Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels

Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels

Why our present focus on independent jazz labels? Because the major labels tend to view jazz as a losing investment, and their role in advancing the music has shrunk accordingly. There was a time when majors like Columbia (Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew) and Atlantic (Giant Steps, Change of the Century) could rightly claim credit as agents of jazz innovation. But even then, jazz indies, which emerged as a force in the late ’40s and early ’50s, were just as crucial to the music’s development (see Dan Ouellette’s “Going for Broke,” DownBeat, March 2001). Today, without the indies, jazz would indeed be nearly dead.

Thanks to the rapid corporate consolidation of the last decade or so, the majors can now be counted on the fingers of one hand. They are the music divisions of corporate titans like Bertelsmann, AOL Time Warner, and Vivendi Universal. These companies have tentacles—pardon the cliché—that extend to many other areas besides music. Jazz couldn’t be much lower on their priority lists. Even the pop divisions are struggling to deliver.

There was a time when stars like Rosemary Clooney made it more difficult to separate jazz from pop, and jazz still buttered the bread of a company like Columbia (see Ashley Kahn‘s Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, Da Capo, 2000). Now, major label jazz is a ghetto, a subdivision, miscellaneous. Phone a major label PR office and you’ll probably find jazz relegated to option eight or nine on the automated menu—way down there with classical music.

This is an old story: the epic battle between art and commerce. Weighed down by market pressures, the major labels are generally unable to create the kind of artist-focused climate in which the best jazz flourishes. Fewer artists are getting signed, and those that are face the constant threat of being dropped. A small handful, including Dave Douglas and Jason Moran, have managed consistently to do things their way. More find themselves resorting to contrived theme albums, on the dubious logic that this will boost sales. Albums that don’t perform well—and that would be the majority—are slated for “deletion,” which can result in entire portions of an artist’s oeuvre becoming nearly impossible to find (rendering moot the majors’ vaunted distribution powers). Most significantly, new artists must compete with a flood of reissues for shelf space and public attention. The busy reissue calendars of labels like Blue Note, Verve, and Columbia may be good for jazz’s recorded legacy, but struggling artists tend to view them as a mixed blessing, at best.

Matthew Shipp, the avant-garde pianist, had this to say in Phil Freeman‘s New York Is Now!: The New Wave of Free Jazz (Telegraph, 2001):

… [T]he whole major label jazz thing is crumbling anyway, completely eroding. It has no center, no vision, no life, no nothing. So I don’t really wanna be there. To me it doesn’t really have any relevance. The only thing that matters is that you will be in every bin in every little store, but what does that matter if there’s no vision or will to present your property to the public?

Shipp’s view may be overly bleak, but it does reflect an alienation that is widespread among today’s musicians. Even rock stars like Don Henley and Courtney Love have joined forces to battle the majors over royalties and other matters. A number of top-tier jazz artists, including Ralph Peterson, Steve Turre, Benny Green, D.D. Jackson, Mark Turner, Javon Jackson, and Charlie Hunter, did noteworthy stints on major labels but were thrust back into the indie world after their contracts lapsed or were terminated.

In a previous era this would have been seen as a backward step; in today’s jazz world it is far more ambiguous. The independent label has gained a new cachet, leading the field both in terms of creative vision and audience development. (Again, this phenomenon is not limited to jazz.) As Shipp’s remarks suggest, indie labels cannot offer their artists nearly the amount of marketing muscle that the majors can. But an indie can guarantee artistic freedom and an emphasis on musical rather than commercial priorities.

That said, the indie scene is far from some Shangri-la, where nothing ever goes wrong. It’s safe to say that most jazz musicians have had a lousy or at least lukewarm experience with an independent label or two. Indies can be just as over-committed, shortsighted, and phlegmatic as any major. Many fine players, in fact, view the entire recording business as a wasteland. They look instead to steady touring and gigging as the best way to bring in money and build a following. With digital recording technology becoming more accessible, many musicians would rather produce and finance their own recordings. Shopping for a label almost becomes an afterthought. Some players form their own utilitarian labels and self-release their records, an option that at least preserves their ownership of the rights to their work.

It also needs to be said that the indies don’t have a monopoly on artistic value. In all fairness, the majors, despite their shortcomings, continue to release some very worthwhile music. Let’s have a look:

Then there are the big, venerable indies, some tied to the majors in various ways, some not. A strong case could be made for German-based ECM Records as the best, most influential jazz label currently in operation. Independently owned and operated, ECM is licensed to and distributed by Universal Classics, and before that, BMG and PolyGram. (If it weren’t for these licensing agreements, ECM product would be available only via import.) Under the rock-steady direction of producer Manfred Eicher, ECM remains every bit as forward-thinking and distinctive as it was when it launched in 1969. The label consistently tops critics’ polls with extraordinary releases by the likes of Keith Jarrett, Dave Holland, and many other greats.

Fantasy, founded in 1949, is now the largest independent record company in the United States. In the ’70s the Bay Area-based enterprise began purchasing historically important labels like Riverside and Milestone (both founded by Orrin Keepnews), Prestige, Contemporary, Pablo, and more. Fantasy is therefore more accurately described as a family of labels. Its Original Jazz Classics (OJC) line is the Rosetta Stone of reissue programs.

Another California shop, Beverly Hills-based Concord Records, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. The label provided a late-career platform for departed giants like Mel Tormé, Charlie Byrd, and Carmen McRae. It also gave us the superb Live at Maybeck Recital Hall solo piano series. Concord’s current roster includes bassist John Patitucci, guitarist Howard Alden, pianist Marian McPartland, vocalists Karrin Allyson and Nneenna Freelon, and more. A fruitful and ongoing joint venture with Chick Corea‘s Stretch Records has led Concord to ink similar deals with Russ Freeman‘s Peak Records and cabaret singer Michael Feinstein‘s “Feinery” label. Concord is also gunning for a commercial breakthrough this year with the 19-year-old crooner/pianist and heartthrob, Peter Cincotti. If some of this seems a bit cheesy, well, it is. But give Concord credit for signing the edgy, M-Base-affiliated pianist Andy Milne as well.

Savoy, brainchild of the legendary Herman Lubinksy, began in the ’40s as the house label of the bebop movement. It has come back to life as the Savoy Label Group, a subsidiary of Columbia Music Entertainment, formerly Nippon Columbia. Under the guidance of Steve Vining and veteran A&R man Steve Backer, the new Savoy rolled out a series of attractive reissues in 2002 and returned to active recording with vocalist Carol Welsman‘s The Language of Love. More new releases will follow. In addition, having recently acquired 32 Jazz, Savoy now owns not only the Muse and Landmark catalogs, but also the lucrative “Jazz for a Rainy Day” compilation series.

There’s much good in the above scenario. The problem is that the good parts are shrinking. Jazz divisions are being reshuffled, starved of resources, watered down. Yet the majors continue to determine the financial rules of the game, and the indies, in most cases, must play or perish.

A word about the labels you will read about in the following pages: Their financial impact is negligible, but their creative impact is not. Some have been around for a while; others are just getting started. Some release as many as 25 albums per year, others perhaps one or two. Some are musician-run, others managed by full- or part-time entrepreneurs and/or producers. Some are “outside,” some “inside,” others in between. (To correct a common misconception, “indie” is not synonymous with “out.” Nor should it be.) Some adhere to a purist recording philosophy, while others most definitely do not. Some put time and effort into design and packaging, others less so. What links all of them is a commitment to documenting the work of some of the world’s finest musicians, many of whom would otherwise have no such opportunity.

If one thing in this tangled forest of labels remains clear, it’s that sweeping generalizations—jazz is too conservative, too radical, too pretty, too ugly—contribute little to our understanding of the music and its evolution. What I have attempted to advance in the following pages is a “big tent” theory of modern jazz. Traditionalist and avant-garde ideologues claim to know what’s best for the music, but they rarely get around to mentioning unheralded figures like bassist Drew Gress, who plays with equal skill and conviction in both mainstream and extremely “out” settings. People like Gress have managed to set aside the agendas and face the music on its own terms. Perhaps one day the partisan critics will catch up.

From Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels
by David R. Adler
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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