Saturday, December 3, 2022

Francis Wolff, Blue Note Jazz Photographer and Cousin

Many years ago I tracked down a 2nd cousin of my Father's who is related via the WOLFF family of Berlin and Posen.  He had some amazing photos to share, and he asked if we were somehow related to the famous Francis Wolff, one of the original founders of Blue Note records and the photographer who took all those iconic black and white portraits of the New York Jazz age.  

Well, I have to admit I had no idea, and at the time I didn't find anything to connect us. So, I dropped it. For the time being.  

The Wolff Family

My 2nd great grandfather Emanuel Wolff was in the petroleum business with his brother Gustav in Berlin.  They were close. In fact, the two Wolff brothers from Posen married two Wolff sisters from Schroda (not related). They both had four children, and their signatures are witnesses to the marriages as the next generation came of age in Berlin. 

Brothers WOLFF married Sisters WOLFF

Because of the double marriage, my great grandmother Marie was a double-cousin of Gustav's children. So, they're special to me (especially with DNA testing), and I was reviewing their tree to see if any descendants are still alive. 

Pro Tip: Review your family tree from time to time as new records are bound to pop-up. 

Well, good news and bad news. The good news is during the review I found that Gustav had four children: three sons and a daughter.  I previously only had evidence of his sons Paul and Georg, who were both murdered in the Holocaust. The newly discovered son, Kurt was never married and died in 1914. And, his daughter Esther died in 1907 at the age of 30.

Sadly, I didn't have any record of any grandchildren in my tree.  

Following my new lead on Gustav's daughter, I found that she had been married, and had two children! Esther had married Siegfried KLEMPNER in 1896 and had a daughter Grete in 1897 and a son Hans in 1898. There were indeed grandchildren. As Ether was a 1st cousin of my great grandmother, that makes Grete and Hans 2nd cousins of my grandmother! That was great news for about ten minutes until I found that both had also perished in the Holocaust.  

However, there will still a faint glimmer of light.  Grete had married in 1920 to Berthold BLUMENTHAL. She could have had children, and in fact the Nazi census of 1939 showed a son Werner Heinz Blumenthal, aged 12 living with his father. It also said he was deported to Auschwitz and murdered in April 1943. 

Horrible. And sadly this happens to me all the time. I find relatives that are born between 1885 and 1930 in Germany, and for a short time all is well. There is hope. There is life. That is until I search the Holocaust databases for their names. Just plain horrible. 

So, with all the new data I had put into Geni, they have me a MyHeritage hint. There was a Blumenthal family tree on MyHeritage that strongly indicated there was living Blumenthal family in Australia of all places. The match was on Berthold and Grete, and showed another, older son that survived! 

Kurt Wolfgang BLUMENTHAL was born in Berlin on 4 May 1921, and was 17 years old on 17 Feb 1939 when he shipped out from England to Hong Kong. His parents had sent him ahead to England, ultimately bound for Australia, with plans to follow with his younger brother. They did not make it.  He did.  I can't even imagine. 

However, it did mean my father's 3rd cousin survived. He was married in Australia in 1951, had three children (my 4th cousins), and lived to the age of 76. 

It's All About The Photos

So, that's great. I thought this was a story about Francis Wolff. You know, one of the leading jazz photographers of all time?

Okay, so we're slowly getting to him. I haven't forgotten about him. However, this is exactly how family history research goes.  You pull one thread and end up somewhere you didn't expect, so allow me to continue pulling the thread.  

For me, much of the joy of researching my family revolves around photographs.  Finding 2nd or 3rd cousins with amazing photos, and then sharing our finds together in an ever-growing reunion. 

And in this case, when I contacted my "new" Australian cousins they didn't disappoint.   Kurt had managed to carry with him at least one photo album, and those photos are priceless.  There was a photo of Gustav's wife Minna -- the sister of my 2nd great grandmother Hedwig.  They were definitely sisters; the family resemblance was remarkable.  I then was able to share back with them a photo of Gustav and Gustav's parents!  That's what it is all about.  They also had photos of Esther and her husband Siegfried, likely the only way I would have ever found a photo of them. They also had photos of Esther's brother Paul... good old uncle Paul.  

However, there was a problem. No photos of Kurt or Georg.    That seemed strange to me, so I went back to the tree to see if I could find more information about them. Did I have it wrong.   And, no I didn't.  I found Kurt's 1914 death certificate, and it's a match. And, since Kurt died young, perhaps there weren't many photos of him in the first place.  That left Georg...  What's up with him.  Well, I found him too. I found his 2 Jan 1906 marriage in Berlin to Doris JOACHIMCZYK.  His parents match, and his brother Paul signed page 2 as a witness. 

1906 marriage of Georg Wolff in Berlin

On top of that, I also found his 14 Sep 1881 birth certificate in the Berlin archives on Ancestry. And, there was a hint.  Ancestry is good like that... Hints!  

The hint was in the Berlin, Germany, Births, 1874-1908 collection, and it was for a son named Jacob Franz Wolff, born 5 April 1907 in Berlin.  

1907 birth of Jacob Franz Wolff in Berlin

Now what's interesting, is that both the 1906 marriage and the 1907 birth didn't show up the first time I searched around this area many years ago.  Germany has a law that birth records over 110 years old are public, so the 1907 births were not released until 2017, and then there was a lag as they were indexed and finally uploaded onto Ancestry.  

Pro Tip: As time marches on, collections get updated with newly released information. 

Jacob Franz Wolff

Well, that was another great find. Another new 2nd cousin for my grandmother. 

However, I wasn't getting my hopes up due to the Nazi-era notes on the birth certificate's margin.  Sadly, I've seen these notes before, and they generally are bad news. On 17 August 1938 the Nazis passed a law that all male Jews had to adopt the middle name of "Israel" and all women had to add "Sara", and on 8 May 1939, a clerk in Berlin found Jacob's birth certificate and stamped it to add the name Israel.  Now, this was one of the ways the Nazis found all the Jews to be deported. Paperwork.  Now, what was nice to see on this one was that on 4 Sept 1950 there is a stamp undoing the illegal (by then) name change. Did he survive?  How come I've never heard of him before? 

Ancestry gave me a few more hints once I'd added him to the tree, and I found that he had arrived in New York City aboard the SS Albert Ballin on 3 May 1926 and applied for US Citizenship on 20 Oct 1926.  Then gone back to Germany, and then back to New York again in 1939.

He was going by his middle name of Franz, which is a common German name convention.  And, there were a lot more suggested records with the name Francis Wolff with the same 1907 birth date.  Looking closer at the addresses and other details, it was clear that he had moved to New York and changed his name to Francis Wolff. 

So, I googled him... Francis Wolff, 1907.  And, uh... whoa!

Francis Wolff (April 5, 1907 – March 8, 1971) was a record company executive, photographer and record producer. Wolff's skills, as an executive and a ... 
American, 1907–1971. ... Works. 1 work online. Reid Miles, Francis Wolff, Blue Note Records. Album cover for Freddie Hubbard, Hub-Tones. 1962. Exhibition.

One of the most renowned jazz photographers of all time, Francis Wolff (1907-1971) was essential to the success of the Blue Note record label.

Uh, really? 

Francis Wolff and Blue Note Records

Ah, that Francis Wolff! The man who lived life behind the lens and the records. Born in Berlin with a love of culture and the arts, he learned photography at a young age and soon became a pro. Then, he met his soulmate in jazz - Alfred Lion - and they tried their hand at selling jewelry, but the music called and they ended up co-founding the legendary Blue Note Records.

Frank was the shy one in the duo, content to be in the background and let Alfred take the spotlight. But little did everyone know, Frank was a master photographer, capturing iconic moments of jazz history with his trusty Rolleiflex camera. He was the silent partner who made sure the business was running smoothly, but he also brought his camera to every recording session for 28 years.

As the record company grew, Frank's photography became an essential component of the Blue Note look, with his heavily cropped and tinted images gracing the covers of their albums. And in the 1950s, when Rudy Van Gelder opened his custom-built studio, Frank had the space to really showcase his talents. The photographs he took there are now regarded as masterpieces, capturing the candid moments of jazz greats in the intimate setting of Rudy's living room-turned-studio.

In short, Francis Wolff was the photographer who always stayed in the background but left a lasting impact through his lens.

The Updated Family Tree

A family tree of Francis Wolff's close family presented in a straightforward manner.


There are several resources that you can use to learn more about Blue Note Records:

  1. Books:

    • "Blue Note: The Album Cover Art" by Graham Marsh and Glyn Callingham
    • "Blue Note Records: The Biography" by Richard Cook and Brian Morton
    • "The Blue Note Years: The Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff" by Michael Cuscuna
  2. Videos:

    • "A Great Day in Harlem" (1994) is a documentary film about the famous photograph of jazz musicians taken in 1958
    • "Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes" (2019) is a feature-length documentary about the history of Blue Note Records.
    • "Blue Note: A Story of Modern Jazz" (2008) documentary chronicling the history and influence of the iconic jazz record label, Blue Note Records.
    • "It Must Schwing" (2018) explores the swing era of jazz music in the 1930s and 1940s.
  3. Online Articles:

    • "Blue Note Records: The Jazz Label That Changed the Game" by David Wetmore, published on the website "All About Jazz"
    • "Blue Note: The Most Influential Jazz Label of All Time" by Michael J. West, published on the website "The Jazz Line"
  4. Online courses:

    • "Jazz Appreciation: Blue Note Records" on Coursera, taught by Dr. Billy Taylor.

These resources should provide you with a comprehensive understanding of the history, legacy, and impact of Blue Note Records on the jazz world.

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