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Ertegun Aims to Put Back Jazz Groove in Atlantic

May 30, 1996|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The list of artists under contract reads like something from a who's-who of jazz: John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and the Modern Jazz Quartet, to name just a few.

In the '50s and '60s these giants of the music recorded for one company: Atlantic. Combine that roster of much-admired cutting-edge recordings with successful crossover outings by Herbie Mann, Charles Lloyd and Eddie Harris, and one could make the case that for a period of time, Atlantic had the strongest lineup in jazz. "Jazz," says Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records and co-chairman/co-CEO of the Atlantic Group, "has always been an important part of our company."

Well, yes and no. In recent years and for a variety of reasons, mainly economic, Atlantic's jazz predominance has clearly diminished and the music no longer plays the vital role it once did in the company's planning.

But last month, the company took a giant step toward bringing it back by announcing a major reorganization of its jazz activities, in which Ertegun would directly oversee the musical direction of the label's jazz program.

The move by a major record company's co-chairman/co-CEO into the front line of action is not exactly an everyday occurrence in the music business, even for an executive who has not been an especially noticeable participant in Atlantic's recent pop music projects.

And the question is why Ertegun, a near-legendary recording business veteran who propelled Atlantic from a one-room operation in the late '40s to a major international entertainment company, would choose to take such a hands-on role. Jazz, after all, despite its unquestioned significance as a unique American creative invention, simply doesn't sell as many albums as, say, Hootie & the Blowfish.

Ertegun, speaking by phone from his New York office, chuckles in response to the comparison. "Perhaps not," he says, "but the fact is that jazz has always been my favorite music.

"And don't underestimate its sales potential. A jazz musician is like a painter. In the beginning, their work may not sell for much money. When we first released our Coltrane albums, they didn't sell in huge numbers. But there was tremendous excitement about them, and that excitement grew and grew as time passed. Take a record that sold 40,000 or so when it first came out, and if you look at the sales now, it's up to around 1.2 million. It's like classical music; it's catalog, and it grows and grows."

An equally important--if less commercially relevant--rationale for Ertegun's direct involvement with a revitalized jazz program at Atlantic may be the fact that most of the label's classic recordings were produced under the supervision of his late brother, Nesuhi. It's a legacy that Ertegun clearly values and intends to honor.

Despite his obvious enthusiasm, the history of jazz is littered with the shambles of programs, especially at the major labels, that were heralded with massive promotional trumpeting, only to fade away with barely a whimper.

Last year, for example, one of the major labels unceremoniously discarded several of its younger jazz acts. Nor has Atlantic done a particularly good job of handling its own players. Pianist Cyrus Chestnut, one of the company's most important young artists, was initially introduced to the Los Angeles press in 1994 at an out-of-the-way club in Los Feliz. (Perhaps in response to Ertegun's newly influential role in Atlantic's jazz program, Chestnut was once again presented to the L.A. press earlier this month, this time at an upscale West Hollywood restaurant.)

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Ertegun is the first to acknowledge that there have been problems with the jazz side of the business. "For too long now," he concedes, "the jazz department has been sort of run ad-lib by various people here who are interested in jazz. But there's been no real focus. We've allowed it to fall into secondary importance. And it's time to bring it back."

Will Atlantic fall victim to the too-familiar major label jazz pattern of promising much and delivering little? Ertegun thinks not, pointing out that the success of the program is dependent upon a very personal chain of command.

"Look at it this way," he explains. "Jazz at Atlantic will get the support that I, as head of the jazz department, can convince myself, as co-chairman of the company, to provide."

Yves Beauvais, vice president of artists and repertoire for jazz, underscores what he believes are elemental changes in the way Atlantic now plans to handle the music.

"We're bringing it right into the mainstream activities of the company," Beauvais says, "which is really kind of a first. Up until now, it has been fairly ghettoized: A small department took care of jazz, and that was the end of it. With this reorganization, the same product managers who are responsible for, let's say, Hootie & the Blowfish or Brandy are assigned one or two of our jazz artists to work alongside their big mainstream projects."

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