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Dreambox Media: The Philadelphia Jazz Label

Dreambox Media: The Philadelphia Jazz Label
Mike Oppenheim By

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Any fan of the great American music that is jazz is surely aware that the art form's history depended on the convergence of geography, individual talents, and inspiration. Cities such as New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago, and New York are synonymous with particular styles of jazz. One often overlooked city is Philadelphia, the birthplace and/or home to artists as diverse and influential as Pat Martino, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Lee Morgan, Dexter Gordon, Clifford Brown, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Smith, Benny Golson, Grover Washington, Jr., John Coltrane and many more. Paying tribute to this tradition of jazz in Philadelphia, and providing a contemporary slate of first-rate jazz musicians, is Dreambox Media, a strictly Philadelphia jazz label.

Jim Miller, the founder and driving force behind Dreambox Media, is a performing jazz drummer, producer, Adjunct Professor at Rowan University, Jazz History Lecturer at University of Pennsylvania, and advisory board member of JazzBridge.org and the Philadelphia Jazz Coalition. Miller has performed with preeminent artists including Anita O'Day, Larry Coryell, Tony Williams, Larry McKenna, Randy Brecker, Clark Terry, Ray Mantilla and Evelyn Simms; he has been honored with Philadelphia Magazine's award for Best of Philly Jazz Record Label (1999) and in 2013 received the Jazz Hero award, from the Jazz Journalists Association.

All About Jazz: What are the origins of Dreambox Media? Who was involved, and what was the initial conception of the label?

Jim Miller: I had a band called Reverie, I was on drums, Mark Knox on keyboards, Ed Yellen on saxophones, and Gerald Veasley on bass. We got some free studio time in New York, at a place called the Institute of Audio Research. We were pretty much guinea pigs for people taking a studio engineering class, but we ended up getting a master tape out of it. So anyway, we end up having this master tape, this is in 1980, we had the tape, and a band fund. We were a quartet, and a fifth of the share went into the band fund, where we could fix equipment, the van, whatever. So we had the money, and I said, "Let's just put this out ourselves." We had money actually saved up for a new van, but we put this first album out, and we made enough money for the van and another LP, and I wanted to do another one, because the band was evolving so quickly that I wanted to document it, plus keep our momentum going.

So initially, it was just a vanity label for my band. The second album, we actually did two pressings, about 1000 copies each, then we put out a live third album. I wanted to put out a live thing so people could really tell what we sounded like. Anyway, we'd amassed this database of reviewers and jazz writers, and at that point, the vocalist Suzanne Cloud asked to be on our label, and I hadn't even been thinking of it as a label, it was just a way to put Reverie stuff out. So she did an album called I Like It and she started spreading the word amongst the Philly jazz community. Pretty soon pianist Mark Kramer, Father John D'Amico, flautist Leslie Burrs, and vocalist Evelyn Simms, they all wanted to do things, so I thought "Wow, this is a label."

Meanwhile, we were still shopping our masters around, and I was learning more and more about the music business by the worse and worse deals that we were being offered, and still, in this do-it-yourself mode, I thought, "We have to treat everybody else the same way we want to be treated." So we came up with, I don't know if you'd call it a business model, but we didn't require that we own the masters. The artist still kept their masters, we didn't ask for any publishing split or money from sales at gigs, just a percentage of sales directly through the label, and that just paid the expenses. We wanted to treat everyone the same way the band wanted to be treated by these legitimate labels. It's kind of democratic and idealistic when you think about it—music by the musicians, for musicians, of musicians. In 2006-2008 it was hard with the digital thing, but even big labels were taking hits, the deals were getting even more predatory, and that affected us too, so now it's on life support again.

AAJ: Was it a strictly Philadelphia jazz label by choice?

JM: I wanted it to be regional. I was tired of looking at magazines when Philadelphia was rarely mentioned as a jazz city. But to me, being from Indianapolis, Philly seemed like a Mecca. For instance, on the radio you could find smooth jazz late night on the weekends in Indy, but when I came here the first time, I turned on the radio, and it was John Coltrane weekend, 72 straight hours of John Coltrane. I told the guys that night, I'm moving here, it seemed like a mecca to me.

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