Saturday, June 23, 2007

Jazz Labels

In my youth (well, not my extreme youth, because I only started listening to jazz when I was about 18), I used to confuse the names Ira Gitler and Rudy Van Gelder, I guess because I saw them so often in the same place -- on the back of so many jazz albums on Blue Note and Prestige. Of course, there was no other connection between the two, other than that their names started with "G" and ended with "R." Ira Gitler was a good jazz critic, and Rudy Van Gelder was a great recording engineer.

I say "good" for Gitler because there are no great critics, unless you count people like Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Benedetto Croce, and today maybe Umberto Eco. Van Gelder, praise be to the Almighty, is still working, remastering some of his great vinyl triumphs to digital, finding a way to preserve the warmth of the originals.

If I'm grouchy about critics, it's not Ira Gitler's fault, at least not at the moment. I've been reading some books about jazz recently, including Castles Made of Sound, Larry Hicock 's excellent biography of Gil Evans; and Blue Note Records: The Biography by Richard Cook and The Making of Kind of Blue: Miles Davis and His Masterpiece by Eric Nisenson (not to be confused with Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece by Ashley Kahn, which I haven't read). Anyway, both of the books with Blue in the title (that I've read) contain a lot of good research and interesting historical stuff, and I'm glad I read both of them, even though I had to grit my teeth when the authors got into their supercilious jazz critic mode. In addition to the fact that I don't care what they think are subpar solos by the giants of jazz on some of the greatest records ever made, their vocabularies of criticism are kinda limited. I thought I might well throw "The Making of Kind of Blue" out the window if I read about "fragile lyricism" one more time.

Maybe I should try Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, which is published by Da Capo, which is pretty much the gold standard of books on jazz.

But anyway, Blue Note Records: The Biography has a very nice section on Rudy Van Gelder and his importance to Blue Note, and to the whole jazz scene, and all of this got me thinking about Blue Note and Prestige, and thinking about what were the greatest of jazz labels?

I decided to limit my thinking to indie labels that really specialized in jazz, and I also decided to write this from the top of my head, without going back and researching stuff I wasn't sure of, which is not the way I generally write, but it's the way Miles Davis generally made a record, mistakes and all, so how bad can it be?

So that meant post- WWII, which was really the birth of the indie label. There were small labels in the 20s and 30s that were hugely important, like Vocalion and Okeh, but they were really subsidiaries of the big labels. There was Black Swan -- the first black-owned label, and here's where it starts to hurt that I've vowed not to look anything up...who owned Black Swan? It was someone important...W.C. Handy? Anyway, it couldn't compete with the big ones. It wasn't until after the war that small entrepreneurs really cracked the record business, because before that the big labels had a stranglehold on the pressing plants.

So...after the war. Dial and Savoy are the first ones -- they did all those great Bird sides. I don't know what happened to Dial. Savoy stayed around through the 50s, largely as a rhythm and blues label, and one of the best. Mercury put out some great records -- Dinah Washington, Clifford Brown -- but they were a major, as were Capitol and Decca, who also both did some important jazz -- Decca with Milt Gabler, who also had his own pioneering small jazz label, Commodore.

The Fifties. Blue Note and Prestige. The greatest jazz labels ever? Well, not to get ahead of myself, but the answer is yes. Riverside did those great sides with Monk, but I don't think of Riverside as having the same centrality. Atlantic? Atlantic was the greatest of all independent labels, bar none. And they did some incredible jazz, Mingus. Giant Steps. Ornette. And with all those amazing Lee Friedlander album cover photos. But I'm excluding them from the game because their main focus wasn't jazz. I was a charter member of the Jazztone Society, a sort of Book-of-the Month Club for jazz records. They didn't last, but they were kinda neat. I remember a Marylou Williams album, and Bird with Red Norvo and Slam Stewart. And a Sidney Bechet. So they weren't cutting edge, but they were good and they should have had a longer life. Norman Granz's labels, Verve and Clef (and I think there was another one) were important but idiosyncratic. Granz liked to mix and match, like putting Buddy Rich on a Charlie Parker session.

The West Coast -- West Coast jazz gets sneered at, but it's a bad rap. One of my first jazz albums was Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Larry Bunker, Chico Hamilton on World Pacific. Fantasy had the early Brubeck stuff.

Columbia entered the modern jazz world late, although they had John Hammond and a rich history, but they entered with Miles Davis and some of the most important recordings ever. But...they're a major. They weren't a jazz label.

Impulse! came later, and did some important Free Jazz, including so much of Coltrane's catalog. A lot of labels like Black Saint carried the torch in the days when jazz was really at a low ebb of recognition, but people like James Blood Ulmer and Sonny Sharrock were still burning brightly.

My friend Peter Jones and I have talked about that era. It was all good. You go over the Blue Note, the Prestige, the Savoy, the Riverside, the Atlantic jazz, the World Pacific catalogs, and you're not going to find anything you wouldn't want to own.

And Blue Note and Prestige were right at the center of it. Maybe more than anyone else, they defined what jazz recording should be.

Can we pick a winner? No. Blue Note not only was there at the beginning of the 50s jazz era, but it's still around, and still important. Hard to pick against it. But for me, it's Prestige. So many of my early, and most favorite albums were Prestige. The ones that started me collecting jazz. Mose Allison -- Back Country Suite, Local Color, Creek Bank. King Pleasure/Annie Ross. John Coltrane with the Red Garland Trio, the album that brought me to jazz.

OK. Prestige.

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