Darby Christensen: At the Jazz Summit
“ There are little regional pockets [around the country] where there's all this quality stuff going on, and a lot people don't know about that. ”
If you still see Summit Records as a niche label for classical brass players, Summit president Darby Christensen wants you to take another look. The label's catalogue still has great brass recordings, but it also features chamber music, educational recordings, and an ever-growing roster of jazz musicians. Summit seeks a broad audience, Christensen says, "the music lover." He sums up the label this way: "Good music is what we're all about."
All About Jazz: How did Summit form?
Darby Christensen: Summit Records started actually about twelve years ago. It formed out of Summit Brass, which was a classical large brass ensemble who had some things on a larger label and just kind of got fed up with not reaping any benefits. So they started their own label... they called it Summit Records and put the first release out. It was a Summit Brass recording, Toccata and Fugue.
AAJ: At what point did you become involved?
DC: My business partner, Kip Sullivan, was involved six years ago. I became involved about four years ago. I had been in New Orleans doing shopping center marketing and my wife and I just decided to take a leap of faith and move to Phoenix. [I] always wanted to get into the record businessI don't know why, I just always had a love for musicand we just came here cold turkey and I found this marketing director position at Summit. Didn't have a clue about the label or about classical music in general. Just started from there. My business partner and I acquired the company about a year and a half ago and really started focusing in on jazz as well as the classics.
AAJ: Did you have an interest in jazz prior to getting into the record business?
DC: I've always had a passion for music. I guess I've always loved jazz. I've known a lot of the classic players, but I didn't know a lot about jazz, the ins and outs of it. Just by getting into this I got very interested in it and just kind of formed from there.
AAJ: What is your job exactly?
DC: My title is president. Basically it's a co-op run thing between my business partner and myself. We now own the label. It began as the marketing position and just kind of blossomed from there.
AAJ: How do you make the decisions about what gets recorded? How do you find musicians?
DC: It happens in many different ways. The way it happens most often is we get projects [submitted]most of them are finished products. We have an A&R [artist and repertory] group that we sit down with and first we study the musical quality of itis it up to our standards? If it is, we'll either master it to get it consistent with our sound, obviously after a deal has been struck, and take it from there. Dave Shirk of Sonorous Mastering right here in Phoenix does a great job. We also do many projects locally. We have an engineer locally, Clark Rigsby, who is just wonderful, who has done a lot of our things and we bring artists in to record with him occasionally.
AAJ: As I remember Summit from years ago it was mostly a classical label. When did Summit begin recording jazz?
DC: That's a funny thing because the second recording ever on Summit was a jazz horn CD, kind of a quasi-big-band, jazz trio, jazz horn thing. But after that it dropped off. The ownership at that point was more interested in the classicsand the brass, primarily. Summit did a thing about a year afterwards called Trumpets in Stride with Chris Gekker and a couple of very cool trumpet players, along with Sam Pilafian on tubaa Dixieland type thing which crossed into jazz. And [then] really it dropped off until I'd say about three years ago when we did a couple of licensed projects, a Claudio Roditi and a Lee Konitz. And we really started to focus in about two years ago.
AAJ: Does Summit Jazz have a particular musical slant or point of view?
DC: For the most part straight ahead, but we try not to put a definition on it unless it's like a New Age thingand nothing against New Age because it sells a heck of a lot more than jazzbut that's not who we are. It seems to be mostly straight ahead.
AAJ: Does the classical tradition at the label influence at all your outlook toward jazz?
DC: You know, it really doesn't. Under the previous ownership it may have because it was a very brass-centered thing[and] we still obviously bring some great brass players to the labelbut it really doesn't. In the beginning it may have been somewhat of a hindrance because people thought we were just a brass label, which isn't bad, but it kind of limited us at the beginning. But now with the addition of David Friesen to the label and some other things I think we've finally cracked that stereotype.
AAJ: Tell me a little about your educational recordings.
DC: The roots of that are in a series called the OrchestraPro Series which feature principal players from major orchestras like Phil Smith from the New York Philharmonic, Ralph Sauer from the Los Angeles Philharmonictrombone player, trumpet player, etc.going over standard orchestral excerpts one on one with the listener, not accompanied by anybody, just playing it one on one and then talking about it. So it's almost like a hundred dollar an hour lesson. Lately we've gotten into the kids. We have a line called Summit Kids, which we really want to continue with because it's all about education. Ideally it would be fun to combine jazz with that.
AAJ: Many labels seem to be based around New York and the music scene there, but Summit seems to have relationships with a lot of artists in other places. Is that a conscious choice, to find artists that have something other than the New York slant?
DC: I don't think it's a conscious choice. I think we've kind of become that probably because of our location in Phoenix. For some reason a big chunk of our artists, at least for the last couple of years, have been from the [Washington] D.C. area. I don't have an explanation except that maybe there's more quality submitting from that area. There are little regional pockets [around the country] where there's all this quality stuff going on, and a lot people don't know about that.
AAJ: Tell me about the label's association with Rafael Mendez and the Mendez Brass Institute.
DC: Once again, that formed out of Summit Brass. The previous owner of the label, David Hickman, was a classical trumpet player and a big Mendez fan. Summit Brass spawned this Mendez Institute, which was geared toward educating students in workshops with members of Summit Brass. And during that time [Summit put out] the re-release of some really old Mendez classics. And it's our biggest seller. Amazing. And these things are not of high [sound] quality but it's stuff you can't find anywhere. So from that we did a tribute recording, which was narrated by Doc Severinson and had a lot of trumpet players playing tribute to Mendez. Those two recordings were a few years back. And just recently we licensed all the Decca recordingswhich had not been re-released on CD until we licensed them and released them.
AAJ: You have a pretty extensive website. How has the Internet affected the label?
DC: In theory it's had a huge impact because people in other countries have become familiar more so with our stuff. And we do our fair share of retail business [through the website]. In our prices we don't try to undercut the retail aspect of it, but we have everything available. It's more of an informational source, but to this point it's been I think a huge influence. And in the next year or two I think it's really going to become even more.
AAJ: In what way?
DC: We're in the process of redoing a few things on the sitethe whole shopping cart thing, which we're a little behind onand bringing the site up to speed. We've also stumbled upon a couple of opportunities that will bring Summit out into the awareness a little more through direct mailing pieces that we're latching onto another company with, which really should bring a big awareness to the label and the website.
AAJ: As Summit progresses is your interest more toward finding undiscovered players or in bringing in more players who are well known?
DC: I guess somewhat of a combination. I wish we could release all these unknown acts and sell enough to justify continuing to do itwe just did an unknown jazz trio out of Boston called the Sai Ghose Trio that is just kickin.' It's just kickin' stuff. And we want absolutely to continue to do those types of recordings, but the honesty there is that it's not going to sell that many, unfortunatelyas opposed to the David Friesen thing with Michael Brecker and John Scofield, which is going to sell quite a few copies. So, really, a combination. We obviously want to expose these unknown artists that are just great players. I mean that's part of what we are.
AAJ: What sort of marketing do you do?
DC: We advertise on a limited basis. A lot of it is cost prohibitive for us because it's a smaller label. We've had a presence in Jazz Times and that kind of thing. We work things to radio a lotand whether that has a big influence on sales or not is a big debate. As a matter of fact the new thing with Mike Vax and Clark Terry, Creepin' with Clark , is number twenty-four on the Gavin Jazz Charts this week, so jazz radio is definitely important to useven though, to be honest with you, many times it may not have an influence on sales. And that's something we have to capitalize on more now, as the Internet becomes a major factor.
AAJ: If radio doesn't seem to affect things, how do you determine what does impact sales?
DC: Let me backtrack by saying that radio certainly can have a lot of powerit's just timing. It's timing and record availability and there's a lot of factors there. Airplay certainly won't hinder the recording. Radio can be a good thing and that's why we use it. But as far as gauging factors, we have a reasonably good idea of what numbers these things should do when they go out and if they don't hit those numbers while we're still promoting it heavily then we know something's not working. It's such an elusive thing, marketing. One break, one feature on NPR can change everything.
AAJ: How do you get a break like that, a feature on NPR or something like that?
DC: I don't have an answer for that. We send review copies of all of our stuff. No disc gets shortchanged. Everything goes out to reviewers, maybe to the point of almost too much, but I feel it very important that reviewers, radio people see what we're doing. It's a building block process. And eventually they're going to catch on to what we're doing. So we send many review copies out. Obviously there are a few highlighted titles that maybe we focus a little bit more on, and send a few more out, but nothing really gets shortchanged.
AAJ: How do you sort through all the demo tapes and CDs you get from musicians wanting to record for Summit?
DC: You know, on the surface it's tough, but the good stuff sticks out. We get so much stuff, and we really don't get our A&R committee together as often as we need to at times just because we get hung up in other things, but we will play them in the officeand you'd be surprised what pops out. For instance that Sai Ghose, it just popped out. It seemed like it just shined a little brighter than the rest. But it is a bit overwhelming when you get a ton of things and then you get a bunch of people calling saying, "when are you going to listen?" And we try to be cool about it because every artist has got a statement. But it's tough. It really is tough.
AAJ: What would you say is the greatest difficulty that Summit faces in creating and promoting its jazz catalogue?
DC: I would say just the sheer mass of product out there. There's just so much. So it's breaking through the clutter. And Allegro, our distributor, does a good job for usat least probably as good as can be done in this environment.
AAJ: And is breaking through contingent on the music or on the marketing?
DC: That's a loaded question! I would say the music because that's what we're about. The retailers have it set up now that if you want a lot of copies out there in the marketplace you've got to buy shelf-space, for the most part, whether it be on end caps or listening stations. And even to get into those you have to be auditioned. There's a lot of marketing. I think the appearance of the recordings, the coverswe've definitely taken strides to become a first-class look and feel in the binit's also very important. You could have the best recording in the world but if it looks like a snapshot from the Seventies on the cover... who really wants to pick it up and listen to it. And unconsciouslyand I'm from the school of marketingthe recording sounds better when it looks better. Our graphic designer, Dan Traynor and his company Anvil 88 are absolutely the best.
AAJ: Is there anything I haven't asked that you'd like people to know about the label?
DC: We really do care about the music and the musicians. It's a tough industry [in which] to make ends meet. We do our best.