From the archives: “Giving Jazz the Business: Can major labels make the music go pop?”

"The records we loved.the records we loved when we were kids didn’t sell shit when they were released," Branford Marsalis told me.

“The records we loved when we were kids didn’t sell shit when they were released,” Branford Marsalis told me.

I wrote this back in 2002 for the Boston Phoenix. It’s interesting to see how much of it still rings true. At least to me:

My musician friend and I were sitting in the basement club the Lizard Lounge (between Harvard and Porter Squares) listening to a four-piece jazz band. At the Lizard, there is no stage, and the musicians all perform, more or less, “in the round,” with seating on three sides, the bar tucked in a corner. The room can’t hold more than about 100 persons in a tight squeeze. The bar was loud with talk, but the talk never obscured the music, which was fast, flowing, in the bebop style but beyond it. Two saxes, tenor and alto, kept pace with bass and drums and had no trouble competing with the social activity in the room. That basic pulse of four-four walking bass and the ching-chinga-ching dotted rhythm of the drummer’s ride cymbal informed everything, but there was more here. On one fast tune, the rhythm seemed to drive forward endlessly on one-one-one-one-one . . . We couldn’t place the downbeat, much as we tried. The two horns traded short solo sections that played against each other contrapuntally. The alto hewed closer to the attractive folk-like melodies; the tenor focused more on the “changes,” but jumping, leaping changes, in the outer reaches of the tune’s harmony, whatever it happened to be.

“Too much information,” my friend shouted. “What?”, I wanted to know. “Too much information. You can tell they’re playing changes but you can’t tell what they are.”

We were in a state of jazz-nerd bliss. That bebop pulse, the implied chord progressions, represented a pattern we knew well — in my case by ear if not by schooling. Patterns that are ingrained. It’s the same whether you’re into jazz or blues or garage rock — you feel the bridge coming in a verse-chorus pop song, the shift from the IV to the V chord in the last line of a 12-bar blues. And when we hear the great ones, we know it because of the way they manipulate the conventions, alter the familiar patterns. If working in a tradition means anything, it’s in the way that work takes us from the familiar to the new. If traditional forms like the blues and jazz don’t die, it’s because they’re subject to infinite variation, just the way a genre like landscape or still-life oil painting is. Like a representational painter, the jazz musician creates a personal space — “a space we think we know,” as one painter friend once said. We get to share in a new vision, a new language.

MY COMMENTS on jazz’s deeper pleasures are provoked by a cover story that ran in Billboard back in April. “Jazz Seeks Instrumental Stars” read the three-column headline. “Lack of Industry Support for Young Players Reaches Crisis Level,” added the subhead. The story, by Billboard staffer Chris Morris, went on to lament the commercial woes of instrumental jazz in a climate where the major labels are radically downsizing and otherwise altering their jazz divisions. The Top Jazz Albums charts were being overtaken by star vocalists like Diana Krall and Cassandra Wilson, or by the repackaged catalogue of long-dead stars of yesteryear like Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Louis Armstrong. The sole new instrumental hit on the chart was an album by Stanton Moore, drummer of the New Orleans jam band Galactic — and as Morris pointed out, “it includes two vocal tracks.” Five years ago, he added, the charts included albums by young players like Joshua Redman, Mark Whitfield, Don Byron, and Benny Green, as well as those by veterans.

Morris went on to cite the woes of the custodians of the jazz divisions at the major labels. Tom Evered of Blue Note Records — the legendary indie imprint, now a division of Capitol Records, which in turn is a division of EMI — lamented “50 percent returns on some of these young straight-ahead artists. That’s just a recipe for disaster.” Matt Pierson, the jazz VP at Warner Bros., was downright shrill: “We talk about this all the time, and I say, ‘We’re going to lose this thing, we’re gonna lose jazz, if we don’t create new superstars in this music who are playing music that is fresh and hits you over the fucking head if you know nothing about music.’ This is major crisis mode.”

In typical record-company mode, the executives blame the artists. Where are the new Dave Brubecks, they want to know? Where’s the new Miles Davis, the new Charlie Parker or John Coltrane or Louis Armstrong? Verve Records president Ron Goldstein wants to know who’s going to write the new Brubeck/Paul Desmond “Take Five,” a Top 40 hit in 1961 that, in Pierson’s words, “hits you over the fucking head if you know nothing about music.” The consumer and the marketplace, says Columbia Jazz and Legacy Recorsings VP Jeff Jones, are asking “musicians to write great songs again — write new songs that are familiar and singable and have a memorable melody people can latch onto, that affect people in an emotional way.”

Touching as they are, these laments are a fiction — and it operates on several levels. For one thing, it’s doubtful that many people “who know nothing about music” could, even given lots of radio exposure, hum half a chorus of a Charlie Parker “hit” like “Koko” (recorded for the tiny independent label Savoy in 1945). It’s just too hard. (The jazz composer George Russell once told me that Harlem kids used to whistle Parker tunes on the street, but I think that must have been one very sophisticated street — it’s just not as easy to whistle Bird as it is to rap Biggie Smalls or, for that matter, Korn.)

For another, as Morris’s story documents, jazz radio has virtually evaporated. This includes not only the once trendy “smooth jazz” stations, with their instrumental pop approximations of jazz and occasional teasers of “real” jazz, but the non-commercial ones as well. Twenty years ago, a non-commercial station like WBUR 90.9 FM featured daily morning and evening jazz shows as well as overnight jazz on the weekends. But ’BUR finds itself in the same straits as most public radio — government support has shriveled, and the stations are more dependent than ever on consultants and research, which tell them to program news and public affairs. (WGBH 89.7 FM has thus far held the line, with Eric Jackson’s weeknight Eric in the Evening jazz show, plus a syndicated overnight show and locally produced programs on the weekends.)

But the problem goes even deeper than radio economics. Jazz’s reputation for “abstractness,” for difficulty, for being a music that hits you over the head but in the wrong way, goes back to the bebop revolution of the ’40s. That’s when jazz turned from being dance music to becoming concert music — in fact, chamber music as opposed to concert-hall. In the ’40s, that Lizard Lounge scene was anticipated on a stretch of New York’s 52nd street: small basement rooms in townhouses and brownstones, jammed with listeners. These were not the screaming multitudes who followed the Benny Goodman band. This, as Scott DeVeaux documents in his essentialThe Birth of Bebop: A Social and Musical History (University of California), is when the backroom after-hours jam session moved from the rehearsal space and the house party to the stage.

The big bands of the swing era in the ’30 and early ’40s had already begun to split the audience between dancers and listeners. Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” was danceable pop. But as many people were rushing the stage to listen and watch Goodman and his wild-haired drummer Gene Krupa as were dancing to the music. In DeVeaux’s words, as a concert music, swing was a “spectacle,” just as rock is spectacle now. The big bands died for a lot of complicated economic reasons — DeVeaux outlines the brutal economics of keeping a big band on the road, as does Peter Levinson in his biography of Harry James, Trumpet Blues (Oxford). But those economics also included one simple fact: the trend had moved from big-band instrumentals to . . . yes, vocalists. Frank Sinatra had heralded the change, and before long audiences were showing up to hear not the band but the vocalist. Then as now, the audience was split — between the mass pop-vocal audience and the minority audience for instrumental jazz.

The big-label jazzmen are ignoring another factor as they yearn for the golden age of “Take Five”: rock and roll. Yes, Elvis had been doing his thing for several years by the time “Take Five” came along. But it took the Beatles to complete the rock revolution. They killed jazz’s mass-audience appeal as surely as the vocalists killed the big bands. Brubeck’s career was famously made on the college circuit in the mid ’50s. Where are those college listeners now? I’ll tell you: they’re on Lansdowne Street and at the Tweeter Center, and they’re not listening to jazz.

"In most fields, the industry invests in research," George Russell  said.

“In most fields, the industry invests in research,” George Russell said.

In a way, the jazz guys at the labels need to learn the lesson their peers on the pop divisions are also having a hard time with, and that’s that their expectations for sales are based on a fiction as well. In the pop-music world, the lesson gets taught again and again. R.E.M. break through with something that used to be known as “college rock,” and so the record companies start scooping up the independents — the Replacements, Soul Asylum, Dinosaur Jr., the Pixies, and even the not-ready-for-prime-time Sonic Youth. In their own little world, these bands were “huge” because they sold 35,000 records. But in the mass market, such figures represent abject failure. And if a major label, with all that promotional clout and money, can’t translate a tiny Minnesota independent’s sale figures into more than 150,000, then it must stand to reason that the band just need to write a song that “hits you over the head” the way “Radio Free Europe” did.

You can cite any number of similar examples. Some industry watchers cite Alanis Morissette’s 11 million copies of Jagged Little Pill as the root of the current “crisis.” That, combined with increasing consolidation — of both the record industry and the newly unregulated radio industry — and the attempts (in some cases successful) to push aside elder “music men” like Mo Ostin, Clive Davis, and Ahmet Ertegun in favor of bean counters, has changed the pop landscape. Artist development is non-existent, and everyone needs cash, a quick hit.

In jazz, a lot of people look at Cassandra Wilson’s New Moon Daughter(Blue Note, 1995) as the moment when the worm turned. Wilson didn’t break the Billboard Top 200 Album chart, but she did break 100,000 in sales and eventually went gold, something that in jazz terms was unheard of. Then along came Krall, covering the standards of yore, playing damn good jazz piano, and, yes, singing, to break the sales sound barrier with million-sellers. Now, it’s as though everyone were expected to do it. Poor Benny Green.

“We’re all on the same playing field now,” says Branford Marsalis. “It’s like a jazz artist is no different from a Bruce Springsteen or Mariah Carey. We’re all the same now.”

Marsalis recently negotiated out of his 20-plus-year relationship with Columbia so he could start his own label, Marsalis Music (it’s based in Cambridge). “When I started at Columbia, clearly we weren’t all the same. We [in jazz] didn’t get the lion’s share of the attention, but we weren’t expected to deliver in the way that they were expected to deliver.”

Toward the end of his tenure at Columbia, Marsalis recalls, one executive approached him about his sales figures. “He says to me, ‘Our biggest-selling record is [Miles Davis’s] Kind of Blue. You’ve made 15 records for us and none of your records come close to that, how do you explain that?’ I said, ‘Man, don’t tell me how much a Kind of Blue is selling now that Miles is dead. I want you to give me a sheet and tell me how much Kind of Bluesold in 1961. And then you can compare it to how many records I sold when my first album came out, and let’s go year by year. How many records did Miles sell by the fifth year after Kind of Blue was released? Now in order for you to judge me, you have to wait 40 years! But the problem is that you won’t be here in 40 years!’

“The first time my record sales dropped from 80,000 to 8000, we had a little party. Because the records we loved when we were kids didn’t sell shit when they were released. I told Tain [drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts], ‘Man, we need to have a little party. We’re on our way.’ ”

I’m not making a “who cares if you listen” argument here (neither, do I think, is Marsalis), and I’m not trying to clear the room of the “non-serious” jazz listeners. I’m just pointing out that in jazz, as in pop, the record industry has to make room for the small. It’s worth noting that, except for the likes of Brubeck and Miles, most of the artists cited by the industry men in Morris’sBillboard piece were recording for tiny independents — “before Charlie Parker became Charlie Parker,” as Marsalis puts it. That’s when Parker recorded for mom-and-pop labels like Dial and Savoy (still considered the heart of his recorded repertoire), when Monk was recording for Prestige and Riverside. It took years for some of those revered classics to “hit people over the head.”

RECENTLY I WAS TALKING with a long-time industry watcher and publicist who’s working on the new Chet Baker biography, Deep in a Dream. He told me that the Baker compilation CD that Blue Note is releasing in conjunction with the book is expected to be a big success. Projected sales: 30,000. That, of course, for a product that entailed no new recording costs, for which all the titles had already been bought and paid for, and flying under the well-publicized name of an artist who’s been dead since 1988.

“In most fields, the industry invests in research,” George Russell pointed out to me some years ago. Without radio support, with the squeeze on shelf space in the suffering record stores, with lackluster pop artists no longer able to carry the jazz divisions of the major labels, the jazz labels need more than ever to return to research and development. (In fact, a stalwart of the local scene, Charlie Kohlhase, has called one of his albums, and his jazz radio program, Research and Development.)

Jazz isn’t meant to be big. In last Sunday’s New York Times, in an article about saxophonist Mark Turner, who’s been dropped by Warner Bros., critic Ben Ratliff compared mainstream jazz as a discipline to “serious painting or poetry in that it is often accused of being dead yet continues to evolve and even find a modest audience.” I sincerely wish for jazz a larger audience than lyric poetry (which has my condolences), but if the big labels want to develop stars, they need to think small and help artists develop new repertoire the way the classical labels need to develop it. Maybe jazz isn’t meant to be huge, but it doesn’t need to disappear from the marketplace either. When I talked to long-time jazz-record producer Orrin Keepnews, he pointed out that jazz is always more valuable for its accrued catalogue than for its immediate hits, a catalogue that can help in hard times. If you’re looking at the bottom line, you invest in a talent like Joe Lovano for the long-term return, not the immediate blockbuster.

But it’s all a tale as old as jazz itself. Charles Mingus, in his autobiographyBeneath the Underdog, recounts the story of the great trumpeter Fats Navarro. “Jazz ain’t supposed to make nobody no millions,” Navarro told Mingus. “But that’s where it’s at. Them that shouldn’t is raking it in but the purest are out in the street with me and Bird and it rains all over us, man.”

From the Boston Phoenix:

Issue Date: June 20 – 27, 2002
Back to the Music table of contents.

One thought on “From the archives: “Giving Jazz the Business: Can major labels make the music go pop?”

  1. Pingback: Getting ready for Jon Garelick’s talk | Interpreting the Day’s News • Spring 2014

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