Over 20 years ago, Justin Time Records built a comfortable home for itself on what is commonly considered to be shaky ground. Not only was the label one of dozens fighting for a slice of jazz' dwindling market share, but it was also Canadian. To some it was a recipe for disaster, but for this band of committed Montrealers it has meant the best of two, seldom converging worlds.
As with most independent jazz houses, Justin Time's story begins with a simple case of kismet. Jim West, the label's founder, had been dabbling in retail and distribution when, on a fateful night in 1983, the future struck him flush in the face. "We went to dinner here in Montreal at Biddle's Jazz Club and saw [pianist] Oliver Jones play,"? recalled West in a recent interview. "It was incredible. After the show, we talked to Charlie [Biddle] and Oliver leaned over and said, 'Sure, I'll record.'"?
At the time, Jones was a respected veteran of the city's jazz scene, though he had yet to record under his own name. West and company lugged an eight-track recorder to a small office above the club and in three nights had just what they were hoping for. The album released later that yearOliver Jones Trio Live at Biddle's Jazz & Ribs
was a resounding success. West was on a cloud, certain that he had found a new and dynamic course of life. "I figured this is quite easy. We recorded, had great artists, we sold a lot of records, it didn't cost that much and we even made money. So we took that, did another, followed up and continued rolling from there."?
Armed with its early successes, Justin Time was soon forced to face the harsh realities of the music industry. With only a few other labels operating in Canada, local artists hungry for exposure inundated the company's tiny offices with demo tapes and pleas for consideration. West was cautious with his decisions, knowing that the nest he was building could easily be blown apart by a gust of hasty releases. Over the next few years, Justin Time patiently proffered a modest cache of quality music, created by such skillful musicians as guitarists John Abercrombie (Witchcraft
, 1986) and Sonny Greenwich (Live at Sweet Basil
, 1987), pianist Paul Bley (Solo
, 1987), vocalist Ranee Lee (Deep Song
, 1989) and of course a series of new outings by Oliver Jones.
Aside from established artists, Justin Time also committed itself to unearthing new Canadian talent. Perhaps their greatest find came in 1993, when the label recorded the first album (Stepping Out
) by a young piano vocalist named Diana Krall. "When we first signed her, there was a buzz going around,"? recalled West, who has since given life to several other upstarts. "There's usually a groundswell when something is there. It's sort of like word of mouthit gets around, you hear about it and then you have the option of either pursuing it or letting it pass you by. In Diana's case, fortunately, we pursued it."?
No matter who he's signingwhether it be an acclaimed troupe like the World Saxophone Quartet or a promising youngster like vocalist Coral EganWest seeks character first. "I look for people who have a world vision, in the sense that if they live in Toronto, they're not afraid to travel to New York City or through Europe. Some people have blinders on. You can be as talented as you want, but if you live in a shoe, you're not going to go anywhere."?
These days especially, with record sales fluctuating between passable and low, small labels like Justin Time have to be very careful about what they choose to put out. Music stores are slowly being replaced by the more concentrated offerings of internet specialty sites and shelf space in stores that remain in business is dwindling by the day. "Right now, you have to have a reason to put a record out. You have to tell a story. Not only do we worry about producing it and getting great music out of it, but trying to convince a retailer to buy a recording is becoming harder and harder."?
Nevertheless, West is adamant about giving his artists the creative space they need, working with them to balance artistic and fiscal concerns. In a way, Justin Time is the quintessential indie label: an intimate outpost where musicians are encouraged to voice their opinions and involve themselves in their own destinies. As a result, more and more recognizable names, from saxophonist David Murray to piano great Hank Jones (whose first recording for the company is expected this fall), have chosen to eschew interest from major labels in favor of the cozier confines of Justin Time.
For West, the secret to continued success is simple: "You have to love the music and that's the point of departure. I still love getting up in the morning, coming into work with a whole new day in front of me. It's still fun and refreshing and invigorating and when that stops, then I'll just say goodbye to it."?
Here's hoping that time never comes.