A Fireside Chat With Concord's John Burk
“ It is not easy to get in front of an adult consumer with a jazz artist. It is not easy to get them on evening talk shows. It is not easy to get them to perform on television. ”
John Burk (along with Glen Barros and a few little people, and I don't mean elves) has been part of the most remarkable label turnaround ever (well, my ever anyway since I am rather young at heart). Concord Records, not too long ago in the past, was hindering on the brink of existence because of poor fiscal management from its parent, Alliance, which has since gone bankrupt and no longer exists.
However, and this is a testament to their dedication and loyalty ' two words not often associated with the entertainment industry, much less the world these days ' the staff and artists remained true to its founding legend, Carl Jefferson, and kept the music going. Now Concord sits atop the most diverse roster of artists in jazz music, signing Ozomatli, Ray Charles, Barry Manilow, and keeping Poncho Sanchez, and Karrin Allyson. And of course, Concord is home to Peter Cincotti (see prior Fireside). It is a rather neat story, but better that John Burk tell you than me, unedited and in his own words.
Fred Jung: Concord has been having quite the banner year.
John Burk: Yeah, things are going well in a tough market.
FJ: Let's start from the beginning.
JB: I started in 1989. I was originally hired on with the production department as an assistant to Carl Jefferson.
FJ: Who was Carl Jefferson, the founder of Concord Records, and had a notable affinity for jazz?
JB: Absolutely, it was definitely his passion for the music that drove him. He was a very successful car dealer, I think the third or fourth largest Lincoln/Mercury dealership in the nation. This all started as his love for jazz and his wanting to give something back. He used to always tell me that if you don't give something back, you are really missing the boat in life.
It sprung all out of his wanting to add culture to the community in Concord, California and so he got together with the city and started a music festival, originally the Concord Summer Festival. They did that for about four years and it became very successful. I think at one point they had 80,000 people in a city park. Then he spearheaded the drive to build the big venue up there, which is the Concord Pavilion. It is a 12,000 seat amphitheater.
Out of that sprung the record label, which he befriended a lot of artists by booking them and it quickly became the Concord Jazz Festival. So Herb Ellis and Joe Pass were lamenting the fact that they couldn't get a record deal. This was in the early '70s when most of the majors were recording very little jazz. They helped guide him through it and Ray Brown was a big part of that. He did it not to start a business, but he wanted to be involved in the creation of the music.
It kind of went on like that for ten years, where he had the dealership and he was able to use the dealership to fund and create an infrastructure for the record company. So there was a little house across the street and the person who used to run the leasing department, he moved her over there and she handled a lot of the record company stuff. He hired a couple of people to help out. Jefferson was the main producer and most of what we did was based on his musical taste.
It was a beautiful period because it was a label that existed solely for the creation of music that he loved. It was not intended to necessarily make any money.
FJ: Akin to all the perennial labels.
JB: You can't have a great label if it is not based on passion for what you do. You just can't.
FJ: A handful of years ago, Concord went through difficult and uncertain times with the demise of its parent, Alliance. Yet, the staff and artists remained loyal and weathered the storm. What were the saving graces?
JB: A lot of things and I appreciate your comments because it was really out of loyalty and dedication to this label that we stuck together and held it together. It was a tough time. I have to state that our financial troubles were not our financial troubles. It was our parent company that had put us in a legal status that made it difficult for us to operate. We really didn't have any financial problems per se.
What happened was that our parent company went bankrupt and had to auction us off and so we were put in the hands of trustees and had to go through bankruptcy court. Ownership was really in question and that made it extremely difficult. The things that held us together was a tremendous love for this company and a real sense of loyalty and an obligation to Jefferson and his legacy. He was my mentor and one of the best friends that I ever had.
I am sure that Glen Barros, although he didn't know him as long, also felt extremely close to him and the company that he had been entrusted with. It was Jefferson's baby and it was certainly one of his greatest achievements in life. He entrusted Glen Barros to look out for it. That obligation weighed heavily on him. We talked about it and decided to stick it out and do the right thing and try and hold it together.
What was amazing was that not a single artist left the label, not one. It was an amazing show of dedication on their part. That was one thing that I was really proud of because they held together for us. They believed in the company and believed in us. Everybody stuck together and rode it out. The hard part was finding owners that had the wherewithal to win the bidding war and had the same vision for the company and the same passion for this music and dedication that we had and fortunately that is exactly what we found in Hal Gaba and his longtime partner Norman Lear.
FJ: Norman Lear has had a distinguished legacy in television, but he also has a real passion of jazz.
JB: Yeah, I have to give credit to Hal Gaba. I met Hal before any of this started to happen, purely because he was a fan of the music. I was doing a Mel Torme record and he was a friend of the drummer on the date, Greg Field, who said, 'Would you mind if I brought down a buddy of mine? He loves music and he would love to go to a session.' I said to bring him down and we hung out a little bit afterwards and had a couple of scotches and sort of kept in touch.
It wasn't long before Alliance fell on hard times and right away, Hal came forward and said that maybe he could help. I had no idea. I didn't know that much about his background and I didn't realize how helpful he could be. I just thought of him as a guy who loved jazz.
There is an interesting parallel because here is Jefferson in his early fifties who embarked on this after being very successful in other businesses and Hal has been extremely successful in the entertainment business, but not necessarily in music. My understanding is that at some point, he and Norman as partners sat down and Norman said, 'We have always followed my passions, what are your passions?' And Hal said, 'Music.'
So he began to look for a record company to get involved in just about the time that our parent organization began to fall apart. So it worked out perfectly and it is interesting that he is pursuing this very much out of a passion for the music and that is why it works so well.
FJ: How many artists are on the roster?
JB: Probably about forty.
FJ: And the release schedule?
JB: We release about thirty-five and forty new releases.
FJ: And how many reissues of catalog material?
JB: About the same. It is a lot. We are humming.
FJ: What is selling?
JB: Right now, Peter Cincotti is really selling. He is number one on the charts. He is a new kid that I signed last year, a nineteen-year-old pianist that I signed last year. It has been out seven or eight weeks now and he has been number one on the charts for the last two weeks, ahead of Diana Krall and Tony Bennett. He is an incredible talent. It will be awesome what he does in the next twenty years.
Our Latin jazz releases, the last two Poncho Sanchez releases we released, won the Billboard Award for best selling record in the genre, and we won a Grammy last year with the Caribbean Jazz Project. That has always done very well. We have always done very well with vocalists. We have always emphasized that. We do a lot of Latin jazz and we do a lot of vocals. That tends to be the areas where we are strongest. Chick Corea does great. They are all my children and I love them equally. An instrumental jazz record these days does not do as well as vocalists, for whatever reason.
FJ: What is the size of the jazz market?
JB: What is the size of the jazz market? I don't know. I would say 50,000 units or so and you have really saturated the jazz world. You have really connected with them and if you go beyond that, you are stepping outside of the jazz world and getting a wider audience.
There are a lot more people that like jazz and are interested in jazz than go out and buy these records. The problem is the pipelines to the consumer and the ability to put records in front of them is somewhat hindered by the current setup of the media and the music industry.
It is not easy to get in front of an adult consumer with a jazz artist. It is not easy to get them on evening talk shows. It is not easy to get them to perform on television. Jazz radio is not based on repetition, which typically drives record sales. Even the publications are somewhat limited in their circulation. It is kind of an underground thing until we break through and Diana Krall completely broke through and is now covered by major media.
It begs the question that if more artists broke through the media, would this music be more successful? I think it would. We just have some constraints. We are bombarded with advertisements everyday and this is what we are competing with. We just don't have enough outlets.
FJ: And the future?
JB: I just did a deal with Ray Charles to do a new record, which I am really excited about. He is a guy who has done everything from jazz to blues to the very foundation of R&B. There is nobody like him. He guested on the new Poncho Sanchez record, which we will put out this fall. That is a really fun record. Poncho started out as a singer and guitar band in old soul bands. He discovered Latin jazz from his older siblings records, so we married the two things on his new record. It is a great record. I am really excited about that one.
We did a deal with Ozomatli. That will be coming out. I think with Ray and Ozo and groups like that, they have a deep respect for jazz. In a way, it is indicative to the growth of the label. We have to connect to an ever younger audience and stay current.
What would Miles Davis be doing now? He is not going to go where he has been. This art form has to progress. We purchased a small Tony Bennett catalog. Are you familiar with the Tony Bennett/Bill Evans release?
FJ: On Tony's own label.
JB: Yeah, well, we have that now. We are going to put that out. We have Dapp Theory and they are stretching it and taking it somewhere new. We are rooted in the tradition and at the same time, I am looking to see the genre develop and grow.
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