The Growing Influence of the Indie Jazz Label
“ The beauty is that there are small independents that bring transcendent and glorious music to the public that would never be heard, if all we had were the big labels. ”
Independent labels have dotted the jazz landscape for decades. Inevitably, they act as auxiliary veins to relieve creative blockages in the mainstream. Often they're run at a loss or breakeven by fanatical collectors, and more recently, by musicians themselves. Bob Weinstock's Prestige label offered Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane the chance to document their strange, new approaches to music and their instruments. Norman Granz' Verve, Orrin Keepnews' Riverside, Alfred Lion's Blue Note, Herman Lubinsky's Savoy, Gustav Wildi's Bethlehem, Richard Bock's Pacific Jazz, and Dial are a few of the indies that helped a generation of musicians get their message out despite discouraging words from more established businesses.
By the early '60s many of the bop labels had become a new mainstream that necessitated the founding of a fresh crop of indies. In the '50s, Sun Ra anticipated the trend and began pressing his own Saturn Records and selling them at shows. As the ranks of free jazz players began to swell, labels began to appear that supported the "new thing" as well as they could with meager budgets and unstable distribution. ESP, Contemporary, BYG, Freedom, Delmark, among others, began the thankless task of recording innovators. In Europe, a group of innovators - Peter Brötzmann, Peter Kowald, Alex von Schlippenbach - seized control of the means of production and formed FMP in 1966. Most of Gunter Hampel's recorded work remains on his own Birth Records. Aficionados of the music made finding the records a grail quest in tiny emporiums of esoterica. Revered by some as historical documents, now those recordings enjoy easier access than ever before as CDs via the internet.
Of jazz' oft reported 2% share of the record market, indies represent but a fraction. Yet small labels proliferate. AUM Fidelity, Thirsty Ear, Atavistic, CIMP, and Eremite number among the more influential newer labels. While recent technological advances have created the means to mass-produce recorded music less expensively, some observers foresee an inevitable flood of immature talent. Anyone with a Mac can record a CD and chatrooms buzz with concern over impending mediocrity by saturation. In Los Angeles, three indies of varying tenure have joined with several of the most crucial labels in improvised music to form IndieJazz.com, a site they hope will increase the exposure denied them in other marketing arenas.
For over a quarter century Vinny Golia's 9Winds has documented improvised music on the West Coast. "In 1977, there was little hope for an unknown white guy living on the West Coast to get a record out playing freer forms of music," he recalls. "So I decided to take the bull by the horns and do it myself. It wasn't that easy for the black players either - people like John Carter and James Newton had started their own labels too, so I was in good company and really felt this was the right thing to do." When Jeff Kaiser decided to take the plunge, he consulted with Golia who tried to discourage him. "Vinny's warning was right on," he said. "It is a ton of work and takes away from time spent on my own art. But it was something that I always wanted to do."
With Jeff Gauthier, the decision to found a label partially arose out of tragedy: "There were two converging forces that led to the formation of Cryptogramophone. The first was the death of a close friend and colleague, bassist and composer Eric Von Essen, a huge talent who lived and worked in L.A. He died at a tragically young age and his life's work was seriously undocumented, which led me to realize that life is extremely precious and fragile and that our lives' work could be gone in an instant. It also made me want to document some of Eric's work and also document the music community that was springing up here in L.A. I wanted to be able to do this without the restrictions or compromises that come with working with a major label or smaller labels that are run by someone else. At the same time, coming from the other direction was the fact that there were several projects I was working on as a musician that needed to be documented and needed a record label."