Alfred Lion (April 21, 1908 – February 2, 1987) was a Jewish German-born American record executive who co-founded Blue Note Records in 1939. Blue Note recorded many of the biggest names in jazz throughout the 1940s, '50s, and '60s.
Alfred Lion, born to a German Jewish family, at Gotenstrasse 7 on the "Rote Insel" in Berlin, (just two minutes' walk away from Marlene Dietrich's birthplace) began his lifelong fascination with jazz at the age of 16 when he saw a concert given by Sam Wooding's Orchestra in his native town. In 1929 Lion migrated to the United States, but a physical attack necessitated hospital treatment, and he was forced to return to Germany. From 1933 Lion was based in South America, working for German import-export companies, only returning to New York in 1938. Lion's presence at one of the concerts given under the From Spirituals to Swing banner at Carnegie Hall inspired him to start his own record label.
In partnership with communist writer Max Margulis (he supplied the start-up capital) Lion founded Blue Note in 1939. In the label's first record session on January 6, Lion recorded two musicians who had impressed him at the earlier concert: the boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis. The company's first hit, recorded in the same year, was Sidney Bechet's recording of "Summertime". It was notable for being issued on a 12" 78rpm record instead of the then standard 10" owing to its length.
By the time Lion was drafted into the army, his Berlin childhood friend Francis Wolff had joined him, and under the wing of Milt Gabler and his Commodore Music Store, Wolff sustained the business in Lion's absence. (Margulis had by now permanently dropped out of any involvement with Blue Note.)
At the persuading of Ike Quebec, their artists and repertoire (A&R) man, Lion began to explore more modern developments in jazz, and Quebec introduced Lion to Thelonious Monk, the first 'modern' jazz musician Blue Note was to record. Blue Note's involvement with modern jazz was not total for several years, and Lion continued his label's association with Bechet and clarinetist George Lewis into the 1950s. Wolff would supervise few sessions himself until after Lion's retirement, concentrating on the company's business affairs.
What became known as the "hard bop" style would predominate in Blue Note's output during the 1950s and 1960s. Musicians such as Art Blakey and Horace Silver among others epitomised this style. In the mid-1950s, however, Blue Note was a struggling label, hit by the record industry's changeover to the 12" LP format, but the popularity of the organ/soul jazz craze, driven by the innovative work of Jimmy Smith, ensured that the label survived.
Three significant elements make Blue Note releases stand out: the work of recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder, the photographs of Francis Wolff and the cover designs principally by Reid Miles. Lion and Wolff were also respected by musicians for their straight dealing and for "hanging out" in the jazz scene.
Blue Note also recorded avant-garde musicians like Andrew Hill and Cecil Taylor. Indeed it was Lion's discovery of Hill, which he would later cite, along with his earlier involvement with Thelonious Monk and their fellow pianist Herbie Nichols, as having given him particular pleasure during his career.
Duke Pearson, whom Lion appointed after Quebec's death in 1963, helped to ensure that the label's roster remained fresh as a whole. In fact the popularity that Horace Silver's Song for My Father and Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder enjoyed resulted in Lion being pressured by his distributors into producing more hits.
Having suffered from heart problems for some years, Lion retired in 1967 having sold the Blue Note label and catalogue to Liberty Records in 1965. Wolff stayed with the label until his death in 1971. Liberty Records in turn was acquired by United Artists, and the Blue Note imprint went dormant until it was revived by record executive Bruce Lundvall under the ownership of EMI.
Lion himself retired to Mexico with his second wife, the former Ruth Mason, and dropped out of any direct connection with his earlier life, although he remained in contact with Horace Silver, who respected his privacy. Lion contacted the co-founder of Mosaic Records, Michael Cuscuna, around 1984 having noticed that label's early box-sets of Blue Note recordings. At the end of his life, Lion gained the recognition he had often been denied, including visiting several Blue Note festivals in Japan. He died in San Diego.
There has been an extensive reissue campaign under Lundvall's direction of Blue Note recordings, many of which have been spearheaded by Cuscuna.
- Michael Cuscuna, Michel Ruppli: The Blue Note label. A discography. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001.
- Colin Larkin: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music. Third edition. New York: Macmillan, 1998.
- Donald Clarke (Ed.): The Penguin encyclopedia of popular music. London: Viking, 1989.
- Barry Dean Kernfeld (Ed.): The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. London: Macmillan Press, 1988.
-  "It's a bit of an irony that the Blue Note label — synonymous with jazz, the seminal American music form — was created by two German immigrants. In Blue Note Records, The Biography, author Richard Cook tells the story of Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, who formed the label in 1939."