The Arbors catalog is populated by artists who may resemble their audience: a little gray around the temples and slightly heavy around the middle, playing swing-based music that benefits from their years of experience. Others on the label are those younger swing and bop-influenced musicians who have found no permanent home at other domestic labels that are more interested in finding the next flavor of the week.
The resulting issues have presented some of the more interesting efforts in mainstream swing over the past few years. Seventyish clarinetist Bob Wilber teamed up with the young Tuxedo Big Band from Toulouse, France for two revelatory albums of unrecorded charts from Benny Goodman’s book. Wry pianist/songwriter Dave Frishberg has recorded several times for the label, the most recent effort being a live session at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Octogenarian clarinet legend Buddy DeFranco, almost hours after his successful JVC-New York festival appearance last year, hit the studio with John Pizzarelli’s trio and former Count Basie drummer Butch Miles. Cornetist Ruby Braff played some of his last dates for founder Mat Domber’s microphones, while the criminally underrecorded cornetist Warren Vache Jr. has a new Arbors release with pianist Bill Charlap and saxophonist Harry Allen.
While the economic realities of the music business work against bigger labels giving exclusive contracts to artists, it works in Arbors’ favor, making the likes of Telarc’s Pizzarelli and Blue Note’s Charlap available as sidemen.
“Very few musicians have contracts that would prohibit them from at least being sidemen on a record, or would require them to work exclusively for a particular company,” Domber said. “So we’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve recorded with musicians who have major recording contracts but who can appear as sidemen.”
The story of how a lawyer who also worked in real estate became a 21st century Norman Granz is not all that unusual for independent jazz labels: he was a fan first and an entrepreneur second.
“As a kid, I really took a fancy to [guitarist] Eddie Condon, [clarinetist] Pee Wee Russell and [cornetist] Mugsy Spanier,” Domber said. “Even before I was the drinking age, my father would bring me down to Nick’s and I’d would listen to the music. I went to the Commodore music shop. I really started at an early age listening to the music.”
Later in life, on a business trip in the late ‘60s Domber struck up a friendship with Rick Fay, a Los Angeles-based reedman who had been performing at Disneyland. When Fay was later transferred to Florida’s Disneyworld, he invited Domber to hear him at an off-park gig. “After the performance, I asked Rick if I could buy some of his records. He said, ‘I never recorded.’ I said, ‘You’ve been in the business for 40 years and you’ve never recorded? Would you like to?’ That was how I got into the music business.”
That first album, Rick Fay’s Hot 5: Live at Lone Pine , named after the studio where it was recorded in 1989, became Domber’s entre to recording business when he discovered that if he wanted to get it distributed properly, he’d have to have other recordings to accompany it. Fay introduced Domber to Dan Barrett, a trombone player who had worked with him when he was 16 years old, and the former Concord Records artist came to Arbors.
Domber then set about getting his friend Fay more attention by presenting him at a St. Petersburg jazz concert and ended up hiring the legendary bassist Bob Haggart who lived nearby. Haggart “was a guy who liked to play. And if you had the right group and the musicians who he respected, he was delighted. The money wasn’t that important to him, but it was the chance to play.”
“One thing led to another, and we’ve got over 200 CDs that we’ve recorded, growing without any plan,” Domber said. While he still considers his audience a “niche market”, last year Arbors albums were five of the top ten recordings voted by Britain’s Jazz Journal International critics.
“I still consider myself a jazz fan and not a musical entrepreneur. I sort of approach even our record business as a jazz fan. I’m more interested in the kind of music that I enjoy, the kind of musicians that I enjoy,” Domber said.