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)


    CUNEIFORM [1984, US, 225]
    Steve Feigenbaum's notion of Adventurous Music centers on the jazz-rock convergence of Anglo groups like Soft Machine circa 1970 and radiates from there, tracking Paul Dunmall and Keith Tippett into the present, Chris McGregor and John Surman into the past.
    Brotherhood of Breath, Travelling Somewhere (1973)


    DELMARK [1953, US, 375]
    Bob Koester started hustling records and tracking down bluesmen in St. Louis, then moved to Chicago and took over the Jazz Mart. Delmark's jazz side has waxed and waned over years tracking the Chicago scene, which means it had a blip in the AACM heyday and is way up since the mid-'90s.
    Kahil El'Zabar Trio, Love Outside of Dreams (1997)


    DRAGON [1975, Sweden, 220]
    The Swedish jazz that makes up the bulk of this catalog leans toward the mainstream, including historic releases from important figures like Stan Hasselgård, Arne Domnérus and Bengt Hallberg, although there are some more avant moves. Mixed in are gigs from visitors, most notably Sonny Rollins.
    Lars Gullin, Vol. 4: Stockholm Street (1959-60)


    image
    Manfred Eicher
    photo: Roberto Masotti/ECM Records
    ECM [1969, Germany, 900]
    Manfred Eicher has maintained such a consistent look and feel that ECM is more like a genre than a label. While the earliest were pointedly avant-garde, Eicher soon gravitated to a chillier shade of cool jazz—in effect, he made free jazz safe for the world by slowing it down and compelling it to think. Working through major distributors, he also sold a lot of it—four million copies of Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert.
    Jan Garbarek, Witchi-Tai-To (1973)


    EMANEM/PSI [1974, UK, 160]
    Martin Davidson calls it Free Improvisation—a music that takes a key idea from jazz and expands it into its own universe. It's difficult stuff, as demanding on the listener as the musician. One such musician is Evan Parker, who manages the Psi boutique.
    Paul Rutherford, The Gentle Harm of the Bourgeoisie (1974)


    ENJA [1971, Germany, 670]
    Horst Weber looked to Japan for material and sales. Matthias Winckelmann welcomed a left-leaning range of American musicians, then spread his net to gather artists from everywhere fusing everything—Abdullah Ibrahim, Dusko Goykovich, Yosuke Yamashita, Rabih Abou-Khalil, Gilad Atzmon. The founders split in 1986 but both continued to release albums under the Enja name as well as Tiptoe and Tutu.
    Abraham Burton, The Magician (1995)


    ESP-DISK [1966, US, 45]
    Bernard Stollman's motto was "the artists alone decide what you will hear," but you may wonder whether artists from Albert Ayler to Frank Wright, including some non-jazzers like the Fugs and the Godz, weren't just testing him. The catalog has kicked around, but Stollman reformed the company in 2003 and has started remastering, even coming up with some unreleased tapes.
    Albert Ayler, Spiritual Unity (1964)


    FANTASY [1949, US, 2800]
    Fantasy was a small mostly-jazz label until Saul Zaentz bought the original owners out in 1967 and struck gold with East Bay rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival. Zaentz used the profits to go on a spree, acquiring Prestige, Riverside, Milestone, Contemporary, and Pablo. Although Fantasy and its subsidiaries continued to record loads of new jazz, the back catalog looms large. Fantasy has kept more old jazz in print than any major. In 2004, it was acquired by Concord, putting its future in jeopardy.
    Sonny Rollins, This Is What I Do (2000)


    FMP [1969, Germany, 140]
    The anarchists who founded FMP sought to overthrow the establishment through the Globe Unity Orchestra. Peter Brötzmann, Peter Kowald, and Alex von Schlippenbach were major figures here, but the label's signal production came in 1989, when Cecil Taylor manhandled every vangardist on the continent, recording 11 CDs in as many nights.
    Charles Gayle, Touchin' on Trane (1991)


    image
    Jordi Pujol
    photo: Carolina Pujol
    FRESH SOUND [1983, Spain, 1100]
    Jordi Pujol's fascination with "the fresh sound of the west coast" led him to license a lot of cool jazz before he added labels covering a wide range of Spanish and Latin American music. But he's developed into one of the most prolific jazz producers around, recording veterans like Bud Shank and Bill Perkins and in 1995 starting his Fresh Sound New Talent series for relative unknowns—many no longer unknown after 220 albums: Brad Mehldau, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jeremy Pelt, Miguel Zenón;, the Bad Plus.
    Reid Anderson, Abolish Bad Architecture (1999)


    HAT HUT [1975, Switzerland, 300]
    Werner Uehlinger wanted to provide an outlet for Joe McPhee, but soon after started adding other artists: Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, the Vienna Art Orchestra. One of Europe's premier avant-garde labels.
    Steve Lacy, Morning Glory (1986)


    HEP [1974, UK, 240]
    Alistair Robertson started archiving classic jazz and radio shots, but also has a fine series of new recordings informed by if not necessarily in the old vein—Herb Geller is, Jessica Williams isn't.
    Michael Hashim, Green Up Time (2001)


    HIGHNOTE/SAVANT [1996, US, 160]
    Houston Person has recorded dozens of albums for three labels going back to 1966, but he's only worked for one person: Joe Fields, at Prestige, then Muse, and finally Jazz Depot—the umbrella for these two interchangeable imprints. Fields's mainstream spreads from soul men like Person and Fathead Newman to friskier sorts like Ricky Ford and Arthur Blythe.
    Sheila Jordan, Little Song (2003)


    JAZZOLOGY/GHB/AUDIOPHILE/CIRCLE/PROGRESSIVE [1949, US, 700]
    George Buck started Jazzology to chronicle Chicago-style trad jazz, then added GHB for New Orleans, and went on to pick up other labels steeped in jazz tradition. Progressive? That's the one Stuff Smith is on.
    Bob Wilber, Dancing on a Rainbow (1989)


    JUSTIN TIME [1983, Canada, 300]
    Jim West started local with Oliver Jones, then gradually added more Canadian talent, like Diana Krall and D.D. Jackson. Krall went on to Verve, but Jackson led to David Murray, who found a home for his Senegal, Guadeloupe, and Latin Big Band projects. And Murray brought in Hamiett Bluiett, Abdoulaye N'Diaye. A license deal with Enja broadens the label's global sweep.
    David Murray, Like a Kiss That Never Ends (2001)


    LEO [1979, UK, 400]
    For Leo Feigin, jazz was the scent of freedom wafting into his native Soviet Union via the Voice of America. Later, in England, the wind shifted when he received a smuggled tape of the Ganelin Trio—the Russian free jazz underground.
    Ganelin Trio, Ancora Da Capo (1980)


    MAXJAZZ [1998, US, 35]
    Richard McDonnell has put together a handsome series of right-of-center albums, long on piano, longer still on female vocals. Unlike most conservatives, they're less interested in rolling back progress than playing within their well-honed talents.
    René Marie, Vertigo (2001)


    NAGEL HEYER [1992, Germany, 175]
    The Nagel-Heyer family—Frank produces, Sabine runs the company— got its start taping Hamburg concerts by swingers like Harry Allen and Randy Sandke, becoming the European stopover for Concord and Arbors expats. Lately they've inched into slightly more progressive terrain, reviving no-longer-fashionable hard boppers like Eric Reed and Donald Harrison and even risking some Europeans.
    Warren Vaché‚/Bill Charlap, 2gether (2000)


    NINE WINDS [1977, US, 140]
    Vinny Golia is the West Coast's answer to John Zorn, all the way down to running a company that goes way beyond his own voluminous work. Less hyper, of course: cooler music, smaller catalog.
    Dick Berk, Bouncin' With Berk (1990)


    OKKA DISK [1993, US, 40]
    Ken Vandermark plays on more than half of Bruno Johnson's discs, and Vandermark collaborators play on most of the rest—Georg Gräwe and Evan Parker are the only unassociated names to show up as much as twice, once as a duo.
    School Days, Crossing Division (2000)


    PALMETTO [1990, US, 100]
    Matt Baltisaris picks "left of center" musicians, takes them to an old barn in Pennsylvania where he has a studio called Maggie's Farm, and markets the resulting productions as a creative advance on the middle of the road. He has scored especially well in Downbeat's polls. Forget changing the art—he's changing the public's mind.
    David Berkman, Communication Theory (2000)


    PLAYSCAPE [1999, US, 30]
    The next step up from a single-artist label is one that documents a small circle of closely aligned musicians. Michael Musillami's crew are tight enough they could pass as Thomas Chapin's virtual ghost band.
    Tom Christensen, New York School (2004)


    RED [1977, Italy, 135]
    An acronym, not a manifesto, but the music could be called progressive mainstream. Americans like Dave Liebman and Bobby Watson have found a home with Sergio Veschi, alongside an imposing group of Italians.
    Massimo Urbani, The Blessing (1993)


    ROPEADOPE [1999, US, 30]
    Most titles have a jazz component, but they have something else, such as the Tin Hat Trio's bluegrass angle or the matchup between ?uestlove, Uri Caine, and Christian McBride on The Philadelphia Experiment. But is it jazz when the label also sells hats and jackets?
    Yohimbe Brothers, Front End Lifter (2002)


    SHARP NINE [1995, US, 30]
    Marc Edelman can get defensive about the hard bop he perfected 40 years ago, but nobody since the '60s has brought it so crisply to life.
    David Hazeltine, The Classic Trio (1996)


    STEEPLECHASE [1972, Denmark, 635]
    Built around American emigrés—Kenny Drew, Duke Jordan, Dexter Gordon—and local bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Nils Winther's label went on to attract much new talent in the late '80s—Joe Locke, Rick Margitza, Rich Perry, Doug Raney, Steve Slagle, Dave Stryker, just a few names on a long list.
    Archie Shepp/Horace Parlan, Goin' Home (1977)


    STOMP OFF [1980, US, 400]
    Nothing old ever dies as long as you keep it working, which is what Bob Erdos has done here, with a lot of good-old-timey bands for fun and occasionally someone who finds new angles in Fletcher Henderson or Fats Waller—Keith Nichols, Ted Des Plantes, Marty Grosz.
    Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble, Hot and Sweet Sounds of Lost New Orleans (1986)


    STORYVILLE [1952, Denmark, 550]
    Karl Emil Knudsen got his start licensing import 78s, added live tapes from visitors, picked up old airchecks, dug up series of Collector's Classics and Nostalgia Arts, and eventually granted himself a Doctor of Jazz Archaeology. While the catalog is deepest in trad, it samples later developments, including Scandinavians ranging from Papa Bue to John Tchicai. Knudsen died in 2003, and Edition Wilhelm Hansen has taken over the company.
    Vic Dickenson, Gentleman of the Trombone (1975)


    SUNNYSIDE [1982, US, 225]
    François Zalacain got into the business to make a record for his friend Harold Danko, and one thing led to another. Not much vision, but good ears and business sense. They also cherry-pick from other labels, especially in Europe.
    Barney Wilen, New York Romance (1994)


    TELARC [1980, US, 800]
    Originally an audiophile classical outfit, Telarc is one of the few independents that thinks and acts like a major—getting chain distribution and winning Grammys. Their jazz lineup is peppered with names—Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, and McCoy Tyner are just the pianists, with Geri Allen a smart addition.
    Roseanna Vitro, Catchin' Some Rays (1997]


    THIRSTY EAR [1990, US, 90]
    A rock label with Throbbing Gristle and Scraping Foetus took a fateful turn in 2000 by hiring Matthew Shipp to direct an avant- jazz line: the Blue Series. The combination mutated into a fusion of free jazz and electronics complete with guest DJs, but it also provides an outlet for Tim Berne and David S. Ware.
    William Parker, Raining on the Moon (2001)


    TUM [2003, Finland, 12]
    An impressive start for a prospective ECM and Hat Hut competitor. So far the roster is, well, Finnish, but the music is inventive and varied, the packaging distinctive, the booklets informative.
    Juhani Aaltonen, Mother Tongue (2002)


    TZADIK [1995, US, 385]
    John Zorn is as wrecklessly prodigious with his label as with his music. Zorn plays on or composed for 96 Tzadik albums, including some going back to 1973. Output splits into series reflecting such Zorn interests as Film Music, New Japan, and Lunatic Fringe, but most substantial is Radical Jewish Culture, which could be Pincus and the Pig or Yo! I Killed Your God, but is definitely not your bubbe's klezmer.
    Roberto Rodriguez, El Danzon de Moises (2002)


    WINTER & WINTER [1997, Germany, 150]
    Musically, Stefan Winter's label carries on from the earlier JMT— common artists include Paul Motian and Uri Caine—but the booklike cardboard packaging, with its firm snap to hold the CD in place, feels like a luxurious indulgence. The new music cultivates new idiosyncrasies: jazzing up Mahler, reimagining cabaret, exploring Mexico, remaking Tin Pan Alley.
    Uri Caine, Bedrock (2001)

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