The Children of 'Bitches Brew'

Once more, jazz is big business

American Jazz musician, composer, and bandleader Miles Davis plays trumpet during a performance in the Schaefer Music Festival series at Central Park's Wollman Rink in New York City on September 5th, 1975. Credit: Jack Vartoogian/Getty

Jazz, considered commercially dead in the Sixties, is enjoying a renaissance that many in the recording industry feel will rival the popularity and stature it enjoyed during its heyday in the Thirties and Forties.

The upsurge is due largely to the adaptation of mainstream (bop or modal-oriented) jazz artists to the electronic era. Such jazz masters as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and George Benson added their skills to a musical melting pot that included rock and pop idioms. Out of the caldron emerged something that is called jazz-rock fusion, a blend of contemporary and classical styles that some call jazz, others call schlock, but that most agree will be the music of the future.

Some attribute the jazz boom to the success of Bitches Brew, a two-record set released by Miles Davis in 1970 that sold more than a million copies, opening the eyes of music-industry executives to the sales potential of jazz-oriented music. Davis' vision of the new jazz was further refined by Herbie Hancock, whose Head Hunters album sold a million records in 1974, and by George Benson, whose 1976 release of Breezin' has sold nearly 3 million copies.

Within the past few years, major record labels, including Columbia, Arista, Warner Bros., A&M, RCA and United Artists have begun to invest heavily in jazz, and their growth campaigns are not only affecting the structure of the music but that of the industry as well.

Some blame the generally vacuous state of Seventies rock & roll. "People are genuinely fed up with the redundancy of rock," said Steve Backer, director of progressive product at Arista Records. Others claim the upsurge is simply the next logical step from the synthesis of rock and jazz made popular by such bands as Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears. "Public taste is more sophisticated," offered Bruce Lundvall, president of CBS Records Division. "Improvisation has always existed in rock. Now it's just not so unfamiliar as it once was."

Fusion enjoys a crucial advantage over mainstream and avant-garde jazz: it "crosses over" a wide range of radio formats, a key element to selling any music today. Top Forty, Album Oriented Radio (AOR) and progressive FM radio regularly include fusion artists like Stanley Clarke, Weather Report and Chick Corea on their playlists. "Top Forty radio is aware that it has to use older demographics in its programming," said Ron Goldstein, head of jazz and progressive music at Warners. "Today's audience has graduated. It wants something more harmonically interesting than unilateral rock."

To the surprise of no one, the demographics of today's jazz consumer reveal an older, more mature fan: mostly male, college-educated and between the ages of twenty and thirty. "We've found that the young audience that accounted for the rock success of the Sixties has kept its buying habits in the Seventies," said Vernon Slaughter, director of progressive jazz music marketing at Columbia. "And as this group goes through various stages, it wants a music that fits its new lifestyle. Jazz is the next logical step in music education."

Major-label commitments to in-house jazz divisions and catalog expansion (the acquisition of vintage jazz for reissue) have made room for less commercial — avant-garde or mainstream — artists on their rosters. And they've indirectly benefited the independent labels, which attribute their new commerce to the "backward" broadening of public taste — consumers buying an artist's early, usually traditional, work after buying his latest fusion effort. Because many of the independents were the first to sign and release the jazz artists now enjoying greater popularity, they are reaping belated rewards.

Following the epochal success of Bitches Brew in 1970, Clive Davis, then president of CBS Records, signed Weather Report, a band made up of several musicians from Miles' band, and worked to establish the reissue campaign of Columbia's Contemporary Masters series, which includes Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.

Bruce Lundvall carried on the jazz campaign at Columbia when he became president in 1975. "We saw the jazz area opening up to a broader public," Lundvall said, "and we saw an opportunity to take the lead. Within a couple of years we had a thirty-five percent share of the jazz market." In the last five years he's signed Dexter Gordon, Woody Shaw — two mainstream artists — and padded his fusion roster with artists like Herbie Hancock, Hubert Laws and Al Di Meola. There are now about fifty jazz artists signed to Columbia, up from ten in 1970.

Following his departure from CBS in 1973, Clive Davis formed Arista Records and immediately began to build a jazz roster. He signed avant-garde saxophonist Anthony Braxton, who is still with the label, and, through a distribution agreement with Freedom Records, added Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, Roswell Rudd and Cecil Taylor to the catalog. Arista then bought the esteemed Savoy Record Company and reissued dormant be-bop and R&B gems from the Savoy vault, which included work by Charlie Parker. In 1975 the company further expanded its commitment to jazz with crossover artists the Brecker Brothers and guitarist Larry Coryell. Recently Arista signed fusion acts made up of young, classically trained artists.

Around the same time, RCA and United Artists acquired the Blue Bird and Blue Note labels, respectively. RCA dug into the Blue Bird vault and reissued treasures from such big-band era jazzmen as Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Fats Waller. Later, RCA arranged to distribute Pablo Record artists Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Count Basie, and most recently took over distribution of Salsoul Records, a primarily disco and jazz-funk outfit.

United Artists, which acquired the Blue Note label in 1970 (Blue Note was one of the purveyors of bop in the Fifties and Sixties), gradually began an ambitious reissue program. A year later, it bought the Pacific Jazz label and this fall released comprehensive volumes of Fifties and Sixties jazz that include Art Pepper and George Duke (the latter now a fusion best seller). Based upon the current success of saxophonist Ronnie Laws' crossover hit, "Always There," publicist David Budge said UA plans to sign other fusion artists.

Several years later, Warner Bros. and A&M followed the lead of Columbia and Arista. A year ago, Warner Bros. acquired the prestigious German label, ECM, and in a single move brought to the company a group of sophisticated, contemporary and highly evolved musicians that included such commercially successful artists as Keith Jarrett and John Abercrombie. In 1974, Warners signed George Benson, who later proved to be the most popular crossover artist ever. In January 1978, the company hired marketing and projects coordinators and started a separate in-house jazz division.

A&M formed the Horizon label and brought avant-garde artists Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Chet Baker under the corporate wing. Then last spring it scrapped the avant-garde approach, dropping all the artists originally signed, and brought in the Mark-Almond Band, Dr. John and Neil Larsen, artists whose eclectic styles and tastes are not usually regarded as jazz, but who have the potential to reach a broader audience.

"We decided things weren't working out well," said Tommy Li Puma, who was creative director of Horizon, and who produced George Benson's last four albums at Warners before coming to A&M. "If we were to deal with nothing but avant-garde we could more easily work out of a garage. We decided to approach jazz in a more generalized area. At some point it becomes more than just liking an act. There's a lot of monster talent out there and the question is, which ones are the stars and does their art have longevity?"

The tactics of catalog growth — acquiring independent labels and gaining the distribution rights to others — don't vary much, but the corporate philosophies are different. Columbia concentrates on artists who can sell to the broadest audience —i.e., jazz-rock artists such as Hancock, Weather Report and Billy Cobham. But twenty-five percent of its current roster consists of mainstream artists, whose production costs can run as little as a tenth of what it costs to produce fusion. Consequently, a Dexter Gordon album that sells a modest (by pop music standards) 40,000 units is a huge success, while a Billy Cobham fusion record that sells 100,000 barely breaks even.

"Columbia has room for a Dexter Gordon," said Vernon Slaughter. "The music has to mean more than the money you make, particularly with jazz. Although our job is to make a profit, we feel we have an obligation to maintain a healthy, balanced catalog. And that includes some of the mainstream artists who sell barely 10,000 copies per album."

The emphasis at Warners, on the other hand, is heavily weighted to the fusion music of contemporary crossover artists. "We're consciously encouraging our artists to cross over a wide range of formats," said Ron Goldstein. "The more jazz-oriented music people hear, the more they will open up to pure, mainstream jazz. In two years we may start a separate label devoted to mainstream music. There just wasn't that kind of interest a couple of years ago."

Arista, by stressing fusion music, has parlayed the commercial success of artists like Larry Coryell and Gil Scott-Heron into the formation of a label that's devoted to avant-garde. "Fusion is without a doubt the most commercial music," said Steve Backer, Arista's director of jazz. "But the other music is not recorded philanthropically or at a loss. We're also concerned with innovation and helping to contribute on a major-label level. The end result is that there are more artists working, recording and getting their music documented."

For the artist, the pressure to cross over from mainstream to fusion can be intense. "The artist often feels a self-imposed pressure," said Arista's Backer. "Artists who have spent their entire lives becoming masters of the pure trade want a return on the energy they've spent. They see rock & roll artists making a fortune and people of their own idiom, such as Herbie Hancock, making monster records. There's a huge gap between public acceptance of electronic and acoustic music. It's a matter of pop art versus high art, and many artists feel pressure to compromise their skills."

Compromising can mean playing jazz-disco-funk, the transparent but popular amalgam of styles popularized by the likes of bassist Stanley Clarke, or it can mean playing jazz-rock in the electric mold of John McLaughlin or Weather Report. It can also mean failure, as in the cases of Miroslav Vitous and drummer Tony Williams, two unsuccessful fusion artists who have returned to their mainstream art.

"Sometimes mainstream artists make miserable attempts to cross over," said Warners' Goldstein. "The result is that the artist not only fails to capture a new audience; he loses his old."

Many mainstream musicians have abandoned pursuit of a contract with a major label for the security of a small record house where they can perfect their pure, if uncommercial, art. In many cases, the owners of independent labels are as uncompromising in their devotion to quality as are the artists. And the independents, like the majors, are flourishing.

Inner City Records, a New York independent formed three years ago by Irv Kratka, has produced an average of sixty albums a year with a roster of ninety artists, all but a few of whom are mainstream jazz players. Since forming the label, Kratka has struck deals with a dozen European labels, licensed forty records from East-Wind of Japan and formed two other labels, Classic Jazz and Aural Explorer.

"Most of our artists are concert jazz players," said Kratka, "and they're happy not to have to play fusion music. Most fusion is just prefabricated funk based on stylistic cliches. We're not running after chart success. The approval of reviewers and customers is heady enough."

Kratka, who founded the Inner City parent company, Music Minus One, in 1950, said many of his records can break even by selling a mere five thousand to 6500 copies. "Columbia would laugh at that figure," he said, "but we're turning out more jazz records and showcasing more artists than any other jazz label in the business. We're experiencing 400 percent growth in the past two years."

Kratka's three labels reflect the era and style of their music — Classic Jazz for music pre-1960, Inner City for jazz post-1960 and the new Aural Explorer label for synthesizer music. Kratka uses major independent outlets to sell his products, and although he owns one of the most successful independents in the business, has no plans to sell his company to a major label.

In many cases, an independent label can offer more autonomy to a mainstream artist than can a major label. John Snyder, who formed the original Horizon avant-garde roster for A&M but left when the company branched into more commercial areas, recently released five albums under the Artists House banner, a label he formed with former Horizon artist Ornette Coleman ten months ago. The selection includes music by Charlie Haden (also formerly of Horizon), as well as Body Math by Coleman, the late Paul Desmond's last record and a session with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Quartet.

"The idea behind the company is that the artist owns the music and maintains complete control over the project, from the arrangements to the cover art," explained Ray Snyder, John's brother and president of Artists House. "The artist makes two to three times more in royalties than he would at a major label. The end is to preserve the music and let the artist make his own money."

Artists House made 10,000 prints of each of its first five releases, which retail for $8.98. According to Snyder, no expense was spared in recording or pressing, and the albums contain eight-page inserts with the artist's discography, technical information, and artist's and critics' notes. Like other fledgling mainstream jazz houses, Artists House is relying primarily on mail-order sales while building up independent dealer distribution.

Because production costs for mainstream musicians are kept low — two or three sessions in a studio is often all that is needed — independents can turn a profit and provide the artist with moderate royalties by selling only a few thousand copies. "The big company gets hit-oriented and approaches jazz in an expansive way," said Carl Jefferson, president of the California-based Concord Jazz Records. "Our goal is to refine the state of the art, to record music that will be around longer than you and I."

Concord, formed four years ago, has produced seventy-seven albums, including LPs by Charlie Byrd and Freddie Green (Count Basie's rhythm guitarist for forty-one years) and a benefit album of Duke Ellington tunes to benefit the Duke Ellington Cancer Center. Concord uses independent distributors in the U.S., is licensed in Europe, Australia and Japan and recently formed a mail-order business.

Xanadu Records, a production company formed three and a half years ago that releases bop treasures and LPs by contemporary artists like Barry Harris, has furthered its goal of high-quality fidelity. Don Schlitten, a seasoned jazz producer who heads the company, has released several albums — all mainstream jazz — on direct-to-disc pressings, quality records that can only be appreciated on expensive phonographic equipment.

An arrangement with a major label can provide an independent with a fifty-to a-hundred-percent increase in record sales. Tomato Records, distributed by A&M, which released its first albums last June, has averaged a respectable 15 to 20,000 sales per record. Its roster includes Dave Brubeck, Sam Rivers, Leroy Jenkins and Chico Freeman.

But Muse Records has built up its catalog to 150 albums since the company's inception in 1973 with a roster that includes Houston Person, Walter Bishop Jr. and Morgana King. Several smaller labels have discovered the foreign market to be more lucrative than that of the United States. Many of the forty-four recordings released by the Georgia-based Progressive Records, whose catalog includes sessions with Scott Hamilton, Max Roach, Hank Jones and Jimmy Rowles, have sold 10,000 copies in Japan alone. And according to Gene Norman, who started the GNP Crescendo label in 1954, his Dixieland and All-Star Marching Band albums enjoy their greatest sales in Europe.

Many successful independents have received offers from the major companies to come under the corporate wing. But most of the small-time jazz producers regard the music as their hobby as well as a business. "It's a culmination of a lifetime of interest," said Norman, whose first album, the 1954 release of a Max Roach-Clifford Brown set, remains one of his best-selling records.

With jazz interest on the upswing, industry executives are refusing to set any limitations upon the music's commercial potential. "Jazz has just been asleep for a while," said Arista's Backer. "But its influences have been felt all along. Very little of the popular music that's emanated from America has failed to reflect the idiom's free structure and improvisational themes. The difference now is that listeners are recognizing the kinds of things they're heard in rock for the past fifteen years."

"People are realizing now that jazz has withstood the test of time," said Elliot Home at RCA. "Pop music is too transitory to last. You can see the evolution everywhere. Look at the concert halls: a rock band plays one night, a jazz band the next. The audience is broadening; there's a taste change going on."

And according to Carl Jefferson at Concord, the industry's jazz proponents are looking eagerly to the Eighties. "Providing we don't have the kind of social unrest that made rock & roll in the Sixties, jazz will continue to evolve on all levels," he says.

To believe the ebullient industry pros, jazz is the music of the future. Certainly, like baseball, another purely American art form enjoying a renaissance, it's back in a big way.