Although involved in jazz for decades, John Norris never envisioned a jazz career. During a recent interview, he recalled, "I discovered jazz in 1951, it was just a hobby." While working in London, he started a jazz club within Shell Oil. He relocated to Montreal in 1956 and moved to Toronto in 1957. "Every Wednesday night, a traditional jazz trumpeter named Mike White led a band in a Toronto restaurant, playing mostly for expatriate Europeans. Mike and the guy who ran the club would come by the apartment I shared with George Hume, another Englishman who was already publishing a discographical magazine. We'd drink beer and listen to records and I said they needed a club newsletter to give more information. So they said, 'Why don't you do it?'" That launched Coda. "We started it because DownBeat and Metronome rarely had any information on music that interested us."
He started Sackville in 1968 with a similar philosophy. "I only like to record music that I'm interested in and people I like. When I went to New York on Labor Day weekend in 1957, I couldn't believe that I could be at the Metropole in front of Zutty Singleton's bass drum and when he got off the bandstand he sat and talked with me through the whole intermission. I had already gotten that impression in Europe, where I heard and met Albert Nicholas in Paris. He played until 1 o'clock and we hung out talking until 5 or 6 in the morning. When Armstrong played in London, Billy Kyle and Trummy Young were in the bar during intermission, it was all part of the jazz community in those years. When you go to a club now, the musicians disappear during intermission. It's not a social thing anymore."
Sackville got started in an unusual manner. "Our first recording was an allstar band with Wild Bill Davison, Herb Hall, Benny Morton, Claude Hopkins, Arvell Shaw and Buzzy Drootin. A New York agent put them together to play a two-week gig at the Colonial Tavern in 1968. When they hit the bandstand, something happened and within a couple of sets they sounded like they had been playing together forever. Arvell said 'You've gotta record this band.' We weren't in the record business, I just had a magazine, so Bill Smith and I got four other people to put up the money to make that first record. Bill had a day job and we had just started the record store. We had $5,000 but there were very few recording studios in Toronto; it was made over two nights between 2 and 5 am, after the gig. When Sackville started, there were no other Canadian jazz record labels, just branch offices of the majors."
Norris considers the producer's role insignificant. "People like Jay McShann or Junior Mance know exactly what they want to do when they go into the studio. After Miles Davis recorded Bitches Brew and Wes Montgomery the Beatles' tunes, the recording industry as a whole changed. Until that point the people who recorded jazz music were jazz fans, people like Alfred Lion, Bob Weinstock, Les Koenig. After the late '60s, jazz became a product, where the financial numbers counted and they could try and create a product like they did with pop music, to try to find a hit. That was the beginning of what, in my opinion, has changed the whole facade of the recorded documentation of jazz music."
Norris has one ongoing battle. In spite of most of his sales coming in the US, American jazz magazines sporadically review Sackville CDs. "Bill Smith and I also ran a jazz record store in the '70s. I always have gone out to sell CDs where people are playing. When there were venues for people to play, quite a reasonable percentage of sales were made on location for some releases. American musicians often played for one or two weeks here and that's how we got the opportunity to record many of them here in Toronto.
The irony is that sales are better now than they used to be, even though there are fewer record stores. You don't make any money recording jazz or running a jazz magazine, you get by." But Norris has no interest in a label website. "I'm not computer savvy, I use a computer as a word processor, but I'm not online. But the Sackville catalogue is available on iTunes and sold through Amazon and Barnes & Noble."
Pressed to name some of his favorite records, Norris mentioned Jay McShann's The Man From Muskogee with violinist Claude Williams. "It refutes all of the disparaging remarks that John Hammond made about Williams. He fired him from the Basie band. We recorded it in June 1972 just before the first Newport in New York festival. Another is Jay's vocal album I'm Just a Lucky So and So. I also like albums by Frank Rosolino with the Ed Bickert Trio, Buddy Tate... I've made lots of records with Jim Galloway."
Sackville has also ventured outside of mainstream jazz. "Back in the late '60s and early '70s, we recorded some avant-garde. These sessions were designed by my partner, Bill Smith. When we reissued some of them, a few sound a lot more like jazz music than I remembered. We recorded Don Pullen, Anthony Braxton, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, Anthony Davis, Ray Anderson and Barry Altschul. We featured most of those musicians in concert. Then the world got flooded with it when the European companies were paying huge amounts of money; our sales couldn't possibly justify what they were paying."
Norris doesn't have plans to retire, though he admits, "I'm 75, my wife wants me to work less. There are several reissues that should have already been out for our 40th anniversary last year. I going to put out a collection of Montreal pianist Milton Sealeyhe's in between Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones chronologically. He went to study in Paris in the '50s. While he was there, he recorded with Mezz Mezzrow in Paris, England and a trio in Montreal. I'm reissuing an Ed Bickert/Lorne Lofsky LP made for Unisson; we've added some extra tunes from a concert put on by a jazz radio station. There's a two-CD set of Vic Dickenson with Red Richards. The Saints and Sinners band made a record in 1967, that's how I got my start as a producer. They were playing at a club and it was frequented by people in the jewelry business. Ten of them put up $500 each to make the record. Vic told me I had to be the producer. I'm putting out a two-CD set of the remaining Buddy Tate material that hasn't yet been reissued, a duet with Jay McShann, one with Bob Wilber, Sam Jones and Leroy Williams, the third features the Ray Downs Trio. I'm also going to put out the very first night of the Café des Copains, a piano room which Jim Galloway and I booked for seven years beginning in 1983. Ralph Sutton was the opening act; every single person who played there was recorded for the radio station."
[Editor's Note: John Norris died from a stroke on January 31, 2010 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.]