Covering Expenses

A who, what, why, where, when—and how many—of the uncharted world of independent jazz labels

It takes two to make new jazz records: an artist to create and a businessperson to cover the expenses. Although small jazz labels proliferated in the early LP era, by the '60s and '70s the record industry's consolidation into a handful of majors shrunk the opportunities to record jazz while other factors undermined its popularity. But gloomy days in America coincided with an explosion of indies abroad, especially for free jazz. The tide began to shift back in the mid-'90s, when production costs dropped and the worldwide market opened up, making it much easier to start and sustain small labels. Without hurting the European labels' growing local market and talent base, this let new American labels rejoin the game.

The four remaining major megacorps, who command 75 percent of the record market, own and recycle much of jazz's recorded legacy but produce little new jazz beyond a couple dozen exceptionally important artists. The flagship brand names—EMI's Blue Note and Universal's Verve—release fewer new jazz albums than many independents, while Sony/BMG and WEA are barely in the business. The market structure, with many artists dividing few sales—often as few as 1000 copies, rarely more than 30K even with promotion and distribution—just doesn't suit their business model.

So virtually all new jazz comes out of independent companies. What follows is a sample of some of the larger and/or more interesting ones, but there are many more—over 800 without getting into single-artist outfits. For each I've provided a founding date, country, approximate album count, and finally a single pick hit.

Carl Jefferson
photo: Concord Records
Carl Jefferson


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  • ACCURATE [1987, US, 100]
    Boston was home to many musicians but no labels, so when Russ Gershon started releasing his own Either/Orchestra records, friends and fellow travellers came calling.
    Either/Orchestra, The Calculus of Pleasure (1990)

    ARABESQUE [1983, US, 170]
    Originally classical, 30 percent of the catalog is jazz now, ranging from Charles McPherson to Myra Melford, with a dash of Latin tinge here and there.
    Horace Tapscott, Thoughts of Dar Es Salaam (1997)

    ARBORS [1989, US, 160]
    Mat and Rachel Domber started Arbors to record Rick Fay, a friend who had played saxophone for 40 years but never cut a record. Since then Arbors has expanded from trad to swing, even picking up Concord castoffs like Ruby Braff and Warren Vaché.
    Ruby Braff/Ellis Larkins, Calling Berlin Vol. 1 (1994)

    ASIAN IMPROV [1987, US, 50]
    Jon Jang and Francis Wong founded this to focus on Asian American jazz musicians. Since then the music has broadened to hip-hop, traditional, and spoken word, and the Asian connections expanded westward to India and Iran: Vijay Iyer and Hafez Modirzadeh.
    Asian American Jazz Orchestra, Big Bands Behind Barbed Wire (1998)

    ATAVISTIC [1986, US, 200]
    Kurt Kellison began with Glenn Branca's symphonies, reissued the collected Lydia Lunch, then dipped into the local Chicago jazz scene and came up with Ken Vandermark. Along came John Corbett with the idea of an Unheard Music Series and, well, 53 albums later you still have to go to Europe to find comprehensive sets of old jazz and blues, but the ultimate repository of the German avant-garde is in Chicago.
    Vandermark Five, Target or Flag (1997)

    AUM FIDELITY [1997, US, 25]
    Steven Joerg launched this small label to carry on work with Joe Morris and William Parker, who he'd done publicity for at indie- rock Homestead. Joerg caught Parker when he was emerging as a leader and David S. Ware on the rebound from Columbia.
    David S. Ware Quartet, Corridors and Parallels (2001)

    AYLER [2000, Sweden, 60]
    Jan Ström specializes in live gigs from the Glenn Miller Caf‚ and rare archives from avant-gardists who never caught a break, including the first records under their own names by the late Arthur Rhames and Mongezi Feza and the living Henry Grimes.
    Anders Gahnold, Flowers for Johnny (1983-85)

    BLACK SAINT/SOUL NOTE [1975/1979, Italy, 700]
    Back in the '80s Giovanni Bonandrini's labels housed a who's who of the American avant-garde, and were properly celebrated even though sales were paltry—bestseller David Murray topped out at 21K. Soul Note is less out and more European, but not much.
    George Lewis, Homage to Charles Parker (1979)

    BOXHOLDER [1998, US, 45]
    Lou Kannenstine's retirement hobby is to release avant-jazz from Vermont—an often intriguing mix of old tapes and new oddities, such as William Parker vamping behind Dave Budbill's poetry or Bill Cole's digeridoo.
    Bill Cole's Untempered Ensemble, Seasoning the Greens (2001)

    CADENCE JAZZ/CIMP [1980/1995, US, 400]
    Bob Rusch's empire grew out of Cadence magazine, which doubles as a catalog for his distribution business—12,000 obscure jazz titles on 900 labels, plus books, audio equipment, and socks. Along the way he started a label, then another. Both are avant-garde foundries, but CIMP has fussy audiophile engineering by Marc Rusch and classy artwork by Kara Rusch.
    Tyrone Hill/Marshall Allen, Out of the Box (1997)

    CLEAN FEED [2001, Portugal, 35]
    The Americans in Pedro Costa's catalog are staunch freedom seekers like Charles Gayle, but their name recognition pumps locals like Bernardo Sassetti and Carlos Zingaro, who in turn underwrite the label with local sales.
    Ravish Momin Trio Tirana, Under the Banyan Tree (2005)

    CONCORD [1973, US, 650]
    Carl Jefferson plunged into the record business four years after he organized the Concord Jazz Festival, named for his northern California hometown. Up to 1999 Concord recorded 900 albums, mostly in the swing-influenced post-bop that was retro before he made it mainstream again. He rejuvenated careers and found youngsters to carry their flame: Stan Getz to Scott Hamilton, Ruby Braff to Warren Vach‚, Herb Ellis to Howard Alden, Rosemary Clooney to Susannah McCorkle. In 1999, a venture group headed by Norman Lear took over. They slashed a third of the catalog, sold nearly five million Ray Charles duet albums, and acquired the as-yet-undigested Fantasy, whose huge catalog includes many of the classics that Concord aspired to.
    Marian McPartland, Plays the Benny Carter Songbook (1990)

    CRISS CROSS [1980, Netherlands, 265]
    Gerry Teekens got his start recording Americans like Jimmy Raney and Warne Marsh as they passed through Holland, then started to scouting out younger mainstream players in the U.S.—Walt Weiskopf and John Swana are typical examples, Bill Charlap a notable alumnus.
    Mark Turner, Yam Yam (1994)

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