The Oral History Of AUM Fidelity: Steven Joerg’s DIY Avant-Garde Label Celebrates Its 15th Anniversary


In an interview with the Voice last year, AUM Fidelity head Steven Joerg made his mantra crystal clear: “Giants walk among us now, and you’ve got to fucking pay attention.” For the last fifteen years, the proprietor and sole employee of the Brooklyn-based jazz and avant-soul label has been documenting those giants, producing and releasing a pioneering cache of singular music while remaining true to his DIY ethos.

Joerg honed his do-it-yourself chops in the early ’90s at indie powerhouse Homestead Records. As manager, it was there that he hatched the then-unheard concept of integrating free jazz on a predominantly indie rock label, positioning drummer William Hooker and David S. Ware on the same label where Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr and Big Black recorded seminal records. Ultimately, Joerg left Homestead and—taking inspiration from Charles Mingus’ legendary album Ah Um—launched AUM Fidelity in 1996. The following year (’97) saw AUM’s inaugural release, David S. Ware Quartet’s groundbreaking firestorm Wisdom of Uncertainty, a record that included a jaw-dropping group of purveyors (Ware, Matthew Shipp, William Parker and Susie Ibarra) who subsequently helped shape the New York avant-garde scene and beyond.

Now, the preeminent avant-garde jazz artists Joerg has championed over the years are giving the AUM boss his props. Read on for a slew of glowing, heartfelt testimonials from a few of the giants he’s worked with.

Matthew Shipp: I was around at the beginning of AUM. I had met Joerg when he was at Homestead Records and talked him into signing [saxophonist David S.] Ware. It was exciting when he made the transition to working for an indie rock label but signing jazz artists to starting his own “jazz label,” which still had the same gritty vibe of indie rock. What made [the David S. Ware Quartet’s 2002 album] Freedom Suite so exciting was that it was a Sonny Rollins piece which, when Rollins recorded it, had no piano. So I had freedom to invent a role for myself on this CD, and also because of Ware’s close friendship with Rollins. We had his blessing, and in fact, I am told he loved what we did with it and when he was put in the Jazz Hall of Fame at Jazz at Lincoln Center, he requested that the Ware Quartet play a movement from Freedom Suite—which we did. It was surreal playing up at Jazz at Lincoln Center—and I don’t mean that in a good way.

William Parker: Steven Joerg was open to recording the music that we were making when no one else was interested, without interfering with the style or content. The artists were given complete freedom to do the music they wanted to do. Unlike other labels—I won’t mention any names—AUM Fidelity gave out royalty statements and royalties. It is a joy to work with someone you can trust who believes in the artist and music all the way down, from the beginning to the end. As time moves on, the label and its concepts become more and more rare.

Eri Yamamoto: I first met Steven while playing piano on William Parker’s Raining on the Moon. I’ve since made four CDs for AUM Fidelity as a leader. The most recent is my trio recording, The Next Page. When I work with Steven, it always feels like we’re the home team. He loves the music and the musicians, and gives me complete artistic freedom. It is a New York-based label, and if I want to talk with him about an idea, we can meet face-to-face and have a nice drink or two. He is an artist himself, and instinctively understands what I’m thinking when we produce CDs together. Before recording The Next Page, my trio had a gig at Cornelia Street Cafe, and Steven came to listen to the music that we’d be recording. He said, “Great, good to go!” At the studio, he was a great presence in the control room, and had a handle on all aspects of the recording. So I felt free to play the piano and not to worry about anything.

Joe Morris: All of the CDs I’ve made for AUM Fidelity are different, and each is special to me. They’re also all special in terms of how they were made and the process of making them, so it’s hard to pick one in particular. But the one that might be the most unusual one is Singularity, my solo acoustic guitar CD. I recorded it myself in my house. I recorded two and a half hours of music, but I didn’t like the sound, so I recorded for another two and a half hours. Out of that I selected about forty-five minutes of music for the CD, and it’s the best example of the deepest and most unique part of my music. I worked for years to get that right and it is still growing.

The other CD worth mentioning is [the forthcoming] Altitude, which is a trio with William Parker on bass, Gerald Cleaver on drums. I’m playing electric guitar on it. Steven Joerg and I first spoke about making a trio cd with William on bass 15 years ago. We kept talking about it. Finally the time seemed right. AUM had two weeks at the Stone last June, so we arranged the gig and had it recorded. In some ways, it’s the completion of a big circle or a couple of circles. My first recording—Wrapround, released in 1983—was a live trio, and my first AUM Fidelity CD, Antenna, was also a trio. Altitude is a long-form collective improvisation. I am extremely influenced by Jimmy Lyons, Albert Ayler, late Coltrane and all the free jazz saxophonists—and that includes [AUM artist] David S. Ware, so having Altitude on AUM Fidelity makes sense.

Cooper-Moore: Triptych Myth was me directly working with [Steven]. I found that he was very thorough, a very confident person and very particular about all the details of the recording: the [album] covers, sound, the notes. The thing I remember most that I keep in my mind about Steven was, that I think in ’07, I was going to do a solo tour all over America and because I don’t drive anymore, I was gonna do it on a Greyhound bus and Amtrak. I sent a letter out to lots of people and I got back two important responses: one from Adam Lore, dear friend, and then the other from Steven.

Well, Steven did two things: he and Adam got together and said “Look, Cooper-Moore. Why don’t we, so you have product to sell out on the road, put out a CD of your box set that Adam had produced and then you have something to sell?” Not only that, but Steven and Adam put out a mailing all across the country that I was gonna do that. So, I sent out a letter on a Friday or Saturday. By Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday. I had pretty much booked the whole tour—this was a two-month tour. There were other bookings that came later, but pretty much I had all the spots where I was gonna be touring. I found that was very impressive that he [Steven] got on the phone, got on email and people responded within three or four days and [because of that] I booked the whole tour. That to me is something that stays in my mind. He personally got in touch with people on the west coast who put me up. That’s what I remember about him: someone who really cared about the music and people.

When Steven first asked me to record, I was hesitant because I didn’t know him, really. So I called up William Parker and I ask him and just great words from William. I called up David [S. Ware] and got great words from David. So I said “yes” to Steven [to record].

Gerald Cleaver: I first met Steven maybe in 1999 or 2000, and Joe Morris invited me to play in his band with Chris Lightcap and Mat Maneri and the very first gig we did was in Steven’s old place on 9th Street [in Park Slope]. I just remember Steven being incredibly positive, such an amazingly idealistic kind of fellow but not in an unrealistic way—lots of positive energy there and that always struck me and always stayed with me. I remember AUM was just maybe getting off the ground around that time. I remember stacks of boxes in this little room there. That stuck with me, because coming from Detroit, where it’s lately more about keeping your head above water, there wasn’t too much self-determination to make stuff happen. Seeing that, it really struck a chord with me and seeing somebody that age doing exactly what he wanted to do.

Steven is really hands-off [producing records] and we’ve been in situations where he’s been there and he’s just a kind of supporter. The way it feels in the various things I’ve dealt with him is he’s like our number one fan. It’s not like he’s “producing” the product but you’re making a heartfelt performance that just happens to be getting recorded and he’s enjoying every bit of it. That part of it is nice.

I remember the very first Farmers by Nature record that I mixed with Steven. It went back and forth, and at that point I really appreciated his ears as well because he’s a very astute listener. He listens like a musician, but he has the heart a fan. I guess he wouldn’t have a record label if he weren’t like that. Steven’s doing everything right, as far as I’m concerned.

Darius Jones: The first meeting I had with Steven Joerg was for Man’ish Boy (A Raw and Beautiful Thing). What struck me first is that he was very polite and accommodating. He patiently listened to my ideas and diligently took notes throughout our conversation, and when we got to the moment when I proposed how much I wanted to be paid for the project, Steven poignantly said, “Let me get another drink.” After he sipped on his beer, we came to a compromise and, from that moment, I began to learn from this great man. He has never pulled any punches; he’s always given me the facts, whether they were ugly or dramatically beautiful. Steven is a man of integrity.

When we recorded Book of Mæ’bul (Another Kind of Sunrise), I was very nervous at the beginning of the session. Steven told me later that he sensed this at the time but wanted to allow me to work through it. He didn’t get in the way of me tapping into the vulnerability and character of the Mæ’bul music. He knew that I would get it together. He was calm and patient and encouraging, making sure that I had everything that I needed to manifest my vision for this record. This is what makes Steven a great producer and what makes AUM Fidelity a great label to be on.

Ches Smith: [Working with Steven on Book of Mæ’bul (Another Kind of Sunrise)] was really straightforward. He just made it really easy and it’s always nice having another set of ears in the control room listening to what we’re doing because honestly, after I’m done with the take and it’s just me but I don’t know what was good or bad or anything. I really just need someone to tell me. I can listen back and tell but it’s great to be in there and then do another take if you need to without having to stop and listen. I know he’s put out a lot of records and he’s a big fan of music so it’s just nice having someone there that knew Darius’s playing. When Steven was listening and excited, that felt good to me. [laughs]

Mike Pride: Before I got to know Steven, I was worried about it because I remember when Darius [Jones] was the first person who brought it up to me if I’d be interested in doing a From Bacteria to Boys record with AUM Fidelity. I was like “Yeah, you know, maybe? Do I have any say on how my record looks? Do I have any say on how my record is marketed?” Darius was like “I don’t know. That’s between you and him.” I did many meetings. Me and Steven met three or four time over the course of two months before there was actually a contract presented, which wasn’t a drag for me. It wasn’t just like he was feeling me out; I was feeling him out. I put out like fifteen of my own records prior to that with little to no or more success than none—it varied all the time. So I wasn’t necessarily super-psyched to be on a label unless I felt like I could still do almost anything I wanted. Steven let me do that. We disagreed after making the record on a few things and I argued my case and in every case he heard me out and ended up agreeing with my request, as far as what changed or what needed to be cut. I’ve dealt with a lot of belligerent bandleaders, musicians and label people and Steven was certainly not that. He heard me out in every thing and fortunately for me, while preparing mentally for me for what I wanted to say, and he was totally cool. So it was great.

It was the first time I had somebody pay for a record of mine from beginning to end, including payment for the band, which is exceedingly rare nowadays and then to have him see it all the way through. [Betweenwhile] doesn’t look like the other AUM Fidelity records, it doesn’t sound like the other AUM Fidelity records—not that they all sound the same, but there’s certainly an image that comes to mind to me and the fans before I was on the label of what AUM Fidelity records are.

Steven has been a pleasure to work with and he’s been generous with his opinions, which is cool—I like people with strong opinions and I like people who critique my own work, whether they like it or hate it. I’m kinda into that.

Matthew Shipp: Working on [Freedom Suite] was an exciting adventure of remaking a jazz iconic piece—and it is extremely different than any other remake of it, just like Joerg’s label is unlike any other jazz label in history, it was interesting to bring a indie-rock sensibility to promoting a jazz staple like this, and Joerg’s “special zany personality” always added to the surprising unfolding of the perception of the CD or any CD he put out. Joerg and I spent countless hours back then coming up with alternative ways of promoting the music through different channels—it was an exciting time, and Joerg is a pilgrim. He is still in the ballgame, giving it 100 percent. He is completely dedicated and loyal to the artists he works with—an amazing story.

Cooper-Moore: It’s all about the musicians: the musicians let you know who people are. We can read the words of critics and writers and reviewers but it’s the musicians who really know who the people are in this business. Every January all the musicians get an accounting. I don’t know about other record companies but every musician that records for him [Steven] gets an accounting of every track that has sold that year, the red and the black. Every CD that’s gone out, every CD that’s come back that didn’t sell, everything that’s downloaded—every penny is accounted for and the fact that the business of it is that after cost the musicians split—the deals are different—but my deal with him was after costs, profits were split 50/50. And that is not the regular music business.

I’ve pretty much shied away from all of [the record labels]. My business has been to make music. I don’t sell it; I just make it. I’ve been very thankful that Steven’s been on the spot and taking care of the business.

AUM Fidelity celebrates its 15th anniversary Tuesday, June 12, at Roulette with performances by Eri Yamamoto, Farmers by Nature, Darius Jones Quartet and William Parker’s In Order to Survive.