Keeping Poor Company

Keeping Poor Company
by Sidney Bechet-Mandela

Today, when you think of Arista Records and Clive Davis, names such as Kenny G and Toni Braxton usually follow. But what was the very first release on Arista more than 20 years ago? Okay, it was the Bay City Rollers, but the second was Gil Scott-Heron. While Davis was out making stars out of Barry Manilow and Eric Carmen, he also found a place for such diverse jazz acts as Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Tom Browne and Dave Valentin.

Unlike my fellow commentator, it’s easy for me to see that record companies are the main cause for the continued American habit of ignoring jazz. It’s just as easy to see that Clive Davis and Arista could be my main target in this tirade, but that’s not the case. You see, Davis deserves to rest on his laurels. Besides, if the note my esteemed editor left me is complete, Arista is doing it’s full share with it’s lone jazz act, Kenny G, it’s lone jazz act earning a quarter of what the rest of jazz sells to America.

What the jazz world needs right now is another Clive Davis. Not the single-minded star making caricature we have today, but the broad thinking, jazz loving young attorney that changed Columbia Records and the record business 30 years ago- the man who kept Miles Davis record sales in the six figure range- the man who gave Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen what they needed to start GRP Records- the man who at the height of the disco-era, refused to let the avant-garde jazz label, Freedom, go under.

I’m not here to praise Davis. I’ve been a detractor of the man since the early 80’s when he helped to drive a rift between Kenny G and the man who really discovered him, Jeff Lorber. I also hated what he tried to do to pop vocalists Angela Bofill, Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick, not to mention Scott-Heron. Despite all that said, I’m also not here to put down Arista Records. Clive has been there, done that.

The problem is that looking around the record executive turntable, there’s nobody moving beyond 33 and 1/3. There are numerous bright independent companies putting out unbeliveable music. To them, high cheers. I’m not here to put them down either. By virtue of what they are, independents can never change the market share for jazz. It is the handful of very powerful majors, who are making billions off of pop while barely tolerating their jazz departments, to whom I lay the blame of jazz’ pitiful showing in America’s marketplace.

As Mr. Ruffin stated, we both are in agreement that education is a huge problem for jazz, especially where the youth are concerned. But after that point, we part.

It’s absurd to blast an industry that once universally ignored jazz and now finds that music as one of it’s fastest growing formats. I say kudos to the mega-broadcast conglomerates who now find a place for jazz in their boardrooms and marketing meetings. It is a two-way street, as to what music reaches the airwaves, and granted much of that is dictated by someone outside the record business, but the quality of what gets into the hands of that person is dictated by record companies, especially the majors.

All of the majors, except one, are concerned only with the sales in the pop market. They are constantly getting their acts that play jazz to try to add as much pop as they can in their music. They are as much responsible for any dilution of the sound of contemporary jazz are any party. The more record sales, the better, and most feel that the introduction of pop into their music is the only way to achieve higher numbers.

Then there’s what I call the “free agent” mentality that predominate the jazz departments at all the majors, again save that one, who we will get to. In the days when Clive Davis ruled at Columbia, all record companies had a&r (artist & repretoire) departments. They can be compared to minor league coaches who tip, steer and develop an act until the big time is achieved. Many companies still have some form, if not complete a&r staffs today, the difference is that the system don’t seem to reach all the way down to the jazz department.

Pick a jazz star, just about any one on a major label, and chances are they were not developed by the company they record for today. Cassandra Wilson, Richard Elliot, Boney James, Kevin Mahogany, Roy Hargrove, Joe Sample and on and on and on. An act either has to make the big boys take notice by breaking through on an independent, or after years of toiling for one major, the act sells his services to the highest bidder. These things have always gone on in the music business, but not as standard operating procedure.

To some extent, whatever Tommy LiPuma is calling the jazz department at MCA negates what I’m saying. After all, Diana Krall did come from their farm team, but he inherited her from GRP and the jury is still out on how the great GRP/Impulse/Chess/Blue Thumb/Giant Step thing turns out. From the unforgiveable record he conned McCoy Tyner into recording to his egotistical re-naming of Grusin Rosen Productions to the lame Great Records Period monniker, I think the only thing LiPuma is proving is that he is a former shell of the man who built the great Warner Brothers jazz roster of the 70’s and 80’s.

And speaking of Warner Brothers, there is some hope there, but I think it comes in the form of what Clint Eastwood is doing and not what the unfriendly Matt Pierson is doing. In fact, his purge of seemingly everything LiPuma also reeks of some personal ego problem rather than what’s good for the company, let alone the jazz world, and all of the record companies are way too involved in telling musicians what to do instead of trying to analyze trends and suggest direction. There is a difference. And who has he developed?

Do you really think it was Charlie Hunter and Fareed Haque idea to record a Bob Marley and Crosby, Stills & Nash album. Do you think very talented creative people continually want to record whole tribute albums full of compositions by other people?

The one lone exception to my wrath is Polygram/Verve. The thing that’s admirable is that the corporation is continually signing and looking for new talent, while signing the pricey free agents. The company is also very active in the touring part of it’s jazz artists. What the folks at Verve do that everyone else does that to me is what’s dragging the quality of the music down. They succumb to programmers and consultants and try to force their artist into doing whatever the numbers say. Even at Verve, there’s not that one exec, or killer staff that is confidently nuturing their artists to greater glory All ears seem to be tuned to the pop world and how to assimilate the jazz world into it, instead of the other way around.