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.