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 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.
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
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
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
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)
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)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)