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Savoy Jazz Reaches 60, But Looks Beyond
August, 7 2002

All About Jazz, 08.07.02
R. J. DeLuke

Every so often someone in jazz has their career resurrected. Different elements feed into that. Good luck; a sudden public "discovery;" Perseverance. Going on in jazz right now, however, is the resurrection of an old tried and true recoding label, Savoy Jazz.

It's the result of hard work and a desire to maintain classic recordings from its masters. It's also part of a plan to look to the future and develop new art.

Steve Vining became president of the Savoy Label Group, Nippon Columbia's US-based jazz division, in January. With people like Steve Backer, former Artista Jazz and Impulse! Head, on board, the label has high expectations. They hope to get out to the public, using the best modern technology, some classic music made by the likes of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charlie Mingus, Billy Eckstine, Tommy Flanagan. Kai Winding, Marian McPartland, Art Pepper, Herbie Mann, Yusef Lateef, Lester Young, Stan Getz and more.

Vining said the label is also looking to make new recordings and is close to signing some. He didn't give specifics, but expect the music to appear next year. Some, he says, will be new artists and some under-appreciated established players, all turned up during a kind of talent scouting by the label.

Savoy Jazz hopes to package the reissues in a way that appeals both top collectors and those wanting to know a bit more about their jazz heroes of an era gone by. A Dizzy Gillespie package, for example, (Dizzy Gillespie: Odyssey 1945-1952) has three discs featuring the trumpeter in a variety of setting, from big bands to small groups, presenting an interesting historical painting. A single-disc Bird set, (Charlie Parker: Best of the Complete Live Performances on Savoy), features a great-sounding collection of music that includes a very young Miles Davis, Max Roach, Milt Jackson and Kenny Dorham, among others. It cooks, giving the flavor of the music for those who don't necessarily have to hear every single cut.

All of this has been done in a whirlwind six months or so, and much more is planned. Savoy, once a well-known jazz label, is striving again to be a respected keeper of the flame and presenter of new music. A huge public relations push is coming in the next few months to promote all the exciting things Savoy Jazz officials are trying to get done.

"I have to admit, it's been a bit of a scramble, and we're still scrambling," said Vining, who spoke recently with All About Jazz.

All About Jazz: It's the 60th anniversary, but Savoy isn't just about the past. I know there's a lot of things you're looking forward to in the future. Steve Vining: The good news is, for both Steve Backer [Savoy vice president of Artists and Repertory] and I is that we have a healthy respect for what the historic recordings represent and what they mean to this company. As we've gotten into this company and really dug into it, it seems amazing to us that this group of rapscallions were able to put together a collection of recordings that represented [Charlie] Parker at his best, Miles Davis with Parker, Coltrane's earliest, Mingus' earliest. It's astounding when you look at what they were able to accomplish given some of the stories you hear about this label, which are colorful to say the least.

We're very aware of how important these recordings are to the jazz legacy and I think we've done pretty good, so far, at packaging them in such a way where we've got a series for the serious jazz collector who really wants the comprehensive, scholarly approach to the material, with a lot of annotation, a lot of photos, a lot of background. Then we've got our new mid-price line -- our timeless line -- which we think is a great introduction to this genre of music, for people who aren't into jazz yet; they're kind of sticking their toe in the water. The timeless stuff really does a good job of introducing them to these artists.

And then beyond that, we'll get into signing some new folks and getting new recordings under Savoy, which hasn't been done in a number of years. AAJ: How long have you been with Savoy? SV: Backer and I both started in December of last year. We took the company over at that point. There was very little going on. They had a distribution deal in the US that was ending; they had no distribution in Canada, no distribution in Europe and they hadn't had a new release in about a year and a half. So Steve and I got together and we got our first releases out in May under our new distributor, with Red Distribution, which is an arm of Sony. Through July, we've probably got about 20 new things in the marketplace. By Christmas, we should have just about 50 that utilize new technology, new packages, new compilations of the most august recordings in the catalog; and then our new timeless series.

AAJ: That's a busy year.

SV: I have to admit, it's been a bit of a scramble, and we're still scrambling. Because of the 60th anniversary campaign we're more busy. My background is, I'm very pro marketing, so I really want to make sure that the message and the story of whatever I'm working with gets out there. We've been fortunate enough to come to an agreement with our friends at Bulova, who have the watches and fine timepieces. Well it just so happens they have a Savoy line. We had the presence of mind to call our new mid-price line timeless. The 60th anniversary campaign will have us giving away Bulova watches, on our website, on partner websites, and through a partnership with a retailer, we'll be able to announce in about a week. It's going to be probably one of the largest, if not the largest, jazz marketing campaigns that folks have seen, perhaps ever.

We like to do the kinds of things where we draw in other people. Bulova will be using our music in their radio and TV spots. We'll be creating a custom sampler that their retailers will be giving away when watches are purchased for the fourth quarter. Then we'll have their watches to give away in sweepstakes on the more traditional music side. So, I think it's going to be a fabulous campaign. It's going to help get the word out and create excitement for Savoy this fall.

AAJ: You're a jazz fan, beyond just the business side?

SV: Oh, yeah. You really have to be. Given how difficult the music business is right now, you have to have a genuine love for it to deal with the challenges we're all facing.

AAJ: The reissues are actually doing better than new music that comes out. Do you see that to be true and are your sales going OK?

SV: Yeah, the sales are doing fine. We're right on track to where I thought I would be. I spent a lot of time looking at the charts and doing the math. Last year on the traditional jazz chart, even with Dianna Krall there, 50 percent of the units that were sold were from legacy artists. The reissue business is still very vibrant. Those great artists that have left us classic recordings continue to sell. So I think there is some element of selling these recordings over to the same people because of new packages and new technology that has been used in the transfers. I think, though, a lot of people were influenced by the Ken Burns special [Jazz, the PBS miniseries] and we have new jazz collectors out there in the last year or so that we didn't have before. That's extremely healthy and that's very good.

AAJ: The technology sounds really good. SV: We always go back to the original acetates, or the original masters, and we're using the best that we feel is available today to get those transfers done. It's amazing that those acetates are still in as good a condition as they are. Eventually, they are going to wear out, even though we play them maybe once or twice a year to do a new transfer for a product. So it's really important to use the best digital technology that we can use. We want to put as little stress on those original parts, those acetates and masters, as we possibly can. AAJ: You've got even more in the vaults to reissue?

SV: Oh yeah. [laughter]. We've got ideas. It's kind of fun when you dig into this stuff. I thought I knew a fair amount about Savoy, but as you peel back and you look at some of the combinations on certain dates where guys -- it's happenstance -- where somebody would show up in the studio the night they were making a record. You have Mingus on some sessions. Charlie Parker wanted Miles Davis on some of his early sessions because Dizzy wasn't available. He had the presence of mind to see this young 19-year-old Miles Davis and want this kid on his sessions. It's just amazing.

So I think our challenge is to try and put collections together that will pique people's interests and give them a new viewpoint on a certain aspect of the recording of the big catalog of Savoy. Where you take a slice of it and say, "These people working together -- there was some magic here. Something really interesting." And we've collected together on a single disc so you can experience the work of these artists together in a freeze frame. It's a lot of fun to go in and look at what the permutations are of those kind of combinations.

AAJ: Do you think jazz in general -- not just Savoy -- can get more of the market?

SV: I think it has. People like Dianna Krall help. People like Jane Monheit help. What Sony has done with Miles to keep that catalog fairly active in retail and really in people's minds. Working on all those levels, I think jazz is really holding its own right now, given what's been going on in the industry. In fact, jazz was one of the few categories on Soundscan last year that had an increase in sales. In a year when the overall industry was down 10 to 12 percent, with jazz being up 6 percent, that's a helluva statement. Part of it is our demographic: these are adults, they're less fad driven, they have disposable income, they're not burning and copying CDs at home.

That's all fine. That's allowed to help us. I feel pretty positive about jazz and some of the other adult music formats being able to not only hold on to the market share, but increase. Then every so often you'll have that artist that's a lightning strike where millions of records are sold. Or there's a movie where jazz music is used as a background and it becomes a phenomenon, and people refocus on it. Those are the kinds of things you hope for, because as more people purchase their first jazz record through that kind of a situation, you're hoping you can lead them to sample and experience other things.

Dianna Krall buyers I'm hoping are experimenting with Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. And I hope they buy a Miles Davis record and a Coltrane record. The Coltrane stuff with Johnny Hartman, those great sides with all those ballads. That's a record that if you like Dianna Krall and you've gotten next to what she's doing, that's a record you've got to hear. From there, you can get led into Hartman's other work, Coltrane's other work. The paths lead everywhere once you break through the forest and get to a point where you've had one good listening experience and you start asking, "Is there anything else out there like this?" Once that process starts… We have demographics working for us where we have a large adult audience that will continue to grow over the next 10 years.

That's good news, because as people mature, they're less interested in hard rock or rap, but they still love music, music is still a part of their lives. They're a candidate for us to go get them.

AAJ: Your strategy, these ideas, are also to push Savoy itself into prominence. SV: It seems to me it's a label that deserves it. Verve has a tremendous brand. Columbia has a tremendous brand that jazz buyers respond to. When you look at the history of Savoy and the seminal recordings that were made by so many artists for this little label based in Newark, NJ, it deserves to have a more prominent place in people's front-of-mind thinking. I think we'll accomplish correcting that in the next six to nine months But really, where we can connect with new listeners in the most positive way is to come up with one of those new artists that captures the people's imaginations and you have 100,000 or 200,000 people buying the record.

AAJ: You're going to return to new recordings. Is that happening this year?

SV: We hoped to have some things out this fall, but I don't want to rush us and we've been so busy. There's only four or five of us running the company on a US basis. I also handle some European things and work with our Japanese mother company [Nippon Columbia]. So we're spread a little thin. We want to make sure that these things are done properly; that the A&R is done right; that the recording environment, all of those elements are in place before we pull the trigger. So we've elected to do things in the first quarter of next year, which for new things is actually not a bad time.

AAJ: Do you have anybody signed yet?

SV: We're about ready to commit eight to paper. As soon as that's done, we'll be making some announcements. It's going to be a nice interesting mix of things.

AAJ: New artists? Older?

SV: Steve and I have some real strong feelings about some lions that are around that we think still have tremendous voices in jazz that need to be heard. We're actually finding some new artists in jazz that we like a lot as well. Because we don't have the pressure from a large corporate parent about instant profitability, we're in the happy position of being able to operate like an old-line jazz label, where we're going to be able to find people we believe in and know that we can commit ourselves to a number of recordings to try and put this artist on the path of being recognized and accepted. We're much more like Prestige in the 50s was than, say, Columbia is today.

We're actually having a really good time. If we weren't do darn busy, we'd probably be enjoying it a whole lot more. But it's pretty satisfying. We had our first record on the Billboard charts two weeks ago -- the Miles Davis timeless release cracked the top 30 for us -- so we're real happy about that. And the series overall is selling very nicely. Everything's moving right on schedule.

We have two areas we're releasing records under. timeless is for the neophyte, the new jazz consumer. We have what we call the Jazz Platinum Editions, those are more aimed at the jazz aficionado, someone who's more experienced in their jazz. Both of those will have the spotlight thrown on them this fall in retail and with reviewers. We're pursuing some editorial both in web environments like yours and in magazines. Both of those two lines, as distinct as they are, are going to get their hearing and will have a lot written about them, because I think they're both pretty unique.

At that point, it's up to the consumer which one you'd like to sample and what you'd like to experience. timeless, from an audio standpoint, gets the same level of studio production and digital enhancement that we do on the full-price recordings. There's no degradation in quality by buying a mid-price record, as far as we're concerned.

We're having a pretty good time here. There's a bit of passion. We're pretty committed. I've been a jazz enthusiast. I've produced jazz records. I was lucky enough to have worked with Gerry Mulligan and Dizzy and those guys before they passed on. It's really a part of me.

I've stood in the studio and held the acetate to "Parker's Mood," and to know that very disc was cut the day they made that magic over 50 years ago… If the music means anything to you, it can't help but touch you. Our job, as stewards of this catalog, is to make as many people connect with it as we possible can.