A record label named after a jazz club, owned by a different jazz club, which is named after another record label. Confusing? Perhaps so, but that's the story behind Half Note Records, the record company founded by the venerable New York venue, The Blue Note. It's not like label president Steven Bensusan had the option of naming the endeavor after the club owned and operated by his familythat name had been claimed long ago by Alfred Lion. Black Note, High Note, New Note and Soul Note were some of the other notes that had already been played, so to speak. So when the club decided to launch a label back in 1998, Half Note seemed as logical a choice for a name as any.
"It was just an opportunity to see whether or not the Blue Note organization, which consists of clubs and franchise clubs and management, could enter into the record business, according to Executive Vice President Jeff Levenson, who came on board in 2003. The label's initial releases, Lionel Hampton's 50th Anniversary Concert
(a Carnegie Hall recording from 1978), Ben E. King's Shades of Blue (a live recording from the Blue Note with guest appearances by Milt Jackson and David "Fathead Newman) and Miri Ben-Ari's Sahara (the debut disc by the young Israeli violinist), represented a potpourri of players on the room's roster.
"In the late '90s the club would routinely choose performers that it wanted to record; so a number of artists who came through the doors got recorded and records got issued, Levenson notes, "but there had never been much attention paid to marketing or selling of the titles or the positioning or profiling of the label. Some fine records were issued by artists playing the club's Monday night series, including dates by promising young artists like Mac Gollehon, Roland Guerin, Yoron Israel, Irvin Mayfield and Roberta Piket, as well as some by seasoned veterans like Von Freeman and Bill Watrous, who headlined the room.
Then out of that swirl of haphazard activity the label had a hit. In 2001, Paquito D'Rivera's Live At The Blue Note
, a 1999 recording from the club, won the Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Record. Levenson says, "Once that happened, the individuals who own and operate the Blue Note organization decided to turn their attention to the label. It was like, if they were able to garner a Grammy without knowing a whole lot about the record business, what were the possibilities if they really decided to jump in there?
Levenson eventually came on board with a mission to make things happen. A seasoned veteran of the music business who once ran a rock 'n' roll radio station with Howard Stern, Levenson founded the jazz monthly Hot House with Gene Kalbacher in the early '80s and then went on to become jazz editor at Billboard Magazine before becoming entrenched in the record industry, heading jazz departments at Warner Bros. and then SONY/Columbia. "Basically I come out of the ranks of the jazz journalism world, he says proudly. "I refer to myself as a recovering jazz journalist who kind of moved into the world of record executive and producer.
"My mandate when I came on board was essentially to document music that I felt was worthy of reflecting what's going on in New York at this time, Levenson explains. "The premise of the label interfaces with the programming design of the club, so very often what happens is that artists are programmed here at the club and then I'll decide whether or not we want to record them, he says. "Or I've been in a position to actually put together groups or concepts which then get presented at the club, which we then record. And that's fundamentally the thrust or the identity or the profile of the label. It's the sound of New York jazzlive.
Levenson has had more than a modicum of success since taking the reins of the label. Trombonist Conrad Herwig had discussed a concept record with Levenson when he was still at SONY, a followup to his critically acclaimed The Latin Side Of John Coltrane
, to be called Another Kind Of Blue: The Latin Side Of Miles Davis
. "There was no support for that idea there, but I always had it in the back of my head...so when I first took over Half Note, that was the project I really wanted to do... In order to make the project work downstairs in the Blue Note, we brought in Paquito D'Rivera and Dave Valentin. They loved the idea of marrying their efforts with Conrad's. We had them perform for a week, we made the record and we got a Grammy nomination as the best Latin Jazz Record of that year." The label recently released a sequel, Sketches of Spain Y Mas: The Latin Side of Miles Davis
Odean Pope's Locked and Loaded is another example of Levenson's insight into how to make a record succeed. Pope's Saxophone Choir was not an act one would expect to hear in the Blue Note, but the producer enticed Michael Brecker, James Carter and Joe Lovano to appear as guest artists with the veteran he knew they admired, to make it work. (Ornette annotated the disc.) Similarly, he brought in James Blood Ulmer and Hamiet Bluiett to guest with Carter's Organ Trio for a date he describes as "avant roadhouse music . Levenson reunited Kenny Garrett with Jeff "Tain Watts on the drummer's Detained
date and brought together Brecker with his hero Elvin Jones on the latter's record The Truth. He's also justly proud of his work producing Gil Goldstein's Under Rousseau's Moon
, which earned two Grammy nominations and the label's ongoing relationship with Kenny Werner, in documenting the great pianist's work with his trio (Peace
) and quintet (Democracy
This year the label is entering a venture with McCoy Tyner, who has appeared in the Blue Note regularly through the years and is now represented by the club's management wing. The pianist's new imprint MTM (McCoy Tyner Music) will be produced and distributed by the label. "We have two recordings that are in the can now. One is a record involving guitar players, Levenson says. "The other date is a live date at Yoshi's... It's a very spirited and energetic record.
A record recorded in one club, released by a label named after a different club, which is owned by another club. It all makes perfect sense when the music is this good.