Very few among us emerged from the '80s with our dignity intact. But for the Black Saint (and its associated Soul Note) record label, the last half of the decade formed its golden period, when from 1984 to 1989 it won the Down Beat
critics poll for "Best Label" and "Best Producer" and established itself as the Blue Note of its time, a label whose mark and reputation alone assured the listener that the music would be adventurous, exciting jazz of the highest order.
Like most independent labels, Black Saint rose to prominence through a fan's respect for the artists and their art, as well as some sharp business savvy. Giovanni Bonandrini was something of an outlier in his small country town near Brescia, Italy in the mid '40s. "When I got some severance pay from the job I was doing at the time, I used a large portion of it to buy jazz records."
Bonandrini's self-education, obtained through an insatiable appetite for listening and reading, enabled him to become an advisor to a prominent importer of jazz music in the big city, Milan. "I suggested records that disappeared the moment they arrived in his warehouse, which told me that there were many other jazz fans in Italy. It also allowed me to build my own record collection, because the importer gave me a very nice discount. Otherwise, I couldn't have afforded them."
It was when he was working as a school teacher in the early '70s that the importer offered Bonandrini the opportunity to buy the business. "Black Saint was in serious trouble," Bonandrini says. "They had only released 13 titles, but had already gone through three or four owners. So my partners and I took it over and immediately made four recordings in New York with Hamiet Bluiett, Muhal Richard Abrams, Julius Hemphill and George Lewis at the end of 1977."
Black Saint was an unusual convergence of geography, where musicians previously associated with the Black Artists Group (BAG) in St. Louis (Bluiett, Hemphill and Oliver Lake) and the AACM in Chicago (Abrams, Lewis, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill and Roscoe Mitchell, among others) had gathered in New York City to participate in the famed "loft scene", centered around Sam Rivers' Studio Rivbea, where musicians outside of the mainstream were able to follow their muses. Black Saint offered a chance at a career for avant-garde groups like the World Saxophone Quartet, Threadgill's Air trio, the String Trio of New York and Mitchell's Sound Ensemble that were getting no attention from major labels at the time and otherwise might have slipped into total obscurity. Bonandrini, however, wanted to expand the image of the label and its roster beyond the avant-garde scene. "I felt I knew jazz, I was the owner and I wanted to present a broader view. So I started Soul Note."
Black Saint/Soul Note carried its momentum into the '90s, welcoming innovation and traditionalism in equal measure, while dealing with a changing marketplace that saw CD sales overtake vinyl along with a general decline in the demand for jazz music. It was at that time that Bonandrini's son Flavio moved to New York to oversee the label's US distribution. "We did a lot of recordings when I was in New York," says Flavio, including new efforts from Black Saint/Soul Note's core roster, as well as fresh signings such as William Parker's In Order to Survive, Dave Douglas, Michael Marcus, Charles Gayle and others. "On one hand, I was trying to be consistent with what my father had built in the past and on the other, I was adding my personal taste."
Flavio Bonandrini cites a few examples of his label's recent contributions as evidence of a vital art form. "We have been able to continue our relationship with the ROVA saxophone quartet by releasing Totally Spinning
on Black Saint, as well as a collaboration between bassist David Friesen and the late pianist Mal Waldron called Remembering Mal
on Soul Note." Both discs offer previously unreleased tapes, but the music is creative and timeless as the day it was made.
30 years on, the reputation of the Black Saint/Soul Note catalog is impeccable and its pedigree is rivaled by few others in the history of jazz. Bonandrini does everything he can to keep the catalog in print and represses titles a few weeks after they sell out: "We're committed to the musicians we represent and as long as we have the money, that's what we're going to do."
He plans to have a new website that will enable listeners to purchase relatively scarce, even legendary, Black Saint/Soul Note recordings online, as CDs or as downloads.