When Dave Douglas and Michael Friedman first met at a recording session in New York in the mid '80s, the young trumpeter made an indelible impression on the young drummer. "When Dave started playing, he galvanized the band and he had a certain presence and a freshness that is unforgettable, said Friedman, who would go on to head Premonition Records in Chicago. Still, at the time it would have been hard for either to imagine that two decades later they'd be partners running their own independent, creative-music record label.
Nevertheless, fast-forward to 2006 and Douglas and Friedman are doing just that with Greenleaf Music. Launched just a year ago, Greenleaf has already had an auspicious start: Douglas' Keystone, one of four records to date in the Greenleaf catalog, is up for a Grammy this month in the category of Best Contemporary Jazz Album.
"One of the things that's most exciting to me about Greenleaf Music is being with Dave Douglas and talking with him about the business, said Friedman. "He's as creative in his business thinking as he is in his music.
"Well, Friedman paused, "maybe not quite as creative.
The name Greenleaf comes from Douglas' ancestry on his father's side, dating back centuries through the American colonies to the Old World, according to the trumpeter. "I also picked it because it was kind of positive, said Douglas. "I feel like what we're trying to do is grow something new in the creative-music world.
The duo started Greenleaf at an opportune time for each of themfor Douglas, it was the end of his association with Bluebird/RCA, for which he recorded seven albums, and for Friedman, the end of Premonition's term as an imprint of Blue Note. It has also been a time of upheaval in the record industry, with the decline of CD sales and the ascendancy of the Internet as a means of file-sharing and independent distribution.
"We're now in a revolutionary period of what the record business is and what it's going to be, said Friedman. "The brick-and-mortar thing is really kind of undoable in many ways. It's really a tough equation for labels such as ours that are doing creative music outside the mainstream.
Greenleaf began its life more traditionally, with a distributor and a shelf presence in brick-and-mortar music stores for its first two records, including Douglas' Mountain Passages with his Nomad ensemble. But as 2005 progressed, Friedman sensed that online retailthe right to which he reserved in Greenleaf's contract with its distributorwas increasingly the way most effectively to reach Greenleaf's audience. The strange result is that the Grammy-nominated Keystone became available in stores only subsequent to its nomination.
Besides Mountain Passages and Keystone, the other two records in the Greenleaf catalog are Kneebody's self-titled debut and the Douglas quintet's Live at the Bimhuis, from its 2002 European tour. The latter is the first in Greenleaf's Paperback Series, which, Douglas said, "involves recordings that ought to be out there but that would very rarely get a chance to see the light of day, because of marketing and promotion constraints. The Paperbacks are professionally recorded, but feature minimalist packaging and are sold only online and at a reduced price ($9 for one set, or $15 for both sets of Live at the Bimhuis).
In addition to the Paperback Series, Greenleaf offers fans several different subscription options, where a prepaid contribution entitles them to CDs and monthly digital downloads not available anywhere else. "It's just this special thing for people who choose to help us out and subscribe, said Douglas. "And we trust them not to make copies for all their friends, he added. "I think a lot of listeners realize that you're supporting a community of people trying to make music in a difficult environment.
The sense of a community of listeners supporting artists is tangible to Douglas now. "It's just been a thrill , he said. "We're not selling as many records as I sold when I was with RCA and we didn't expect to, but the thrill is that I feel each sale is a real personal connection with a listener who wants to hear it. Now I feel like I'm really part of something that counts at a very basic level.
One of Douglas' goals as Greenleaf's Artistic Director is to do more records with different artists in the years to come. "You know me, I like all kinds of music and I'd like to do a whole slew of recordings, but I feel that what's the point of doing that if we can't help the artist reach his or her listeners, he said. "We have to grow slowly.
In February, Douglas' Keystone ensemble makes its New York premiere at Carnegie's Zankel Hall. He also enters the studio for a new quintet recording this month and Greenleaf plans a Paperback Series for Kneebody in 2006 as well.