Pianist Frank Hewitt lived in a stripped-out, walk-in refrigerator in the back room of Smalls jazz club the last years of his life. "He was one of the most remarkable pianists to come along, yet almost nobody knew who he was," said Smalls Records founder Luke Kaven. "There was something very disturbing about seeing somebody who had an exceptional gift - sophistication, subtly, poetry, all those things entwined - and yet to see him being ignored by record labels, by writers and to some extent by the listening public. The listening public of course never really got a chance to hear him except through Smalls."
A fixture on the New York jazz scene since the '50s, Hewitt led the late Saturday night jam sessions at Smalls until his death in 2002 at age 66. Four years prior, Impulse! Records released an album that was to capture the "Smalls theme". Disappointingly for many of the regular Smalls musicians, the final release focused on only two players. Hewitt was not one of them.
"No matter how much we told them that Frank Hewitt was the true master amongst all of us, they saw money in the other two artists. They were doing interesting work but with a fusion of funk and some rock elements. It had this quality of being able to reach a pop audience and that was the thing that the record label wanted," explained Kaven.
The injustice of the situation prompted Kaven to create his own label. Named after the club, the label would embody the spirit of the scene that was going on at Smalls until it closed last year.
"Smalls was a place where musicians could develop. In the back room [you'd hear things like] 'dig this chord' or 'dig this melody' or 'listen to this recording of Bud Powell or Elmo Hope.' You didn't get this kind of esoteric knowledge in school. You got it because you were surrounded, in this rich environment, by all these talents and each one would give you something that you could never get otherwise. You had this living, organic thing, and the idea of keeping that going is really foremost for Smalls Records."
Last February, with the release of Hewitt's debut We Loved You , drummer Ari Hoenig's The Painter , Across 7 Street's Made in New York , and saxophonist Ned Goold's The Flows , Kaven found himself launching a business that went against all practicalities. Educated in philosophy, he was heading toward an academic career. Driven by a dedication to change the music industry, which he considers extremely corrupt, Kaven switched paths. This month three more records drop: singer Sasha Dobson's The Darkling Thrush , with the Chris Byars Octet; guitarist William Ash's trio releases The Phoenix ; and the follow up to Hewitt's debut, Not Afraid To Live , with bassist Ari Roland and drummer Louis Hayes, recorded in April 2002, the pianist's last studio session.
"We know now that Frank Hewitt's first disc made him a cult favorite and now Frank is being hailed as a genius," said Kaven, "All of which of course makes me angrier because why couldn't Frank have enjoyed a career while he was living? Why did his recognition have to come after his death?"
Kaven hopes he can help musicians get out of the trap that so many get caught in. He aims to get older players recognized for their talents and to develop the careers of younger musicians so their lives do not follow the path that Hewitt's did. The artists on Smalls Records have two things in common, requirements for joining the label - "musical genius" and "a poetic force". "There are lots of people out there who are technical geniuses but they don't have anything to tell you with their music. I find this a lot with people who just came out of college programs. They know a lot of music but they don't have anything to say yet because they haven't lived enough," explained Kaven.
The five guys in Across 7 Street, saxophonist Chris Byars, bassist Ari Roland, pianist Sacha Perry, trombonist John Mosca and drummer Danny Rosenfeld, played the Sunday night slot at Smalls for eight years. "Across 7 Street really comprises the core constituency of Smalls. They're all remarkably talented players who've been on the New York jazz scene since their early teenage years. They have quite a group that plays harmonies that almost nobody in town can understand."
Byars arranged all 13 standards on Dobson's disc, The Darkling Thrush , and his octet backs the vocalist up. "We're at this critical point where somebody's got to lead us on," said Byars. "Sasha's got a real clear concept. I like where she takes the music. You have to be courageous to sing the way she sings. She has a lot of courage; she takes a lot of chances."
The rampant collaborative camaraderie that persists among label mates stems directly from their experiences at Smalls. Young musicians watched as their musical idols did extraordinary things at extraordinary hours. "You could hear how the tenor sax tradition or piano or bass or drums was getting handed down. Frank Hewitt was Sacha Perry's hero. He would sit there and check him out and you could hear how it translated into his own playing," remembered Byars. "My main man was [saxophonist] Charles Davis. I wound up replacing him in '99 during the late late late show on Saturday nights. It started at 3 am and went to about 5."
The theme of late and long hours has been passed on from club to label as well. One morning last month, Kaven made the five hour trek from his home in Ithaca to the CD manufacturing plant in Long Island City where 4,500 discs awaited. Because his car only holds half the amount, he does it twice. The trips are tiring but the driving saves about $150 in shipping fees. Friends have offered apartments in the city if Kaven needs them and photographers have contributed their time and talents for free, but for the most part Kaven does everything himself, from recording, to engineering, to producing, to writing contracts, to dealing with the press and the countless other things involved with running a small business. His efforts are slowly paying off. Byars said Made In New York has received many favorable reviews, and Fanfare Magazine voted Hoenig's The Painter , one of the year's five top albums.
"You hear these stories about MC Hammer running a record label out of the trunk of his car and it's kind of like Luke. It's actually cooler with Luke because it's not mainstream, there's not the potential to make zillions of dollars," said Byars. "Luke goes back and forth from Ithaca and makes it happen. No one is telling him he has to do it. He's just doing it because he's on a mission."
Visit Smalls Records on the web at www.smallsrecords.com .
Big on Smalls
Smalls CD Review Archive @ AAJ