With a name that conjures smoky clubs in cab- forsaken neighborhoods, the approachably progressive ethnic and global appeal of Brooklyn Jazz Underground (BJU) might surprise the uninitiated. The association, which has thrived on the practical notion of collective strength and shared PR, has also served as another example of the musical microcosm its namesake borough has become. Its members share ZIP codes, but hailing from Spain, France, Denmark and Southeast Asia, the group rarely treads on common musical territory. "We're a collective of bandleaders," remarked bassist and BJU cofounder Alexis Cuadrado. "I'd say that we share an attitude more than a specific musical aesthetic."
In its two-plus years of existence, BJU has stayed true to its mission "to create greater awareness of the work of independent bandleaders with a shared commitment to improvised music," while expanding to include a record label that now includes artists outside the collective. "There was an initial list of 20-something people," remarked Cuadrado about the collective's inception, "but somehow it got to the ten [members] pretty naturally." From there, BJU enlisted Red Cat Publicity, a firm that deals exclusively with creative artists, and continued their varied work as bandleaders, coming together at annual BJU festivals at Smalls in Manhattan and appearing on annual compilation discs.
Despite their distinct musical personalities, BJU members found common ground in their motivation to join forces. "Brooklyn Jazz Underground is [about] minimizing the workload of the individual," bassist and BJU cofounder Anne Mette Iverson explained in a 2008 interview for Jazz Improv Magazine. "It is extremely difficult to be a single musician, a bandleader, having to do all the work. This includes writing the music, running the band, getting rehearsal times together, booking the studios when you record, paying for the recordings, publishing it afterwards, booking the tours, doing all the logistics. It's like two, three, four full-time jobs."
With record companies cutting back their jazz divisions and clubs closing, BJU has succeeded in allowing its members to create without being bogged down by costs and logistics. "I personally see it as the only option to move on," remarked Cuadrado of the need for DIY initiative. "We've had to create an infrastructure and that has certainly been a lot of work, but at the same time, it just feels great to have all the artistic freedom and the chance to someday make some money with our own company. I own all my art and although it might take me a few years to make my investment back, I have full control and ownership of it forever."
In the spring of 2008, BJU launched a record label, Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records (BJUR), with the release of a trio of albums by Cuadrado, Iverson and the pianist Benny Lackner. "We call it a 'sister' company," Cuadrado remarked. "Initially it was created to release the BJU sample CDs as well as BJU members' CDs, but we have opened it up to like-minded artists residing in NYC who are not BJU members." That group includes bassist Arthur Kell, pianist Daniel Kelly and guitarist Guilherme Monteiro, whose albums comprise the second wave of releases. "Being my first CD, Air is absolutely autobiographical, a very personal statement, so I didn't want to compromise in any way," the Brazilian-born guitarist Monteiro explained. "BJUR was perfect because it allowed me to do whatever I wanted regarding the repertoire, the art on the album and where I wanted to go musically." Indeed, the simultaneous releases continue the BJU tradition of complete creative freedom for the bandleader, as well as ownership of the material.
In addition, Iverson and Cuadrado have grouped BJUR releases together to maximize their impact on a saturated market. "They came up with the creative solution of having three artists simultaneously releasing their CDs on BJUR and pooling their resources together to promote all three CDs together," Kelly explained. "It's this grassroots, group-minded model that will help us all to find a wider audience and keep recording great uncompromising music."
This month, BJU Records will hold a two-part festival at The Jazz Gallery that will feature collective members and young musicians from BJU Records' growing roster. The albums from Kell, Kelly and Monteiro are set for a Jun. 9th release date and the collective is already looking ahead. "Right now we want to expand our simple initial goal and start operating a bit more like a non-profit," Cuadrado explained. "We're working on several projects that can expand our horizons."