a classical violinist, and Smith worked on radio. Scavenging for records meant going to Harlem, it meant going to the South side of Chicago, and it may have meant knocking on people’s doors in these neighborhoods, asking people if they had old records to sell — Russell was doing that in the late 1930’s in Chicago and St. Louis. It meant they had to be like bloodhounds on the trail for recordings that black people themselves were no longer interested in — and in some cases had never been interested in to begin with — but which they were hearing as the sound of history and the sound of an authentic, pure voice of black music that wasn’t being heard on juke boxes or on the radio.

That led to a number of things, one of which was the discovery in 1938 that one of their heroes, Jelly Roll Morton, had been abandoned by history. At the time, he was tending bar in a seedy dive in Washington D.C. called The Jungle Inn, and this group of record collectors alerted Alan Lomax, who by then was working for the Library of Congress. Lomax subsequently recorded an absolutely extraordinary interview over a period of three or four weeks, in which Jelly Roll Morton told his version of the history of jazz in the brothels and dives of New Orleans. After these interviews were completed, the trio of Ramsey, Russell and Smith decided to write their own book which would get to the heart of the story of where jazz and the blues had begun. So, they set about interviewing old jazz musicians in and around New Orleans, and the publication in 1939 of their book Jazzmen initiated a new wave of interest in old, authentic, New Orleans music. There were many things that interested me about that, the most central of which was the development of this network of record collecting in the late 1930’s and 1940’s that was mostly made up of men living in places like New York or Chicago, and who had the time and money to put into hunting for old recordings. By the early 1940’s, specialist magazines began to appear. Record Changer, for example, was completely devoted to publishing the “want lists” of record collectors. It was an extremely convoluted network of exchange in which groups of friends and cultists would develop particular passions for certain kinds of old recordings, eventually giving rise in the 1950’s and 1960’s to an interest called “country blues.”

PH  While reading this segment of your book, I was reminded of a word one of the record store clerks in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity used to describe a particular record collector — an “obscurantist.”  Having worked in a record store for many years, I would argue, as you do, that there is a cultism around the “want list” of a collector that is almost other-worldly.

MBH  That is a fantastic word because it captures this cultism exactly. There is a kind of connoisseur sensibility, that almost by definition the stuff that sold well commercially could not be any good, whereas the stuff that was inaccessible, that didn’t sell well and that is now hard to find is the music that is actually most desirable.

The cult of and luster for country blues among these record collectors came about because not only were recordings by Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James and Robert Johnson not successfully sold to African Americans, but other record collectors were not interested in them either. There were so many collectors of New Orleans jazz that not only did the recordings became too expensive to collect, they also didn’t want them — they wanted to find something that required more energy to uncover, and more energy to actually appreciate. Anyone who has ever listened to Charley Patton knows that you have to learn how to listen to him, you have to really struggle — it is a work of archeology, really, to make out what he is saying. It is powerful, and I don’t want to deny its power, but you have to learn how to hear that power, and African Americans, when these records came out, didn’t necessarily hear that.

PH  Until James McKune and this small group of collectors, no one was looking for 78’s by the likes of Bullett Williams or Ramblin’ Thomas…McKune was always looking for what record collectors I have dealt with in my own life experiences refer to as the “realstuff.” McKune’s is a great story……

MBH  Yes, and his story is really at the heart of the book. He was quite a mysterious figure in a lot of ways — even to the other record collectors who knew him and who were in many ways his disciples. He was born sometime between 1910 and 1915 and moved to New York in the late 1930’s. He moved into a single room at the Williamsburg YMCA and had a job on the Long Island desk of the New York Times as a copy editor. Although he wasn’t openly homosexual, his friends believed he was. He began drinking at some point but couldn’t tolerate alcohol, which sent his life into a downward spiral, and, after living for 25 years at the YMCA, he ended up on the streets in the mid-1960’s. He was eventually murdered in a sex attack by someone he had picked up while living in a welfare hotel in 1971.

Sometime in the early 1940’s he began collecting blues recordings by singers that no other collectors were after. In 1944, after he heard Charley Patton for the first time, he became absolutely transfixed by him and began collecting Patton and singers who sounded like Patton. In the process, he developed this very rarefied sense of exactly what constitutes a great blues singer.   He advertised for recordings he wanted in the back pages of Record Changer, and, in the process, met other collectors who were disaffected by the whole cult of New Orleans jazz, and who noticed the singularity of what he was after. They wrote one another and would meet at record stores like Indian Joes on Times Square. McKune became a mentor to a group of slightly younger collectors around New York who, by the 1950’s, called themselves the “Blues Mafia.” They were absolutely fixated on finding recordings that sounded like Charley Patton.

You have to cast your mind back to the days before any of this stuff was available on LP, when no liner notes existed to explain who any of these singers were — and these were singers who, in some cases, made only a few recordings that had absolutely disappeared. Since the collectors knew nothing about them, much of their time was spent listening to the voices and evaluating them on their artistic merit, but also imagining what somebody named Furry Lewis might have looked like. So, they spun these mythologies around these singers and their voices.

McKune became a mover and shaker behind what would become the blues revival of the 1960’s. In 1961, his friend Pete Whelan decided to set up a label called “The Origins Jazz Library,” which was partly prompted in response to the publication of a book called The Country Blues by the record collector and writer Samuel Charters. The book got a fair amount of attention, which the Blues Mafia were incensed by since they felt that Charters got the singers all wrong. While he wrote a short chapter about Robert Johnson, he was the only real country blues singer Charters included. He didn’t mention Charley Patton, and he didn’t mention who the Blues Mafia believed to be all the right people. So, they decided to put together a record label that would reissue all their old 78’s. They scavenged around for the best, least scratchy copies of their 78’s, they got an engineer to transfer the recordings on to tape, and they put together albums with titles like The Mississippi Blues, and Really! The Country Blues, which was a direct slap at Charters, suggesting that, unlike his book, their recordings were going to have the real thing. Those albums were incredibly influential — they are the recordings that exposed Greil Marcus to the country blues.

PH  The blues revival of the 1960’s, when artists like Skip James, Son House, and Mississippi Fred McDowell toured colleges and played festivals, had a tremendous influence on great rock musicians of that period. The influence that Robert Johnson’s recordings had on Eric Clapton as a young musician is pretty well known….

MBH  Yes, all of that kind of percolates out from these reissued recordings, which have become art objects whose value go far beyond the financial means of these collectors — particularly McKune, who made it a matter of principle to never pay more than three dollars for a record. Even by the 1970’s, an original 78 RPM recording by Robert Johnson or Charley Patton was valued in the thousands of dollars. Today, the Origins Jazz Library reissues themselves are rare and cost a great deal of money if you can get your hands on them.

PH  How did the work of these collectors impact your own understanding of and appreciation for the blues?

MBH  I started this book being skeptical about the Delta Blues. I couldn’t really hear what other people were hearing, but after I spent the time getting into the mind sensibilities of these collectors, I can now actually listen to Robert Johnson for pleasure, so something shifted in me. I am not a blues aficionado, but I can hear that luster now. I don’t want to give the impression that the purpose of this book is to debunk the blues, or to debunk the meaning that it had in the lives of the musicians and their listeners. I think the search for “the real thing” is something that almost everybody engages in at some point or another — that is part of what being human is all about, to find something that touches you in that way. But the search for what is real in black music also raises lots of issues in the American context about race and politics and power, and it is important to think about that.




Roots RL-339

“In the end, theirs is not a straightforward history, with a discernible chronology, a specifiable time line.  To excavate the idea of the Delta blues is to describe something more amorphous and intangible:  a history of voices and responses to voices, of the memories and emotions they generate, of how those associations change over time.  What emerges from their stories is a genealogy of feeling and sensibility.  Out of that journey of the imagination was created what we know as the Delta blues, a music of archaic, uncompromised voices, captured on commercial recordings and yet — magically, paradoxically — pristinely untouched by the modern world.”

– Marybeth Hamilton


My Black Mama, Charley Patton

In Search of the Blues


Marybeth Hamilton


About Marybeth Hamilton

Marybeth Hamilton was born in California and teaches American history at Birkbeck College, University of London.  She is the author of When I’m Bad, I’m Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment and the writer and presenter of documentary features for BBC Radio.  She lives in London, England


A sampling of critical acclaim and reviews

High Fidelity excepted, books about record collectors are pretty rare, but here’s one, and it’s brilliant…An instant classic.”

Record Collector


In Search of the Blues renders, in shimmering prose, superb field recordings of the blues searchers themselves, revealing why they searched, what they found, and how their humble, obsessed pursuits helped change the world.”

— Sean Wilentz


“Marybeth Hamilton is a detective pursuing other detectives — the motley group of characters who, over the course of the twentieth century, bit by bit uncovered the mysteries of the blues — who are, as it turns out, both so many Schliemanns at Troy and so many blind men circling the proverbial elephant. Hamilton’s story is riveting, her prose is elegant and concise, and her insights about the music, race relations, and the mechanics of cultural transmission are unfailingly acute.”

— Luc Sante


“Though critical, Hamilton’s portraits aren’t one-sided. Rich bits of context–including memorable excerpts from Lomax’s love letters–insure that we sympathize with the usually well meaning enthusiasts. The result is a challenging and surprisingly timely book: In Search of the Blues serves as a reminder that even in the hip-hop era, white connoisseurship of black culture remains a complicated matter.”

Time Out New York, 2/6/08


“Wherever you happen to light in Marybeth Hamilton’s In Search of the Blues you find Columbus — the discovery of America in the drama of Americans discovering each other. It’s no matter that it’s the twentieth century, not the fifteenth — blacks and whites are strangers, so white people turn into detectives and black people into fugitives, shadows on the wall or hiding in plain sight. In this book, you never know how any story is going to turn out, and as the story goes on the suspense builds up.”

— Greil Marcus



Marybeth Hamilton products at


If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with Barry Lee Pearson, author of Robert Johnson: Lost and Found, and Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1890 – 1919 author Tim Brooks .



This interview took place on May 23, 2008




# Text from publisher.

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One comments on “Marybeth Hamilton, author of In Search of the Blues”

  1. One of the long traditions in blues writing, particularly bad blues writing, is that white people like to read that black blues music had to do with… white people. Hamilton knows embarrassingly little about the history of blues music. This book is full of simple errors (such as claiming artists from the Delta weren’t from the Delta), distortions, and snide approaches to discussing important hardworking people such as folklorist Howard Odum, without whom we would have roughly _half_ the hard evidence of what blues music sounded like during the ten years before Handy published “Memphis Blues.” Having read this misguided book (sure to please some academics who are more interested in seeing dead white people written about snidely than in music), I know that if I ever become interested in Mae West’s life, I should ignore Hamilton’s book about her.

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