Boomers' new tastes fuel jazz record resurgence
New York — After a period in the doldrums, the jazz record business is blossoming again, with sales rising, new labels appearing, and old labels being revived. Live jazz performance may be in decline here in New York, where rising real-estate costs have forced many jazz clubs - traditionally not big moneymakers - to close down. But record sales are taking up the slack, suggesting that interest in the music is alive and growing.
Among the new and revived jazz labels are Polygram's Verve label, MCA's Impulse label, Columbia's Jazz Masterpiece reissues, and RCA's new Ariola label, which specializes in vintage and contemporary jazz as well as ``New Age'' music.
Among the jazz labels appearing for the first time are Soundwings and Intima, both of which specialize in jazz fusion.
In addition to the specialty labels, several major record companies are focusing more attention on jazz these days. Record executive Nesuhi Ertegun, who has been associated with jazz at Atlantic Records since the mid-'50s and now heads the international record company WEA, says, ``Interest in jazz is cyclical, and right now it's on the way up, not just in the States but around the world.''
He cites the CD as a major factor: ``The compact disc is bringing a tremendous [number] of new listeners to jazz. The quality and sound reproduction is extraordinary. Even if someone already has an album, they'll buy it again when it's released on CD.''
Mr. Ertegun has made a tacit agreement with Atlantic to reissue 80 to 100 jazz recordings on CD by the end of this year, and he has just produced a new album of the Modern Jazz Quartet, their 19th with him.
Steve Backer, formerly with Windham Hill records and now head of jazz operations at RCA/Ariola, agrees that interest in jazz comes and goes. However, he credits the new management at RCA for the current interest in jazz there.
``There's a much more progressive attitude here,'' Mr. Backer says, ``combined with the resuscitation of jazz generally within the industry.'' Backer also feels that the change is partially caused by an upswing in the United States economy generally.
``In the '70s, there was prolific recording of jazz,'' he says, ``but at the turn of the decade the cycle headed downward, and it paralleled the economy's downward trend. There were a couple of attempts at getting back into jazz in the early '80s - Island/Antilles and Elektra Musician. They were ... a bit premature, but for the last year-and-a-half or so, this resuscitation has been very real.''
The resurgence of jazz on record is by no means confined to mainstream or even modern jazz. For instance, part of the Ariola operation will be devoted to New Age music, and Backer feels that dovetailing may enhance the popularity of the jazz recordings. ``New Age music isn't really jazz,'' he says, ``but it's perceived as jazz by many people. It's instrumental, and the lay person can't tell if the music is improvised or not. It gets placed in jazz sections of music stores, played on jazz radio, listed on jazz charts. The phenomenal success of that genre has helped record companies open the door to jazz.''
Among the mainstream jazz albums to be released by Ariola are: James Moody's first US recording in a last decade; Polish pianist Adam Makowicz's first album since 1978, a 16-record box of Benny Goodman performances; a duet album with Spanish guitarist Juan Martin and Armenian string player Ara Dinkjian, who plays oud and mandolin over a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer and trap drums and percussion.
Says Backer, ``What I'm trying to do is break down the boundaries among contemporary instrumental music: jazz, `world music,' New Age music, and some classical elements. It's a coming together of cultures, with diversity and quality.''
Richard Seidel of Polygram Records's new/old Verve label cites the success of Polygram's reissues over the past five years as well as the sale of CDs as the reasons for the revival of Verve. He claims that there's been a renewal of interest in jazz because ``there are a larger number of record buyers in the older demographic. They are looking for a more sophisticated kind of music than rock-and-roll. The baby-boom generation has continued to buy records, because they've been drawn back by the CD.''
The first three albums on the new Verve label feature vocalists Astrud Gilberto, Marlena Shaw, and Nina Simone.
``We went with vocalists because the Verve catalog has always been identified with singers,'' says Mr. Seidel. ``We picked [records by] those three because we thought they were good records and fit into the mold.''
In the future, Verve will be signing some new vocalists and will also be emphasizing Brazilian jazz. The label has no immediate plans to record New Age music. Instead, it will offer the music of groups and artists like Sphere, Charlie Haden, Ernie Watts, Alan Broadbent, and Billy Higgins.
The revival of the Impulse label under the auspices of MCA Records is especially interesting, since the new Impulse is sticking close to the policies of the earlier label.
Says MCA/Impulse spokesman Don Lucoff, ``Impulse was an extreme label in the '60s. It reflected the times. It introduced new artists, and it recorded the masters.''
He goes on to point out that the revived Impulse has introduced two new artists so far: pianist Henry Butler and trumpeter Mike Metheny (Pat's brother). It has also reissued recordings by such jazz greats as John Coltrane, Count Basie, Art Blakey, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, and Gil Evans.
In August, Impulse will introduce double CD reissues featuring Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner, Charles Mingus, Sam Rivers, Gato Barbieri, and others.
``Things are looking very good,'' says Mr. Lucoff. ``We're pushing ahead, but we're not rushing.''