As part of our ongoing celebration of Crypto's 10th year, we're featuring the music journalism of one of our local scribes Kirk Silsbee, a man crazy enough to attempt write about all the different nooks and crannies of L.A.'s jazz scene with any kind of acuity. Today, it's a piece that's close to OUR heart: the general state of independent jazz record labels in Los Angeles. Take it away, Sils!
Notre Chef Courageux [photo by Maura C. Lanahan]
by Kirk Silsbee
We’re told that jazz accounts for two or three percent of the CD market. Many insiders consider this pittance an inflated estimate. While Concord Jazz is headquartered in Beverly Hills, it’s a conglomerate whose focus is on national mainstream jazz and pop artists. Despite the tradition of locally-owned and operated jazz labels like Pacific Jazz and Contemporary, Los Angeles hasn’t even had a viable mid-level operation since Albert Marx’s Discovery Records folded with his passing in 1991.
Those were, of course, mainstream labels in different times. Major labels like Warner Brothers have now gutted their jazz rosters as the recording industry scrambles en masse to keep up with a marketplace that is rapidly and radically changing. The closing of Aaron’s and Rhino Westwood—outlets for independent recordings—indicate trouble for retailers. So what do local musicians, whose music is out of the jazz mainstream, do for recording opportunities? To paraphrase Aretha Franklin: they’re doin’ it for themselves.
The trend of jazz and new music players documenting themselves reaches at least as far back as the loft jazz movement of the ‘70s. In this town, reed polymath Vinny Golia innovated the business model with his 9Winds label, which will observe a 30-year anniversary next year. It wasn’t too long before Golia was also providing recording opportunities for other musicians, including Quartet Music, vocalist Bonnie Barnett, trumpeter Jeff Kaiser, saxophonist Rich Halley, violinist Jeff Gauthier, pianist Wayne Peet, guitarist G.E. Stinson, bassist Ken Filiano, and drummer Jeanette Wrate. Musicians from all over the country and Canada are now represented in the 9Winds catalog.
Recently, Tom Hull, in the Village Voice, compiled a survey of independent labels around the country. Of local companies, only 9Winds appeared on his radar. Hull missed the other musician-entrepreneurs who are recording themselves and other SoCal players. Each label reflects the personal conviction and taste of its owners. Each musician has his own reasons for undertaking such a quixotic venture.
Jeff Kaiser and Jeff Gauthier both acknowledge the inspiration that the 9Winds model provided, yet they have different motivations. “I wanted my own label, even when I was in college in the ‘80s,” pfMENTUM owner Kaiser states. “I was raised in a family of entrepreneurs and I’ve always had that spirit. The label has never been about money; all of our artists have day jobs. Our focus is creative improvised music, but there are a lot of compositional elements. I just started a second label for electronica and indie rock: Angry Vegan Records.”
For Gauthier, the death of his fellow Quartet Music partner, bassist/composer Eric von Essen, was the impetus for Cryptogramophone. “He had over a hundred compositions,” Gauthier points out, “that had never been recorded and were in danger of never being heard. Starting a label and releasing Eric’s music in 2000 was my personal way of dealing with grief. The label started as a way of documenting the people I worked with. Now it’s spread out to include people like Erik Friedlander and Bill Frisell in New York and Scott Amendola and Ben Goldberg in San Francisco.”
To date there are three volumes of The Music of Eric von Essen. They feature an impressive array of local musicians and account for some of the most important and representative L.A. jazz recordings in the last ten years.
Far-removed from the grassroots level that most of the Cryptogramophone and pfMENTUM people work at, bassist Brian Bromberg has had a high-profile career. He’s universally respected as an upright player in traditional jazz settings (he was Stan Getz’s last regular bassist) but has also known commercial success on the smooth jazz charts. For him, the headaches of running his own label outweigh the uncertainties of a major label contract.“I’d been with three labels that had gone bankrupt,” says Bromberg, the exasperation audible in his voice, “and I’d had to get lawyers to sort things out. I was just done with record companies. They come and go but we only get so many shots in life. When the opportunity came along for me to have my own label, I took it.” Bromberg is one of four partners in Artistry Music (singer Rahsaan Patterson is another).
“We’ve got two artists and two business people, Bromberg relates. “Our common goal is to provide an atmosphere for artists to feel that they’ll be respected in. What was frustrating for me was releasing a good album and being given the run-around by company executives as to why it didn’t make it in the marketplace. At least now, if I succeed or fail, I do it on my own.”
Smooth jazz regulars Richard Elliott and Rick Braun—tenor sax and trumpeter, respectively—are one-half of the Artizen Music Group. “My partners and I decided to do this close to three years ago,” says Elliott. “Rick and I waited until our contracts were up with Verve and Warner Brothers, which happened at about the same time. Before I became a label owner, I would’ve told you that my decisions would be 100 per cent creative-driven. Now I’d say I have to consider the business side. I’ll admit I have to eat those words. I released my Metro Blue album last July and Rick’s Yours Truly came out in November.”
“When I was under contract, I’d say, ‘Oh the label sucks’ or ‘I can do a better job…’ Now I see there are factors beyond a label’s control. There can be problems with distribution and other factors. For us to record an artist, we have to love the music and be excited by it. Otherwise, it’s hard to evangelize the product. But we also have to ask ourselves, is this something that can sell?”
Drummer Joe LaBarbera was also frustrated with established jazz companies. “I just couldn’t get my product placed with them,” he sighs. “I’d send a tape over and they said they loved it but they’d never get back to me. Fortunately, (trumpeter) Clay Jenkins, (guitarist) Larry Koonse and (bassist) Tom Warrington all had the same idea that I did: to start our own label. We pooled out resources and started Jazz Compass. Our first release came out in 2001 and we’ve got 13 releases so far.”
“We started out as four friends and divvied up the chores and it’s worked out fine. All of us teach full time, all of us perform full time and all of us have families. So the added label responsibilities have gotten to be a little too much. We’ve hired Larry Hathaway, who’s had a lot of experience and record companies, especially with promotion. So he helps us out a lot. In the end, my biggest hope is that we stay friends.”
[Original published in L.A. CityBeat, Feb. 23, 2006]