SM: My point exactly, and there seems to be a supporting audience and philosophical support for this music. But there also seems to be a new exploitation on this music, by a bunch of small little companies, which is okay, but at the same time, new music and the players must one day be equalized and treated equal financially. Because my generation suffered like hell, we never really got a dime. You probably know what I mean in the general sense, and then there's the problem of your composers' rights. And right now I have a lawyer getting into my old [problems], the people who have not paid me in 30, 35 years ' BYG, ESP ' I have a publishing house now for a year or so, and we're fighting them now after 40 years.
AAJ: Had you ever thought to release your music privately, after these run-ins, or was that too complicated, or what?
SM: You mean records?
AAJ: Yeah, I mean put out your own records.
SM: I did it one time, and that's one of the things I have to fight for. I created my label in 1969, my record Love's Last Cry and I called my company Infinity. On the record was Jimmy Garrison, Lonnie Liston Smith; it was Frank Lowe's first record, Alan Silva, Joe Lee Wilson was singin,' there was a guitarist, I forget his name but he had a shop on 8th Street, 8th and 2nd Ave. And five children singing, three of them was Alan's and two of 'em was mine. It was a beautiful album. And I brought that one to Europe and licensed it to BYG records and they gave me half the money and then they disappeared. And that was 35 years ago. So today the problem with making your own record is basically distribution. And the different sub-countries, like Europe or Japan or Australia. Getting those distributions is the most expensive terror in the world. That's why you know you don't see many American records here [France] unless it's contracted to Warner Bros. or somebody.
AAJ: I guess it's easy enough to cover the bases in the US, but there's a lot of other markets.
SM: Exactly. I prefer to record exclusively, you know I'm not really that big-time a sensation, but I've been recording for Michael Ehlers' label [Eremite], and Michael's been very just and a proper example of the newer record producers. And you know, he brings a lot of self-esteem and self-respect to the musicians he works with, it's just too bad he's not a wealthy company like Columbia. Because if he was, he would shower' he'd be more generous. But I'm not really complaining, because he gives me a chance. You know, the first record I made for him I was 64, and the second I was 66, so he gives me a chance at this point in my life and my playing, where my style has finally become what I like to record.
AAJ: And of course, the distribution is good enough that you can walk into Tower and see those records.
SM: Yeah, and it's a blessing, because he's gonna try and issue 'em here. But like I said, I just recently made a job, I work as a sideman with some good players sometimes' this young man, he's from Israel, Assif [Tsahar]. And we made a job about six months ago in Barcelona, and Peter Kowald was on the job 'cause they're good friends, and Peter died four days after the job! And so the record is out, Assif has a real record company, and Assif called and asked if he could put this out, and this was sort of a memorial for Peter. And it's a pretty good album, but generally I just stay with Michael, because we all got kicked in the head from running around to five different companies and get a few hundred dollars and that's it. Not being able to protect ourselves, but there are some young cats who have enough popularity and support to [end] that. Mark Sellers or David Noyes, you know. People like Jimmy Lyons, Grachan [Moncur III], myself, Archie [Shepp], we really never took care of that properly, so that's a nightmare that we one day must face. Because of that, we were really enslaved way back. As much as I loved Louis Armstrong, he was the one that signed it.
Yeah he signed almost our ignorance check, you know, 'you don't really have to pay the cats,' and you know all these kind of psychological things were created really before our generation. And, like I think that record producers have found the perfect crime. Because we really have no protection, no protectionist laws with the government, and we're just sort of victims, and [get] nothin' the rest of our lives. Like when Columbia and RCA-Victor pay the government a few million dollars a year and the government never questions the product these musicians, these human beings, they never question how many have died and where has the money diverted to, and each year we lose three or four musicians and you know as well as I they have recorded quite a lot. You look at Blue Note and those are young cats, and I was young with them, and what happened with that? Nobody gets any of that now ' there's more money for Blue Note.
AAJ: Yeah, right, when Grachan had his own publishing company, they got him, they sort of screwed him out of that, right?
I've always loved jazz ...my mother was a classical pianist and my aunt was a blues singer, who was managed by Clarence Williams (Bessie Smith's producer). As a young boy, they introduced me to people like Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Jimmy Smith
I've always loved jazz ...my mother was a classical pianist and my aunt was a blues singer, who was managed by Clarence Williams (Bessie Smith's producer). As a young boy, they introduced me to people like Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Jimmy Smith. We hung out at my Aunt Kate's Soul Food restaurant in Harlem after the matinees at the Apollo where I listened to their stories. I knew I wanted to be a jazz musician from then on. My mother wanted me to play piano, but my Aunt bought me a guitar. I've been playing ever since.
At my mother's early prompting, I first sang Blue Velvet at my Catholic elementary school...and all the nuns came running in and asked me to sing again, so I knew I must have sounded pretty good. I've been singing ever since.
I met Tony Bennett in Miami and he inspired me to return to New York. He was a great mentor.
The best show I ever attended is mpossible to say, I've seen so many great shows. From Tony Bennett to Pat Martino, Return to Forever to Weather Report...I've seen some great performances.
My advice to new listeners is don't let jazz intimidate you, the music has something for every listener and it is our American gift to the world.