Blue Note Founder Alfred Lion Dies : Most Greats of Jazz Recorded on His New York Label

Times Staff Writer

Alfred Lion, who fled his native Germany in protest against the Nazi regime and became a major influence on the most American of art forms as founder of the jazz-only Blue Note Record Co., died of heart failure Monday at Pomerado Hospital in Poway.

Lion, 78, and his wife, Ruth, had lived in Rancho Bernardo since 1979.

Almost every major jazz player of the past 50 years recorded with Lion’s New York company at one time or another. He is credited with “discovering” pianists Horace Silver and Herbie Hancock. Among other jazz stars, he recorded Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Tadd Dameron, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon and John Coltrane.

Under Lion’s direction, Blue Note produced more than 900 recordings, many of them masterpieces, all based on artistic merit rather than commercial appeal.


“Alfred Lion was one of the outstanding examples of integrity in the music world,” said Times jazz critic Leonard Feather. “Everything he did (in recording) was because he believed in the music.”

Born in Berlin in 1908, Lion fell in love with jazz as a child at an ice-skating rink.

“One day, I went to the skating rink and found I was there on the wrong day,” Lion recalled in a 1985 interview. “Instead of skating, they had a show . . . Sam Wooding accompanying the Chocolate Kiddies Revue; he had an 8- or 10-piece band, and I was totally fascinated.”

He went to New York in 1925, working at a series of different jobs, but spent virtually all of his spare time at Harlem jazz clubs and dance halls, and collecting records. Forced to return to Germany with the onset of the Depression in 1930, he worked in an import-export house.

His wife said that, although Lion and his mother were Lutherans, they had many Jewish friends and, as Hitler’s persecutions of the Jews began, they decided to leave, settling briefly in Chile in 1936 before moving to New York.

Ruth Lion said her husband became a record producer “almost by accident,” after hearing boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis at a 1938 “Spirituals to Swing Concert” at Carnegie Hall.

He was so taken by their music that he decided to record them himself for his own enjoyment--and did just that on Jan. 9, 1939. He rented a studio and ordered a few dozen pressings of 12-inch, 78 r.p.m. records for his friends. The demand was so great that he made a few more recordings of other artists, mostly Dixieland players such as Sidney Bechet, and Blue Note was born.


After his discharge from the Army at the end of World War II, Lion picked up where he had left off, sticking mostly to traditional jazz. But in 1947, he was persuaded to record some swing-style combos, and later the same year, he began producing a series of be-bop dates with Powell, Monk and Pete Novarro.

Lion sold the company to Liberty-United Artists in 1966 after suffering a heart attack. He and his wife moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where they lived until moving to San Diego.

The label was kept technically alive after Lion’s departure but was rejuvenated in 1985 by Bruce Lundvall, an event launched at a benefit concert by virtually all of the jazz players Lion worked with; Lion was introduced to a standing ovation.

Private services will be held Thursday in Escondido. A memorial service is scheduled Monday at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New York City. Beside his wife, Lion is survived by two stepdaughters.