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A Classic Jazz Curriculum with Label M's Joel Dorn


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We made records with Les and with Eddie that were fabulous--and when I speak about things that made the record, I'm not talking about me. I'm talking about the fact that there were these people with these ideas and concepts and the ability to execute those things that goes way behind what you might call kind of jazz stuff.
This article was first published at All About Jazz in April 2001.

Ah, the classics. In every art form painting, literature, architecture, dance, music there are works which possess timeless beauty, works with themes that resonate emotionally across decades, through centuries, and are masterfully presented.

Joel Dorn's name is indelibly written in the book of jazz classics, though he's never written, hummed, strummed, blown, or otherwise struck a single musical note. He produced albums, in the 1960s and '70s, for a stable of Atlantic Records artists of enormous breadth and depth, including Max Roach, Keith Jarrett, Gary Burton, Les McCann and Eddie Harris (individually and together on the transcendent soul-jazz clarion call Swiss Movement), Mongo Santamaria and many others, claiming the Grammy Award for Jazz Album of the Year with Gary Burton and Keith Jarrett (1971).

Several years ago, Dorn formed 32 Jazz, a label dedicated to resurrecting and reconstructing gems from the catalogs of the Muse and Landmark jazz labels. Dorn's current project, Label M, reissues classics from that storied Atlantic catalog that Dorn helped create; among the label's most recent releases are sets from the Modern Jazz Quartet and multi-instrumentalists Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Here Comes The Whistleman (1967) was the first of Dorn's many collaborations with the mercurial saxophonist Kirk. It features the multi-talented Kirk blowing his nose flute (honest!) on the title track, digging heartily into gutbucket tenor on the opening "Roots," flying through the traditional flute on Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays," and scorching the earth with his alto on the set-ending "Step Right Up." The Blue Yusef Lateef (1968) offers Lateef's unique perspective on how to cloak the globe in blue from the opening "Juba Juba," based on an African slave song, through "Moon Cup," a Tagalog chant based on a indigenous Philippine dialect, and the honky-tonk stomps "Othella" and "Six Miles Next Door," the latter nestled in soft, cushiony blue chords from guitarist Kenny Burrell.

Recorded in Stockholm and released in 1960, The Modern Jazz Quartet: European Concert is considered the penultimate album by this Percy Heath (bass), Connie Kay (drums), Milt Jackson (vibes), and John Lewis (piano) collective. With definitive versions of "The Cylinder" and "Bags" Groove," it crystallizes their "third stream" synthesis of classical formalism and jazz improvisation and spirit; in a famous essay for The New Yorker magazine, Whitney Balliet described the effect of the MJQ as "tintinnabulous. It shimmers, it sings, it hums. It is airy and clean. Like any great mechanism, its parts are as notable as their sum."

All About Jazz is pleased to present the following interview with one of the true jazz legends, Joel Dorn.

All About Jazz: How did Label M come about and what is the difference between Label M and what you were trying to accomplish with 32 Jazz?

JD: We were at 32, me and the guys. Now, everybody thought that was my label. I was a partner: There was an attorney, there was a Wall Street firm, and there was a bank. I was one member on a five man board. At the height of the internet craze, my partners decide that they want to go into the internet business. They borrowed a lot of money and, to finance their new venture, wanted 32 to pay it back. In other words, it was purely a business decision. Now, I don't give a fuck about the internet. So the day that that went through, I just quit. I'm a record guy, I'm not a business guy per se. I go into business because I have to in order to do what I want in terms of records.

AAJ: Will 32 Jazz continue?

JD: The label was foreclosed on two months ago. It's been in foreclosure.

AAJ: You've got to be like a proud father getting back for Label M some of your own original Atlantic titles.

JD: I was fortunate when I worked at Atlantic in that I could pretty much sign anybody I wanted, and artistically or creatively nobody was telling me what to do. So I could sign the guys I wanted and we could make the albums we wanted to make. So that led to Yusef, Rahsaan, Fathead, Hank, Les, Eddie, Jimmy Scott, Ray Bryant, Mose Allison, all those guys that I wanted to record. There was no interference when I worked for Neshui (Ertegun). It was hard getting the gig, but once I got it, he said, "Look, you're a nice kid. I like you a lot. But you'll live or die here based on the results of your work." So basically, he gave me enough rope. And I've always used that same philosophy. What we do is, we hire people that we think can do the job, then we let them do it.

I'm really fortunate. I have an incredible team of people. In order for the label to be successful, we have to have kind of like a "Boston Celtics" kind of theme. You know, I'm a big Red Auerbach fan, and when he had those teams you always had like a Bill Russell or a Dave Cowens, somebody in the middle... you had the same team all the time, just with different people but the team played the same way all the time.

In the beginning, when we started 32, we tried a few things and some of them worked and some of them didn't. But at a certain point about a year into it we put the team together. And you have no idea what kind of freedom it gives me. It makes me not have to be "the boss," which I'm not good at anyway. It lets me go and do what I want to do, and I never worry. Everybody does their job. There's only six of us.

AAJ: What's the greatest professional basketball team you ever saw?

JD: Well, everybody says the '67 76ers, but, I can't tell you what the best single team was. I think there was a series of best teams. I enjoyed, maybe because I was a kid, when the Warriors had a team with Neal Johnston and Paul Arazin, that was a good team. I would say the Celtics overall, as the best basketball franchise. And then you had the Sixers at a certain point, and you had the Lakers at a certain point, and then the Chicago teams with Michael were brilliant because of how the team was built around him. The ten years with Russell…

AAJ: As much as I hate to admit it, that '86 Celtics team was the best team I ever saw. With Walton coming off of the bench...

JD: I can't stand Bill Walton. He was a great player. He's just a schmuck to me. As an announcer, more than half of what he says just isn't right. He just SAYS shit. At the beginning of the game, you know how they go, "Well, Bill, what should we look for?" and he'll go, "Well, on defense..." Whatever he says ain't it! He was a good player, but also... I just wasn't caught up in his "earth-dirt-peace" bullshit. And that Deadhead view. Just play the fucking game, man. Play basketball, and when you're done, go do something else.

Wanna know one of my favorite college teams of all time? The 1957 Temple team.

AAJ: Harry Litwack (Litwack coached this team).

JD: ‘Cause I went to Temple, number one, so I was a Temple fan. But that team had... you know, that was back when college ball was pretty much the best guys from your area went to the colleges in your own town. That was Hal Lear and Guy Rodgers...

AAJ: Guy Rodgers just passed.

JD: I know, man. When I was a disc jockey in Philly, every few months he'd come up and he'd do like an hour. He loved being a disc jockey he was great. It was Hal Lear and Guy Rodgers; it was the best little backcourt I ever saw outside of the backcourt that the Minneapolis Lakers had when George Mikan played, when they had Slater Martin and Whitey Skoog.

AAJ: Well, I'm in over my head at this point...

JD: But Hal Lear and Guy Rodgers were unbelievable. Guy was obviously the most underrated fuckin' point guard ever.

AAJ: Bill Lyon wrote a pretty insightful memorial column for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

JD: Let me tell you something: He was the transitional point guard between Cousy who was not a pretty player to watch; he did good stuff, but Guy Rodgers was the prototype for the modern point guard. It was after him that you had all those Earl Monroes and all those people. It was all based on Guy Rodgers. I think Guy Rodgers changed the point guard game.

But Cousy, you know, he did it in that unappealing and unattractive, but effective, white guy way. But Guy Rodgers, he was a forgotten fucking player. One of the greatest players of all time.

Hal Lear never made it to the pros he ended up playing in Harrisburg or someplace. But, boy, in college, they were something. It was Hal Lear, Guy Rodgers, Earl Rinefeldt, who went to a Philadelphia school. Tink Van Patten, was the center, he was 6'4" or 6'5" and it was like a big deal in those days! A guy who went to my high school, Yeadon High School, Freddie Cohen, was the forward. So I was really locked to that team. But Rodgers and Lear, man, forget about it. What was your question again?

AAJ: What is Label M?

JD: For a reason that I still really can't figure out, Atlantic Records was the last of the major jazz catalogs to convert their vinyl jazz to CD. They did very little of it, and then not such a good job when they finally did do it in the early '80s. They put out a few Coltranes, a few Minguses you know, nothing major. They've got maybe got five or six hundred albums in the catalog and they maybe put out twenty.

I went to Rhino in the late '80s and the early '90s and I reintroduced the Atlantic jazz catalog to the digital world; we made twelve or thirteen box sets and another dozen or so compilations, and maybe reissued forty to fifty titles. But it left hundreds of titles that weren't going to be released. And I have a tremendous emotional attachment to those personally. I have a responsibility to the artist through no fault of their own, some of their best work was not in the marketplace. And I wanted to play tribute to Neshui, who was one of the great jazz producers, whose work was languishing someplace. Also, I'm not an angel sent from heaven I also wanted my records out there, personally.

So I put as many of them out as I could while I was at Rhino and the whole thing fell apart again. Then they languished again because Rhino is not basically a jazz oriented label. So we put them out and that was it. But I wasn't able to do any of the marketing and promoting, the kind of stuff we did at 32 and the kind of stuff we do at Label M.

When I started 32, we bought Muse and Landmark, which was the basis for our releases. At a certain point, what we did was request certain titles from Rhino, which administers the Atlantic catalog. They were kind enough to give us some. And we did very well with them, much better than they thought. So the door opened. Then, when we got lucky with our compilations that "Jazz For" series they allowed us to compile, so we did "Jazz For" the different seasons, all that stuff. At one time, we had about 25 or 30 of the Rahsaan-Yusef-Fathead-Hank-Les-Eddie-Mose titles. We did boxes, we did three albums on two CDs, four albums, we did those packages. And Rhino found a new profit center.

So I split from 32 and then I took the guys a few months later and started Label M. One of the first relationships we got going was with Atlantic. There's a lot of that stuff that just should be out. For instance, The MJQ was an important act and not just for Atlantic, but so many people came to jazz in the fifties because of the Modern Jazz Quartet. And the stuff was not available. They wouldn't license it to me when I was at 32, and they weren't putting it out themselves. It was nuts! One day I get a fax, there were fourteen MJQs available and I grabbed three of them, the three that I thought I could put into the release schedule and then actually market and sell. I also got Collaboration with Almeida with Laurindo Almedia, and I got Live at the Lighthouse, so they'll be coming out in the next six, eight months or so. And there were Minguses that, you know, got put out and disappeared, or hadn't been put out, so I got Oh Yeah. And then finally one of the albums which was a real pleasure to be associated with the making of, the Jimmy Scott album The Source. There was a Hubert Laws album that was a favorite of his that I wanted to hit the street, the Wildflower album. There was Les and Eddie's second album, Second Movement. There was a Fathead album with Blue Mitchell that I liked. What else was there? The best selling album we have right now is our flute compilation, Heavy Flute. And a bunch of others that just don't belong in the unreleased bin.

AAJ: What's the "M" stand for in Label M?

JD: You know I like to have interesting names for my labels. 32 was based on my favorite sports number: Sandy Koufax, Jim Brown, all those great guys who wore 32 without discussing it amongst themselves. I was always fascinated by that number. Label M is an anagram based on the first and last initials of my three favorite Jews: Lenny Bruce, Albert Einstein, Meyer Lansky.

AAJ: While you're in a sharing mood, where did "Produced by Joel Dorn for the Masked Announcer" come from?

JD: While I was in Philly, I was a disc jockey on an all jazz station, WHAT in Conshohocken. When I left the radio station and went to Atlantic, it was kind of the same time that the Philadelphia UHF television stations started, and they were hiring all the disc jockeys to do their commercials on the air. So every disc jockey was picking up a coupla hundred here, a coupla hundred there, you know: "Hi, this is Joe Niagra for Sheehy Ford..." You know, that kinda shit?

I had a buddy who had a clear plastic slipcover business and he sold carpets and all that low-end shit, right? So we were sittin' around one night getting high and he said, "Look, all these disc jockeys are doing all of the commercials. You're not on the air anymore do my commercial." I said, "Yeah, but I'm working at Atlantic and I don't want to take away a job from a disc jockey, especially one who might play an Atlantic Record. I'll do it, but I'll create a character." He said, "What do you mean?" and I said, "Well, how about if I do it in a mask, and not use my name? Yeah! I'll become "The Masked Announcer'!" I was selling clear plastic slipcovers and carpeting vacuum cleaners and vegetable choppers and all that shit, right? What we would do is, we would go to the TV station and I would have this beat-up old cheap suit and this cheap hat and an ugly shirt, and I put like a regular ten-cent mask on. And we would get high in the car on the way to the station. And I just babbled: We would make fifty commercials in two hours, and then we would pick the funniest ones, what we thought were the funniest ones. Kids loved them, man. The Masked Announcer I'm talking about it like it ain't me but he was a funny motherfucker. We used to have so much fun, and the commercials were great. It fucking sounds terrible when I say it, but we laughed our asses off.

So when I was Atlantic, at a certain point I became an independent producer; while I still worked at the label, I could do outside work. So I had to form a production company. Now, the corniest thing in the world is, you know, "Produced by Joel Dorn for Joel Dorn Productions." Fuck you, you know? So I decided to call my production company The Masked Announcer for this alter ego. People ALWAYS ask that question!

AAJ: We'd like you to express your own memories and thoughts about these three releases: What they mean to you, why it was so important to you to get them out, and whatever else you like. For the first one, let's do Here Comes The Whistleman.

JD: Rahsaan was wrapping it up at Limelight, which was Mercury's deluxe jazz label. He and I had become friends while I was on the air in Philly. I thought he had had unbelievable potential; most people thought he was some kind of clown or vaudevillian or gimmick monster or something. But I knew he was brilliant. I was only at the radio station as a means to an end, to get to New York to produce records. I figured that being a disc jockey would give me a good shot, certainly, at least, starting to make jazz albums. So I started handicapping the different cats by audience response at the station, what I saw them do in the club compared to what their records were like, and one of the first people that I wanted to make records with was Rahsaan. So when I met him in '61 at the Academy of Music, I was overwhelmed by his uniqueness and his power and his talent. We started to become kind of buddies all musicians have guys in each town that were watching their back, and I was Rahsaan's guy in Philly. But I also had this strong feeling about wanting to produce him and present him differently than he had been presented on his previous labels.

So when his contract with Limelight was up, I was just about done at the radio station; I knew I was heading up to New York, I was just waiting for the call from Atlantic. I absolutely begged him to let make an album with him after his contract was up, and to please come to Atlantic with me and be my first artist. So he made an album with me I had maybe five, six albums under my belt at the most and he made an album with Creed Taylor on Verve. He was kind of testing the waters.

Whistleman was the first one. The theory behind it was, do some stuff that's a little more on the commercial side, and let's get the sound that we can get in the studio, but let's invite people in as a studio audience not an original idea with me, Cannonball had been doing that for years. But let's see what we can get going. So it was like half a live record and half a studio record, even though the whole thing was done in the studio. So I'm on my way up, right? I get off the air at 4:00 pm, and we're doing the session at 7:00pm. I figure I'd start at 4:00pm, I'd drive up to New York, I'd be there at 6:30pm and we'd just go. I had two disc jockeys in New York, Alan Grant and Del Shields, announce that there was a session at Atlantic at 11 West 60th Street, just fall on by.

So hundreds of people showed up. They had to hire security guards. And here I am on the turnpike. I'm about ten minutes out on the wrong side of the Lincoln Tunnel and there was an accident with a bus, a boat, a plane, a horse…I never saw an accident like that in my life. So here I am, an hour and a half late to the first record I'm gonna make with Rahsaan. I was beside myself. I was nuts. Meanwhile, at that time, Arif Mardin was the studio manager for Atlantic. He was just starting out there, too. He was an acquaintance, not a friend yet, but he covered for me and started the album off. I walked in about the middle of it. I flipped on the mike and said, "Roland, look, I'm sorry, there was an accident on the turnpike." And he said something like, "You should have let me drive" or "I would have driven you" or something, and everybody cracked up! Then we just recorded it.

It's interesting because that album was never available for licensing so I could never get it. It was the first album I made with him so I have a tremendous emotional, sentimental value in it. But it also kind of set the tone for what he and I were going to do together. It was a little unconventional at the time, but it was kind of like a table of contents to the madness that would follow.

AAJ: It was recorded in 1965 but it wasn't released until 1967. Do you remember why?

JD: Yeah, it was because…I think it had something to do with his contract ending at Limelight and we couldn't put it out until another record…there was one of those reasons but I honestly don't remember. We did hold it back for a while. Then we put it out and it did fairly well; it did well enough for the time, and the major consequence of making that record was that he ended up signing with me rather than Creed. And the reason he signed with me rather than Creed was that he could control me more than he could control Creed! I was a producer with training wheels, you know? Eventually, three or four albums into it I gained his trust, maybe five albums into the relationship. I gained his trust and also I had honed by skills a little bit. I was really running on instinct at the beginning, and am still running on instinct probably to this day. Just by the fact that you do something, you learn more about your craft.

AAJ: It's convenient that we're discussing Creed Taylor because Taylor produced one of my favorite Yusef Lateef records, Autophysiopsychic for CTI, and I want to ask you next about The Blue Yusef Lateef. Was this a concept that he came to you about, or...?

JD: No. I'll tell you exactly how it worked. I told you that I was handicapping guys when I was on the radio and hanging in the clubs. And I knew Yusef Lateef was capable of making records that were valid musically, much like Rahsaan, and also had great commercial potential. When I signed him to Atlantic, I had a clear plan in my mind as to how I wanted to work with him. Here's the way it went.

The first record we made on Atlantic was called The Complete Yusef Lateef. I requested that he do numbers that were analogous to numbers from a variety of other albums that he had done. For instance, we did "Stay With Me." That was based on the love themes he had done on Eastern Sounds, the love theme from "The Robe" and the love theme from "Spartacus." We did "Trouble In Mind" or "In The Evening," which related to the oboe blues he had done on one of the Impulse albums. I wanted an oboe blues, and he had done one with Cannonball so I wanted to have one like that. Then there was a honker that was related to a Savoy record that he had done, called Yusef's Mood. And it was kind of a way of setting up a table of contents to who and what he was and what appealed to most of the people and were unique unto him. Also it was a way of introducing him so that we could then do a variety of records that would hone in on various things. So for instance, if we did a blues on the first one that was related to a successful blues he had done on an earlier record that I got a great response to at the radio station, then maybe we'd go do a blues album sometime. Each of the records we made was based on a concept of mine that, when he accepted it, he went and came back with the music. So the first album was The Complete Yusef Lateef based on the thought that I just gave you.

The second one was, hey, let's do a whole bunch of different blues. Now Yusef obviously has a big front yard it's the whole world. So it wasn't just to do six or eight twelve-bar blues. You go from "Mooncup," which is a blues he made up based on the Tagalog music of the Philippines, to "Juba Juba," which was based upon a slave song. So that was an overview of the blues in a Lateef-ian kind of way, with that broad-stroke world view that he has.

That concept continued through Yusef Lateef's Detroit, in which I asked him to please do a reminiscence of Detroit but with his rhythm section and a funk rhythm section. If we could combine the two rhythm sections, we could come up with something unique. I'm really pleased with Yusef Lateef's Detroit. I thought that was a watershed album in a lot of ways. And then we did Sweet Sixteen, which was based on layer after layer of overdubs which utilized the possibilities of the sixteen-track machine. And then we did The Diverse Yusef Lateef in which I said, "I want to do four numbers, only four numbers that have absolutely nothing to do with each other."

You gotta know how to talk to him. He's a beautiful guy, but he is the most literal guy you'll ever meet. And he has very firm opinions about the way he feels. "Jazz" to him is a word for "fornication," and he'll tell you that this music is not about fornication. He was a Muslim way before it was popular for African-Americans to become Muslim, and he's a very devout, religious, for real Muslim. He's made the trip to Mecca many times, he's walked those last miles on that hot sand. He's an amazing person. Yusef is 81 and if he wanted to, he could still pick up that tenor and blow anybody living off the stage. And you can go to the bank with that one, jack.

I had forgotten about The Blue Yusef Lateef. When I did The Man With The Big Front Yard, either I missed it or I wasn't in a head for it that night. So John Kruth, who wrote the Rahsaan biography, was in the office one day and brought in a copy of The Blue Yusef Lateef and I just didn't remember anything on it except for the oboe blues. He said, "You're missing the boat, man, this is maybe the best record he did on Atlantic." I said, "I made a lot of records when I was there, I don't remember them all." Plus you remember shit that…when you're watching the movie from behind the screen, it's not the same as sitting in the audience. What you relate to and what you remember and what sticks with you and what doesn't, a lotta shit like that affects your memory. They played me a thing like "Like It Is," which I love, and I didn't even remember making that! All of a sudden it was up for licensing and I grabbed it. It's one of those one that should be out there. I really think it's a good record.

AAJ: A lot of people would say that Lateef and Kirk did a lot of their best work on the periphery of jazz, but both these sets place them squarely in a the honky-tonkin' sax tradition.

JD: Let me tell you something about the way people relate to them. One of the things that is idiotic to me about jazz albums is this thing that you have to make a "jazz album." Why do you have to confine yourself to a blues, a ballad, a bop tune, an "out" tune, and a bossa nova, in a trio, quartet, or quintet context, playing solely in the bop / post-bop, Coltrane tradition? A lot of these guys can do a lot more. Plus, what am I gonna do make the same record with people ten times? These guys got bigger heads, bigger ears than that! Yusef and Rahsaan, you could put them head to head with anybody, and nobody was going home with their head bowed. Those guys could play. They were out of the tradition.

I wanted to make more interesting records. Plus, if you wanted the regular stuff, and I'm not saying that in any condescending way, but if you wanted traditional jazz records of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, look at all the places you could go Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside. You know what I mean? There were all these great places. And from time to time, we made regular jazz records. But I wasn't making "jazz records" I was making records, with guys who happened to play saxophones and came out of what you would call jazz.

Even with more traditional players like Fathead and Hank, we always tried to do something different. We made records with Les and with Eddie that were fabulous and when I speak about things that made the record, I'm not talking about me. I'm talking about the fact that there were these people with these ideas and concepts and the ability to execute those things that goes way behind what you might call kind of jazz stuff. There's nothing wrong with the regular kind of jazz stuff. But not everybody has to be confined to what somebody else determines that they should be confined to.

AAJ: On the other hand, "tradition" is a word that comes up a lot when you're talking about The Modern Jazz Quartet.

JD: The Modern Jazz Quartet is John Lewis' baby. He did something deceptively simple: He put jazz into a formal context, a shape, a form, not unlike classical music because it IS a classical music and John formalized it, but they swung inside the formalization. And as a consequence, there were people who wouldn't buy a Milt Jackson record or a John Lewis record, but they bought MJQ records because the second they came on and you could hear them, and they drew on all kind of influences, but at the bottom here comes "Bags."

John Lewis and Neshui were really close friends, and Neshui is the one who really took the MJQ from their early days on Prestige and did the right thing by them and gave John all of that room to do everything that he wanted to do. So I never produced an MJQ record, those were Neshui's guys.

AAJ: What do they sound like to you?

JD: They sound like a quartet, but there's a formal aspect to it that no other combination of those same instruments ever had. It's the combination of the guys it's John conceptually, with that magic sound that "Bags" had, with Connie and Percy combining kind of a rhythmic thing…it's hard to explain. The only word I can come up with is there's a formality to it. That's what separates them from the rest of the pack.

The thing about European Concert: If you're talking to real MJQ freaks, a lot of them will tell you, and I happen to agree with them because this is a record that I used to play on the air and get a great response to, that there is no such thing as a best MJQ record. There are a variety of records that highlight the different aspects of the Modern Jazz Quartet. But for me, this one comes as close as you can to capturing what it was that made them unique, but in a live context so you also have the performance sense as well as the sense of construction and formality of the studio. The MJQ's records under John's direction were very, very carefully crafted.

I was talking to John a few months ago and I told him that I finally got some of his records and I was putting them out, and he was really happy. As big as the MJQ were, and as important as they were in their own way to the development of jazz on record and in bringing people to jazz who wouldn't ordinarily be jazz fans, they're not represented and their catalog is not out there the way that it should be. So when I called John and told him, he was happy. The Quartet doesn't exist any more, but he was happy, and he said, "I hope people understand how much love and hard work and care went into making these." I told him that if I had anything to do with it, they will!



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