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Terri Hinte: Co-Creating the Image of Jazz

Victor L. Schermer By

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The main change in the jazz industry has been the rise of the Internet, and of digital music, and of so-called free music and free everything. How is this economic model sustainable? —Terri Hinte
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

[This is the second of an All About Jazz series of interviews and articles on "The Many Faces of Jazz Today: Critical Dialogues" in which we explore the current state of jazz around the world with musicians, journalists, and entrepreneurs who give us their own unique perspectives. In the first interview of the series, saxophonist Bobby Zankel provided the perspective of a seasoned musician on his efforts to maintain his creativity and independence in an increasingly "homogenized" consumer-based environment. The interview below is with public relations expert Terri Hinte, who elaborates on how musicians promote their wares and what this means in terms of how the jazz industry evolved over the past half century]

Terri Hinte works tirelessly behind the scenes to make jazz happen. For four decades she has been helping musicians with their careers through writing, networking, and publicizing their recordings and concerts, first assisting Gretchen Horton and Orrin Keepnews at historic Fantasy Records, then becoming their Director of Press and Public Information, and for the last decade as director of her own firm, Terri Hinte Public Relations. In her work, she gets to see what helps and hurts musicians in their careers, finds successful ways to generate interest and attract audiences, talks with musicians about their satisfactions and frustrations, and obtains a birds-eye view of the jazz scene. She has witnessed first-hand the many changes that have happened in jazz during the transition from LP recordings to the digital age and all the shifts that have occurred in musical styles and audience preferences. One of her most enduring clients, Sonny Rollins, has relied countless times on her astute management and PR skills. Hinte works out of the San Francisco area, but she frequently travels to festivals and other events world-wide.

Since jazz, like any endeavor, depends in part upon how people perceive it and do business around it, we asked Hinte to give us her take on the present and past jazz scene from her perch as someone who works with the musicians to co-create their public perception and opportunities for performance and development.

Hinte's Vantage Point

All About Jazz: Tell us about the "perch" from which you view jazz. What is the experience from which you come to this discussion?

Terri Hinte: For the last 40-plus years, in my professional life, I've been tracking how, why, and where jazz and jazz artists get written and talked about and how they're perceived for better or worse by the public. I consume a heavy diet of newspapers and magazines. I also spend an awful lot of time online, reading and researching and just poking around in search of new outlets and new writers and those who are new to me personally. Fortunately I'm a newspaper and magazine junkie, because it's a full-time job in itself keeping up with the constant evolution of platforms as well as the volume of content and figuring out how I can maximize the current opportunities for the artists I'm working with.

AAJ: What's been your exposure to the music itself?

TH: Live music has always been a big part of the picture for me. Over the years I've been to innumerable festivals, where I've been witness to some extraordinary performances, but I really prefer the intimacy of small clubs. There's a certain glamour to it, even when the space itself is less than entirely comfortable, and I love the physical experience of the music—the vibrations, the audible breaths and squeaks and hums of the players and their instruments. The music is alive.

Probably most of the music I've experienced has been in many dozens of Bay Area venues, but New York takes second place. I'm from New York originally and return there at least annually. Third is Rio de Janeiro. During the 1980s into the '90s, I made frequent trips to Brazil and caught as much samba, MPB ["Musica Popular Brasileira"—Brazilian popular music -Eds], and jazz as I possibly could. But I make a point of seeing live music wherever I find myself: L.A., Washington DC, Chicago, Paris, London, Prague.

At home I listen to all kinds of music, including classical, bluegrass, samba, and salsa. I especially love Chopin and Jobim. When hearing an album for the first time, I like to arrive at the 'point of obsession'—the track(s) that, upon repeated listening, will truly capture me and eventually show up in my dreams. I imagine that the music writers I work with, as well as most fans, are in search of a similar transformational experience: the power of music. So I try to apply that in my work.

AAJ: Do you still think of jazz in the same way you did when you first got into it? Or has your perspective changed?

TH: My first exposure to jazz, when I started at Fantasy, was to artists like McCoy Tyner, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans. Before that, I was coming from rock, blues, folk, classical, pop, and r&b. Then I heard this new music and loved it, immersed myself in it. Good music is good music, and I've never been concerned, from a fan's perspective, with categories and boxes.

But boy oh boy, my perspective as a professional has changed all that! Evaluating music that I might be representing is a process that requires me to consider what 'slot' the album might be put into, as well as how it might be received by the writers I work with. Does it correlate with what I know of their tastes? This on top of my gut reaction to the music: can I listen to it repeatedly? Will it find its way into my dreams? But sometimes that's less important, on a professional level, than whether the music will somehow fit in on the larger stage.

Musicians' Public Relations Efforts

AAJ: What have been the greatest satisfactions and frustrations in your work?

TH: My biggest frustration is one presumably shared by many people: the shrinking space allotted to jazz in the media. But my biggest satisfaction is somehow prevailing against these tides and managing to get a feature or review into print that can potentially make a real difference in the artist's career. That is the goal, and reaching it is always a thrill.

I especially like to work with musicians who are just entering the recording field. About five years ago, I handled the publicity campaign for drummer Reggie Quinerly's album debut. The response to Reggie and his music brought to mind that observation about certain actors and actresses: that the camera loves them. The jazz press was very receptive, and the campaign culminated with a performance review in the New York Times that featured a huge photo of Reggie at his drum kit in the club. A signal moment!

Recently I've worked on the last two albums by cellist Akua Dixon. Akua has had a long, illustrious career, but in these projects the focus was more on putting herself front and center, as a leader and soloist, rather than being part of a string quartet or other ensemble. I've been very gratified, as has she, by the response to these albums. It feels like the timing was really perfect, as if the jazz world had pent-up positive feelings toward Akua, and this new music provided an opportunity for those feelings to be expressed in print.

AAJ: You've worked with Sonny Rollins for many years. How do you explain his stunning popularity over many decades?

TH: Sonny is one of the giants of the music. His contributions have been discussed and written about at great length in publications and in forums around the world for more than 60 years. But the main reason for his popularity is that his music has affected people in deeply personal ways—they tell him so. People of all ages, all nationalities, and all persuasions write to him with their stories of how his music has changed their lives. The word 'popularity' comes from the Latin 'popularis,' 'belonging to the people, accepted by the people.' Certainly many people have embraced the gift of Sonny's music over the years, and continue to do so.

I think that Sonny embodies the Zeitgeist in many ways. Apart from his music, he has an iconic image, or rather, a series of images, that seem to have captured the jazz public's imagination: his Mohawk, his study of Buddhism and yoga, his sabbaticals, his bridge period, to cite but a few examples. I would say without exaggeration that he is a magnet for publicity. Simply put, people are interested in him. They want to know more about him. They want to interview him, photograph him, film him. This is not a new development.

My challenge is to manage the attention, to channel the interest, so that it supports him, his music, his projects in the best ways possible. And the same would apply to any gifted musician with whom I work.

AAJ: Aside from Sonny, what kind of subject matter about a musician tends to attract attention and increase visibility these days?

TH: The tool I use for that in my work is the press bio. I think it should present a truthful, candid—but not salacious—account of the artist's life and musical path. I think such a press release should shed light on the artist as a person, not just a recitation of gigs and accomplishments. Perhaps I would include an extra-musical passion. Many years ago, when I was working with George Mraz, I read an interview in which George talked about his love of fly-fishing, and how the movement and tension of the fishing line were reminiscent of the strings of his bass. That's a lovely look at a different aspect of the artist.

Artists who come to music and recording later in life always have stories to tell. The vocalist Ed Reed made his first record at age 78! He never shied away from the difficult and even sordid parts of his story such as heroin addiction and prison. His honesty came through in his music, and people responded to it. Ed won the Rising Star/Male Vocalist category in the Downbeat Critics Poll at age 86! That's dramatic evidence that there's no one way to get to the 'finish line.'

Changes in the Music Industry

AAJ: Can you compare and contrast the jazz industry from the time you began working at Fantasy Records in 1973 to now?

TH: Remember record stores? It was all about record stores. Distribution was key, and it was a competitive field nationally and regionally. You had to get the records into the stores via your distributors, and you had to get them sold through sales and promotion efforts. Airplay was the principle way of moving products, and if a song took off, all of the relevant gears had to be in sync. In order for the distributor to keep the stores stocked, the label had to keep the records pressed and shipped, and had to anticipate need in terms of manufacturers' schedules. Paradoxically, smaller labels sometimes went out of business as a result of a big hit, because they couldn't afford their urgent pressing bills—they wouldn't get paid by the distributors in a timely manner.

Radio was all-powerful. In addition to there being many more jazz radio stations than today, it wasn't unusual for r&b stations to feature some jazz programming. And all these stations were nearly always locally owned, with distinctive music programming and on-air personalities. Regional styles still existed. We hadn't gotten to this homogeneous, bland sameness that is all too evident these days in everything.

Believe it or not, record review columns in daily newspapers and mainstream magazines (even Vogue) were very common. There was more than one newspaper that included jazz reviews and stories in some markets! And there was greater stability then among print outlets in terms of tenure and ownership. Downbeat was publishing twice a month in that era.

Also, at that time, there was a lot of work for musicians. The Fantasy artists, for example, were frequently and regularly on the road, on the circuits, appearing at clubs for a few days or as long as a week and promoting their latest albums, often as frequently as one a year. It was the record label sales department's responsibility to get this info to the distributors, like when an artist was coming to town, so that the product would be in the stores. Distributors had their own promotion staffs which were plugged into the local scene. Lots of moving parts. Not so much anymore.

Finally, formal education of jazz musicians was available but not yet a 'thing.' Today, young musicians learn jazz at conservatories and colleges, and many get college teaching gigs of their own. Back then, that was far from the case. In recent years, jazz education has had a big impact. The musicians' sources of income have changed as well. In the past, the musicians' main sources of income were gigs and royalties. Today, they more often have to find other means of sustaining their income, such as teaching.
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