Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels

Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels

David Adler and a few CDs
Photo by Dr. Jennifer M. Good

I’m in a Manhattan hair salon, waiting for my turn under the scissors. A DJ on WBLS-FM comments breathlessly on the signing of Patti LaBelle to Def Jam Records. “That’s huge, for both of them!” she exclaims. Why? Because LaBelle remains one of the great R&B divas, and Def Jam, since its emergence in the mid ’80s, is arguably the label most responsible for the mainstreaming of hip-hop around the globe. (Def Jam is now owned by Island Def Jam Music Group, a subsidiary of Universal.) What excited the DJ was an apparent interchange between two powerful forces in black popular music. Both artist and label were defying expectations, broadening one another’s horizons, perhaps even reshaping the pop world itself. (The truth is not as seismic: LaBelle signed with Def Jam’s new R&B imprint, Def Jam Classics.)

It usually takes a DJ, or another type of music industry insider, to notice these things. Ask a member of the general public what label their favorite musician records for, and they’re not likely to know. To many it seems an arcane detail, and in some sense it is. A label is a packager of a product, and consumers, we know, aren’t often conscious of where their products come from. Labels are commonly viewed as a means to an end, as mere conduits rather than shapers of musical culture. We are aware of individual artists but often take for granted the aural and visual worlds that labels create through their catalogs.

Labels can confer badges of identity on their artists; this is especially true in the hip-hop world. In some instances a label name, like Motown or Stax, can become synonymous with a particular style of music. In the jazz world, labels such as Blue Note and ECM have fulfilled similar roles.

Jazz history is to some extent label history. John Coltrane had his Prestige period, his Atlantic period, his Impulse! period. There is a world of difference between Miles Davis on Prestige, on Columbia, and on Warner, or Joe Henderson on Blue Note, on Milestone, and on Verve. In these cases and many others, the labels themselves are landmarks in an artistic journey. But again, these matters are of interest mainly to critics, historians, and other insiders. Even the cultivated jazz fan may not have label information like this on the tip of his or her tongue.

Today, many believe that the “golden age” of jazz has passed. But there are probably more jazz labels than ever before. The vast majority are small, independent operations. They vary widely in terms of artistic focus and level of professionalism. Quite a few are releasing extraordinary music. In fact, a strong case can be made for indie jazz as one of the most vibrant and innovative artistic spheres of our time. Yet like proverbial trees falling in the forest, the labels’ efforts, and thus scores of brilliant jazz musicians, go largely ignored. Jazz, as a result, is often mistaken for dead. The profiles that follow ought to help reverse that impression.

Phil Schaap, the noted jazz historian, has remarked that the album itself is a jazz innovation (as is the live album). But the great rock bands of the ’60s and ’70s were the ones truly to establish the album as the audio canvas par excellence. In fact, AOR or “album-oriented rock” mushroomed into an entire genre of its own. Bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin used the album, rather than the ephemeral hit single, as their creative frame of reference. (Yet it was the Beatles, no strangers to hit singles, who arguably invented album rock with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.) When these bands took to the studio, their goal was not to document a live performance. Quite the contrary, they viewed the studio as a veritable magic shop, capable of generating sounds that were larger than life. The punk movement, by contrast, had little regard for this sort of excess, deriding the culprits as “dinosaur bands.” But still, punk legends like The Clash and The Replacements were masters of AOR, albeit in a different guise.

Jazz musicians, by contrast, tend to be creatures of the bandstand. Many view the making of an album as inescapably artificial — freezing spontaneity on tape, removing the audience factor, and constricting live interplay with headphones, isolation booths, and so forth. While jazz has its share of iconic albums (John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is an obvious example), it has never been an album art first and foremost.

Some of today’s jazz labels remain committed to recording jazz in as pure and unmediated a fashion as possible. Others, following the lead of young musicians raised on rock, hip-hop, and other popular musics, see no harm in jazz becoming a studio art as well as a live art. Jazz cannot help but evolve, just as the album itself has evolved.

At first, an album was simply a collection of 78-rpm singles, grouped together in a self-contained package. (Columbia/Legacy’s mammoth, ten-CD Billie Holliday reissue of 2002 was designed to look like an old 78 album.) Beginning in the 1950s, singles went the route of 45-rpm, seven-inch records; albums transitioned to the short-lived ten-inch format, which was soon overturned by the familiar 12-inch LP. (Ten-inch records are still produced as specialty items—EPs and the like.)

In 1979 the Philips Corporation, co-owner of PolyGram Records, introduced the CD, which by the mid ’80s began to revolutionize the market and temporarily reverse the sagging fortunes of the post-disco record industry. Now, downloading and other new forms of distribution and delivery have thrown the business yet another curve. These technologies may ultimately eclipse the CD as well.

That would be fine with a lot of people. The CD may have gained market dominance, but it was never thoroughly loved. The LP, in contrast, still has passionate advocates among collectors, hip-hop and club DJs, and audiophiles who swear by the organic sound qualities of the format. Many also bemoan the loss of packaging and design possibilities in the switch from LP to CD, from a 12-inch to a 5-inch layout. All visual elements, from booklets to photos to text, have been drastically reduced in size. One-of-a-kind album cover concepts, like the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers or Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, are a thing of the past. Tri-fold Digipacks and other custom CD packaging solutions can never quite match the impressive gatefold sleeves of yore. Even the “compact” aspect of the CD seems questionable. The thing still takes up plenty of room (and is impossible to open).

In the age of downloading, as the act of listening becomes even more disembodied, we are beginning to access album covers not with our hands, but with our eyes, on a computer screen. In time, we might cease to think of music products as tangible at all. Our very notion of ownership could change. Just ask alto saxophonist and jazz visionary Steve Coleman—he’s giving away the better part of his recorded output at

But for now, ours is still the CD age, and record labels have made the best of it, figuring out ways to make their products look and feel satisfying. In the jazz world, some dismiss presentation as a superficial matter, a commercial ploy, a hustle—what they associate with the vain, calculating practices of pop music. There’s something to be said for the belief that jazz should remain unsullied by preoccupations with image and appearance. But this view can be limiting as well. As Dave Douglas rightly remarked in the August 2002 issue of DownBeat magazine, “[An album] should be something very special—a product, basically, that people own and have, like a book or a painting, that they can enjoy in their homes.” Shoddy presentation—e.g., unimaginative designs, amateurish photos, liner notes riddled with typos—needn’t be added to the list of jazz’s already numerous marketing disadvantages.

It’s no accident that historic jazz labels like Blue Note and Impulse! had sleek, signature looks (Francis Wolff’s photos and Reid Miles’s designs in the case of Blue Note, sepia hues and majestic gatefolds in the case of Impulse!). This lesson is not lost on some of today’s jazz label managers. At a time when do-it-yourself productions are on the rise (a phenomenon hardly limited to jazz), label people are using the resources at hand, tapping the talents of their graphic designer friends and extending the collaborative ethos of the arts in the process.

Many of the people interviewed for this series used the word “fun” when discussing album design and layout. That sense of fun, ideally, gets across to the person browsing in the record store, where Winter & Winter discs, for instance, are immediately identifiable. As Peter Gordon of Thirsty Ear Recordings points out, good design is simply an acknowledgement of the way we live now: “We’re looking at screens all day long. Our eyes are talking all the time. [An album package] can be either a valuable space for communication or a wasted space.” Some labels, such as CIMP, define themselves through their recording processes, in opposition to more processed studio sounds. Labels like Playscape, Red Giant and Pi are run directly by musicians and cater to their own highly specific needs; others, like Palmetto and HiPNOTIC, have made their mark not through a specific look or sound, but rather an overarching commitment to musical diversity and grass-roots artist development.

Designing the best possible communication, however, doesn’t ensure that the message will be received. On that score, the signs for jazz aren’t particularly good. For independent jazz labels are plankton in the ocean of mass-market entertainment. And the major labels are the whales.

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