By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
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By Christian Schaeffer
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Small, independent record labels have been a major factor in the history of jazz -- especially in the era when it was moving from big band swing to bop and extended improvisation. Blue Note, Savoy, Riverside, Prestige and Pacific Jazz were started by dedicated jazz fans more interested in the music than in big commercial profits. These labels released recordings by, among others, Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Chet Baker. And those records exposed up-and-coming musicians around the world to new sounds and hastened the development of the music in surprising and unanticipated new directions.
There are still plenty of independent jazz labels around, but in this era of endless mega-corporate mergers, a few major labels dominate the jazz scene (and just about every other musical genre, for that matter). But in the face of the massive financial arsenal and marketing-and-distribution advantages of these major labels, small jazz labels run by dedicated fans still release quality music by overlooked musicians.
Since the label debuted in 1997, St. Louis-based MAX Jazz has focused on recordings by St. Louis artists: Brilliant Corners, brothers Tom and Ray Kennedy, pianist Dave Venn and the husband-and-wife team of Mardra and Reggie Thomas. But now the label is moving into the national arena, with a recording by Louisiana-born vocalist LaVerne Butler scheduled for release this June and a release by Detroit-born singer Carla Cook scheduled for July release. According to the label's founder and president, Webster Groves resident Richard McDonnell, MAX Jazz is expanding its musical focus outside St. Louis for one basic reason -- to present recordings by quality musicians overlooked by the major labels.
"I do a lot of traveling in my job as an investment banker, and I get the opportunity to hear jazz musicians in clubs around the country," explains McDonnell. "It's really amazing how many great jazz musicians are out there who either have never had the chance to record or were not really recorded in a way that really showcased their talents. So I thought, why not expand from recording just musicians in St. Louis and try to present some great music by vocalists like LaVerne Butler and Carla Cook?"
Time constraints and his job commitment make the MAX Jazz label basically a weekend job for McDonnell, but he's pulled together a strong team of professionals to handle the label's sales, marketing, distribution -- and, most important, the job of handling the artist-and-repertoire duties for MAX Jazz. The A&R man for the label is pianist Bruce Barth, whose musical credentials include work with Nat Adderley, Stanley Turrentine and Terence Blanchard.
Barth, contacted by phone at his New York City home, describes his first meeting with McDonnell and their subsequent friendship.
"I was playing with Terence (Blanchard)'s band at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C.," Barth says, "and Richard came up to me between sets, telling me he really liked a couple of recordings I'd done as a leader on the Enja label. I was amazed this guy in a business suit knew about those albums, because Enja's a very small label. But it was obvious he was a real jazz fan, and we became good friends. Later on, Rich asked me to play onLaVerne (Butler)'s recording session and do some arranging as well. Eventually I ended up producing the session, and since we seem to work well together, he asked me if I'd be the A&R man for MAX Jazz. I was happy to do it, because Richard really wants the artists on his label to record the way that they want. And he also wants the recording to be presented in a quality way, from the actual music to the packaging, photography and design."
McDonnell is focusing on vocalists as a way to position MAX Jazz as a unique label on the national scene, but he certainly doesn't plan on limiting future releases to singers -- or neglecting St. Louis artists. "I think recordings by vocalists -- paired with great instrumental players -- give you a greater chance of finding an audience," McDonnell says. "They appeal to dedicated jazz fans and are also an easy way for the casual music fan to gain an appreciation for jazz. So, in addition to the Butler and Cook recordings, we're also going to release two more vocal CDs this year -- one by Christine Hitt and the other by Asa Harris. Christine is a great singer, but she's usually featured around St. Louis as a pianist. And although Asa is now living in Milwaukee, she was a great favorite in St. Louis for many years. So although we're doing things on a national level, MAX Jazz is still very much interested in presenting the best jazz artists in St. Louis as well."
Look for a CD-release party/performance by Butler at Jazz at the Bistro in June (tentative dates are the 18th and 19th), plus some national coverage for Butler, thanks to similar events scheduled in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Butler's hometown of Shreveport, La. And after the initial releases on MAX Jazz in 1999, look for a jazz-piano series in 2000. For more info on the label, check out the MAX Jazz Web site, www.maxjazz.com.