A Fireside Chat With Producer John Snyder
“ It is not as if music execs are these eighty year olds, a foot in the grave, some of these cats are younger than I am. One would think they would be hip to the internet by now. ”
Cecil Taylor recorded an album in 1989 with what in essence was the first incarnation of his now famous Feel Trio. In Fluorescence, featuring Gregg Bendian and William Parker, is a classic Taylor record, and one that would never have been made were it not for one John Snyder. And the same holds true for Don Cherry's immortal Brown Rice session.
Snyder's importance to improvised music may be subtle and not widely known, but his impact is impressive. Snyder has been witness to some of the striking performances on record. From his work with Art Pepper to his session with Sun Ra, Snyder has been associated with the icons of improvised music for the better part of my life.
With such an impressive recorded legacy, conventional wisdom would dictate Snyder stay on the sidelines and live off the fruits of his labor, but convention is the last word to describe Snyder, a maverick producer and forward thinker who has embarked on the formation and maturation of Artists House, a revolutionary label that combines both recording and DVD features for less than the price of the average JLo recording.
Snyder's an insider. Convention would dictate that he fall in line with other record label execs and toe the anti-internet line like the other sheep in that flock, but not Snyder. He embraces technology and encourages it as the only way for the music industry to stay as a viable entity. The following is an informative conversation with someone who should know and gives incredible insight into the music and what is behind it, unedited and in his own words.
Fred Jung: Let's start from the beginning.
John Snyder: When I was a kid, my father would bring out his cornet and play it. That fascinated me. When I came to be ten years old and they were putting people in music classes, I signed up for cornet. I took to it pretty quickly. My old man woke me up at six every morning to practice it, so I became pretty good at it. I started listening to records when I was eleven or twelve and one of my first records was Miles Davis Birth of the Cool because it was in the Capitol Records catalog and you couldn't get records too easily back in those days. This is probably 1958 or so. About the only way to get stuff was through the mail. I happen to pick that out of the catalog because I liked the look of it. Hearing it kind of scared me to death, but that is where I started with it.
FJ: What does a producer do?
JS: It depends on the artist. In some cases, if it is an established artist, it is really about being the first audience so you can respond to the music instantly and determine whether or not it reached the emotional depth that the artist is capable of reaching. If you know something about the artist or have had experience with the artist, you know when they are playing really well. You put an artist in a live gig for a week and one night, one set is probably going to be the peak. Nobody understands why it happens that way, but sometimes you just have a good night.
Recording is about trying to create the environment to let that happen and producing is about judging the result to see if that did happen. It is kind of an interesting problem because the producer is absorbed in all the financial considerations, and all the logistical considerations, and all the technical considerations, and now all of the sudden, has to close their eyes and feel something and open them after it is over and decide what they felt and why they felt it. And then you have to convey that to the artist. It is kind of a tricky business.
FJ: In film, there are at times, more producer credits than actors, but on a jazz record or even pop records, there remains only a lone producer. That is a heavy burden to bear.
JS: Yeah, it is a little bit difficult. The movie producer really is usually the money guy. The record producer is more like the director. In my job, I have to be able to able to speak all the languages of the businessmen that run the record companies, who have their own way of talking and thinking, and the artists and musicians, who create the music, have their own way of talking and thinking. Those two things don't even overlap. There is no connection.
One of the roles of a producer is to be the middleman of those two points of views. In the process, you have a lot of other voices and languages you need to know about, including the manager language, the marketing language, and promotions language. As a musician, I know that language and as a lawyer, I know that language. So right off the bat, I have that advantage.
FJ: You would have been wealthier being a lawyer.
JS: I keep getting that. Being a lawyer, I am a member of the New York Bar, it let's me know where the tricks are and I can talk to lawyers, so it keeps me either out of trouble or into less trouble.
FJ: You have participated in your share of compilation or 'best of' CDs. What do you look for when putting together a limited, but effective document like a compilation?