It seems that at the core of all independent jazz record labels, one finds an avid enthusiast aspiring, reaching, clinging at the opportunity to give back a small slice of the music they hold so dear. More often than not, the challenges prove too great for the individual to transcend, and the label folds. But sometimeswith an ounce of luck and years of hard workthe enterprise manages to stay afloat, just long enough to carve out a niche in the eternally fickle jazz market. For over 30 years now, SteepleChase Records has distinguished itself as one such labeloffering a unique brand of modern and traditional jazz, from artists old and new, to a loyal band of supporters covering the four corners of the globe.
Our story begins in Copenhagen, Denmark, at the start of the ‘70s. With the help of resident ex-pats like Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster and Kenny Drew, the city’s jazz scene had developed into one of the fiercest in Western Europe. Clubs and cafes were bouncing with rhythmic intensity, though none more than the hallowed Jazzhus Montmartre. Nils Winther, then a student at Copenhagen University, spent most of his evenings at Montmartrelistening and learning from the generous talent on hand.
Quickly, Winther’s interests shifted from school to jazz, and before long he found himself at the cusp of a new life path. “I got a room upstairs and started recording some of the performances,” recalled Winther in a recent phone interview. “Kenny Drew was a good friend of mine at the time, and he arranged it so [saxophonist] Jackie McLean gave me permission to record his sets.” The rest is historyfor the moment McLean heard the tapes, he encouraged the young enthusiast to make a record of them. “I had never thought about that,” Winther exclaimed, reliving his past larks. “But I had gotten a grant to study the next year, so I used that to press 500 LPs.”
The Jackie McLean Quartet’s Live at Montmartre
, released in 1972, marked the beginning of a long and winding road for both Winther and SteepleChase. Over the next two years, the label used nearly all its earnings to fund subsequent recordings. Winther, meanwhile, was forced to work double dutyteaching in the daytime, and recording at night.
Then, in 1974, an invitation from McLean to record his new quintet (The Cosmic Brotherhood) brought Winther to New York for the first time. “We went into the studio, and did the recording. That was all arranged beforehand. Then I had a list of musicians I really wanted to record - that had kind of disappeared. I found Andrew Hill on that trip.”
Hill, who was one of many avant-garde jazz artists affected by the dissolution of Blue Note records, had lost his recording contract in 1969 and nearly fallen off the map completely. “I was a big fan of his, and was actively trying to find him,” remembers Winther. “And then this phone call came, and it was Andrew Hill saying that he had heard I was looking for him. So he actually found me.” The ensuing record, entitled Invitation
(1974), was the first for Hill in five years, and suggested a promising future for SteepleChase.
Also in 1974, sax legend Dexter Gordon led his first recording date for the label. Over the next few years, Gordon would release over a dozen quality albums on SteepleChase - reaffirming his place in jazz history, and cementing the label’s position on the music’s vanguard. “He was living in Copenhagen and, you know, Dexter had all his problems. He had problems with drugs and alcohol, but I was so close to him that I more or less knew when he was in good shape.”
Among Gordon’s memorable outings for SteepleChase are his first, an inspired quartet date entitled The Apartment
(1974); his last, the all star session Biting the Apple
(1976); and More Than You Know
(1975), a lushly textured union of Gordon’s band with members of three Danish Orchestras.
Following these early achievements, SteepleChase continued to build a catalog of unique quality and unusual breadth. Its list of artists now reads like a who’s who in modern jazz, and includes the likes of pianists Horace Parlan and Duke Jordan (whose album Flight to Denmark from 1973 is the label’s bestseller), and hornmen Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Archie Shepp and Thad Jones.
Aside from established players, the label has also sought to mine young talent. Beginning with the inaugural recordings of bass phenom Niels-Henning Orsted-Pedersen and multi-reedist (and Jackie’s son) Renee McLean, SteepleChase has given many up and comers the early break they couldn’t find with major jazz labels. Guitarist Dave Stryker, pianist George Colligan and saxophonist Ari Ambrose have all sipped from the SteepleChase well, but as Winther openly asserts, it never seems enough: “There are so many young players that ought to be recorded. It’s such a shame I can’t [capture them all].”
To quell this growing discord, Winther introduced a series of Jam Session titles to the label. A whopping 30 such volumes are already in the can, assuring SteepleChase of a veritable treasure trove of upcoming releases.
With only three permanent employees working at the labelWinther, his wife Mihoko, and a keeper of the vault - SteepleChase is a small enough operation to have sustained itself through over three decades of ups and downs. And if Winther has his way, the end is not near. “I’m 60 now, and thinking about how and when to retire. But I would go crazy if I weren’t working in music.”