An Interview with Patti Austin
A Moment With
by Mark Ruffin
“It is such an interesting time for anybody making a record who is 18 or part of boy group,” vocalist Patti Austin deadpanned when discussing ageism in the record business.
Surprisingly, Warner Brothers, one of the worst corporate offenders of ageism in jazz and pop music, has released Austin’s new album, “On The Way To Love.” That bucks the trend of artists who’ve gotten the ax from the AOL/Time-Warner subsidiary that reads like an all-star concert, Al Jarreau, George Benson, Frankie Beverly & Maze, Chaka Khan, Prince, Joe Sample, James Ingram and others.
“The dropping of older artists has been happening for a while,” the very loquacious artist said on the subject, “but the first time the dropping happened was not on the age tip, the first dropping was very much on the racist tip.
“I was at a celebrity party about eight years ago, Earth, Wind and Fire was there, Deniece Williams, Chaka Khan, and everybody had been dropped,” Austin continued, backing up her comment. “The ones who weren’t dropped were talking about the ones who’ve been dropped who weren’t there. It was obvious that all the Black artists who had had pop hits were dropped, which was very interesting to all of us.. Everybody was freaked out at that point.”
Austin didn’t break the age barrier because some Warner exec saw the error of their corporate ways. Not hardly. It happened because one major Warner shareholder, Quincy Jones, also happens to be the singer’s godfather.
By the time Austin was born, her father, Gordon Austin, was preparing to change profession from full-time trombone player to professional therapist. He had worked with many big bands in the 30’s and 40’s, including Earl “Fatha” Hines, Fletcher Henderson and Billy Eckstine. He never severed ties with his many musician friends, two of whom served as his daughter’s godparents; Jones and Dinah Washington.
“When my dad passed away, Q hopped right in on godfather shoes and really helped a lot with getting me through that emotionally,” Austin remembered. “Then one thing led to another and he said you should come back to (the Jones/Warner co-op label) Qwest.’ . “He said he was going to step in and make sure the company happen, and I was like yeah, right, you’re going to be sidetracked by some project,’ and, of course, he was.
Jones was disappointed when he proposed that Austin do a big band jazz record and his corporate partners rejected it outright. The legendary producer kept fighting for the singer while Austin and her producer took matters into their own hands and began funding a smooth jazz recording for her.
Other execs at the company got wind of the sessions, which were produced by Paul Brown, who also did recent albums by Al Jarreau, Boney James, Rick Braun and others.
“People at Warners heard the record and they were flipping out,” Austin remembered. “They absolutely loved it and said, we want your ass over here.'”
The 12-track disc is unabashedly pop and funk oriented, and features three compositions co-written by Austin, and one song has James co-starring on saxophone. Her crystal clear voice is never overshadowed by Brown’s lavish production, in fact, Austin considers “On The Way To Love,” her 15th album, her best. Ironically, she attributes that to age.
“That’s what. 50 is for, to give your best” Austin exclaimed. “I know it ain’t for anything else, and that’s the good news for anybody who’s not there yet. By 50, you’ve got some seasoning, you’re marinated and it shows.”
Austin is currently touring with three different groups. She’s alternating between her own group, Lee Ritenour’s “Twist of Marley,” band and a group co-led by James and Braun. In January, she will be premiering her one-woman show, first at the Sacramento Theatre Company and then at L.A.’s famed Mark Taper Theatre.
“I’ve got so much swirling right now,” Austin said. “And the thing is that I’m having fun, and at 50, discovering that I can still grow and that I can still get better, and there’s always more to learn.”
And that big band jazz project, a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, is scheduled for release next year. It won’t be on Warner Brothers.