logo  Why many records are very bad—and a few are good
  by Kevin Whitehead

As this is written in the fall of 2000, it looks as if the major record labels may be getting out of the jazz business—not for the first time. They had bailed out before, most recently in the 1970s. That retreat ushered in what some mainstream jazz fans portray as the music’s gloomiest hour, when the deep blue flame was nearly blown out by the noise blasting from fusion bands’ amps. But listeners aware and conscientious enough to click around OkkaDisk’s website may have a different vision of the 1970s. Jazz was bursting with ideas back then, to judge by new names on record-store browser cards like Air, Tim Berne, Carla Bley, Arthur Blythe, Eugene Chadbourne, Company, Anthony Davis, Julius Hemphill, the ICP Orchestra, Leroy Jenkins, Oliver Lake, trombonist George Lewis, Joe McPhee, David Murray, James Newton, Evan Parker, Dudu Pukwana, James Blood Ulmer, John Zorn—not to mention the flowering of late ’60s arrivals from Chicago’s AACM, such as Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, and the Art Ensemble.

None of the above musicians debuted on a major record label; they all built their reputations recording for their own or for someone else’s independent company. Maybe that’s the reason those who decry the death of jazz in the ’70s appear to have missed noticing them—they were looking in the wrong place, staring up instead of down—and therefore missed the decade’s big story: the consolidation and codification of the gains made by the 1960s free jazz movement. Instead of fretting about jazz’s future, folks who sought out LPs on such labels as Emanem, FMP, hat HUT, India Navigation, Parachute and Sackville were listening for it. To ignore that side of the ’70s makes for very bad history. Still, by the ’80s the majors were back in the jazz business, with a vengeance. Partly it was a matter of signing up artists like many of those named above, however briefly they were on the corporate roster. (But a few did survive, somehow: Arthur Blythe hung in at Columbia for years.) Partly also, it was a matter of signing up the “young lions”—the bebop-besotted and besuited saviors of those who thought jazz had almost died off—whose lifespans at the majors were not always appreciably longer than the outcats. (Marlon Jordan, anyone?) Whichever camp a musician came from, once a major booted them out the door, they were headed for the independents. Your might go from recording for Verve to recording for Muse, from Columbia to Arabesque.

Which might not be so bad, depending on a musicians’ experience at a major, not always a pleasant one. The principle the sharp critic Manny Farber applied to the movies in the ’50s applies also to recorded music: the less money spent on a production, the greater the artists’ chance of making an individual statement. Smaller is better. Less beans means fewer bean counters, and less supervision allows for certain loony inspirations. It’s why Kiss Me Deadly is a better movie than Ben-Hur. (Termite art vs. elephant art, Farber put it.) As soon as six people are looking over your shoulder, questioning your every move, creative risk-taking is out.

Corporate pressure takes several forms: Columbia, the story goes, wanted Wynton Marsalis to go electric when he signed up. (Raising the question, why sign him up on the basis of his rep, only to try to make him do something completely different from what made that rep?) But labels may leave a musician’s basic style untouched, and still interfere with repertoire and personnel. By the ’90s jazz records were produced like they were movies. Miles Davis became jazz’s Brando: it was worth it to pay him the big bucks for a few minutes work, just to get the star’s name into the advertising.

And ’90s records could be as high-concept as ’80s films. Every record had to have a theme, hamstringing the process of choosing material. Some good records were made in spite of the trend; after all one could usually find enough good songs associated with singer X or composer Y to fill a CD, and it didn’t exactly hurt to have jazz great Z drop by to take a solo or two.

But a lot of really stupid CDs got made too, not necessarily because producer A was any dumber than producer B. Sometimes it was a matter of how well suited to the material the nominal author was, and whether or not the artist could find a way into the material. Just like in the movies. Such bad concept records get made because producers have egos, in the record business as in the movies, and see themselves as part of the creative process, on a par with the musicians. This is a mistake. Alas, such ego-driven producers are not limited to the major companies. Many have their own boutique-y labels. In truth, these producers can be even more of a drag, seeing themselves as the real auteurs of the music their label or series presents. (Such labels are often easy to spot: the owners often pride themselves on making all the covers look alike, as if one visual style suited all the music. Never mind that the musicians whose cover ideas are rejected are sometimes trained artists themselves: why ask someone besides Han Bennink or Peter Brötzmann to design the cover of a Bennink or Brötzmann record?)

For almost as long as there have been long-playing albums, producers have tried to get artists to commit to absurd projects: why not record 10 tunes about Paris, or 12 with the months of the year in the titles. (Julie London did the latter in the ’50s). But a special prize should go to the unsung brainiac who originated the idea of an artist covering all the songs on someone else’s record. Which, to be fair, may not be so much worse than the ’50s and ’60s vogue for recording jazz versions of all the tunes from a Broadway show, including the ones written for actors who couldn’t sing.

Happily, some artists do resist. Steve Lacy turned down an offer to record Vivaldi with strings in the 60s. More recently, one producer suggested that an outski clarinetist record an album of Pee Wee Russell tunes. Let’s see, that gives you “Pee Wee’s Blues,” and several other attractive blues heads—and what else? You can bet the producer didn’t know, any more than he grasped that what made Pee Wee a giant had little to do with his composing. (Forgive the odious practice of not naming names—some of these artists and producers still work together, and this way this article won’t turn up when the egotistical producers search the web for their own names.)

 And to be fair, it’s not like producer’s never have good ideas: Orrin Keepnews had a good one when he convinced Monk to record an Ellington program—ditto Stanley Dance, when he suggested the same to Earl Hines. But either artist, Hines especially, had already had opportunities to make records they wanted to make. The larger crime is when the producers start calling the shots from the moment a musician is signed up.

 In the ’70s, artists who tried to make polished records on their own faced a load of work, expense and time. Now any fool has access to a DAT or disc recorder and a CD burner. As one musician who came up in the ’80s said, when I started making records, it was like writing a book. Now it’s like having business cards made.

 Too true. It’s too easy for any musician now to be in the vanity press business. Far too many CDs come out for any conscientious listener to keep track of. It’s hard to find the good stuff in a glut, when some folks burn CDs for the reasons earlier generations dubbed cassettes. Boo hoo for the conscientious listener, you say. Access for all, who can argue? But there’s something to be said for the old filtering process independents provided. Someone more objective than the artist still had to believe in the music enough to stake money on it. (Well, yes, but: because some self-produced records are bad, it does not follow that they all are. For one thing, setting up one’s own label can be a good move for established artists dissatisfied with the treatment they’ve received elsewhere: that’s why Charles Mingus set up the Charles Mingus label, and Tim Berne—who recorded his early records for his own Empire—set up his second label, Screwgun.)

 If the majors can’t be trusted even when they are in the business, and too many musicians prematurely put out their own stuff, independent labels become more important than ever—specifically indies that have been around long enough to demonstrate a little taste and staying power, and know how to make a decent recording. Why have people drive 400 miles to your studio in the pines, if the CDs they make sound like they were recorded using juice cans and string for microphones?

 An ideal catalog might contain historic recordings, including some previously unreleased stuff, and CDs of living masters in new settings (if well documented) or typical settings (if not). It might take notice of players or trends under its nose, geographically-speaking (especially if the label is not based in NY or LA), initiate some projects and solicit others. It might accept tapes tossed over the transom—but not all of them, thanks—and should let the artists dictate their own artistic policy. And the producers might display no more of themselves than broad but reliable tastes.

 We’re lucky that in every decade, there are producers and labels around who manage to do it right. Thanks to them, in the present, or looking back over recorded artifacts later, we can see what musicians are or were really up to at a given time. (Pick or choose as you may have to during whatever you think of as the lean times, there is always good music out there, someplace.) When so many things can go wrong, making records, labels you can put your trust in and have a fond feeling for are anything but common. Still, you’ve managed to find at least one.

  Kevin Whitehead 2000. No reprint or electronic reproduction without author’s permission.

OKKADISK: info@okkadisk.com