Todd Barkan: Continuation and Augmentation


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Todd Barkan has been one of the most important and versatile producers of jazz concerts and records around the globe for almost 30 years. The list of artists whose projects he has produced reads like a veritable Who's Who of jazz. Barkan has managed many artists, including the Boys Choir of Harlem, Chico O'Farrill and Freddy Cole, has been working since 2001 as artistic administrator for Jazz at Lincoln Center, where he has been Programming Director of Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola since 2004." Barkan also ran 32 Records in New York at the turn of the decade and, perhaps, more importantly, the legendary Keystone Korner jazz club in San Francisco for over a decade (1972-1983), where he first met Tetsuo Hara, his now longtime Japanese record label associate and owner of Venus Records. Here, Barkan speaks about the great deal of work he's done for Japanese record labels like Venus.
Todd Barkan
All About Jazz: Todd, you have had a long association with Venus Records and its owner Tetsuo Hara in Japan. How did you begin your association with jazz in Japan?
Todd Barkan: Over my whole professional career, I've produced over 800 records, and a lot of those recordings have been done for Japan. I've done quite a few, obviously, in the United States, I've done some for European companies. I've done some projects for artists themselves, and for tiny little boutique labels. But I am quite sure that the largest amount of my record production work has been done for Japan.

I started working with Mr. Hara through Alfa Records. We worked together on some of the most historic recordings I've ever produced, and those are the 16 CDs of Bill Evans, recorded live at Keystone Korner in San Francisco just before he died. We worked together on the first volume, which contains eight full CDs and is called Consecration (JVC Japan, 2002). The second volume I worked on myself at Fantasy Records/Milestone: The Last Waltz (Milestone, 2000). Mr. Hara was the main man who worked on that set of recordings with me, and he did some tremendously dedicated work on the first eight CDs of Bill Evans material—that's where our working relationship began. So he and I are joined through Keystone Korner and Bill Evans and Consecration. That's how our relationship was "consecrated." We have known each other for about 20 years now, and I work with him on the production of all the Venus recordings that are made in New York.

AAJ: Are the recordings made mostly in New York?

TB: I would say that a majority of Venus Records are made in New York City, but Mr. Hara also travels to Italy and other countries in Europe to make recordings and even does some recording in Japan.

AAJ: Have you traveled to Japan?

TB: I have been to Japan quite a few times, perhaps a couple of dozen times since the 1970s. Over the years, I've had some good relationships with Japanese associates. I started working with contacts there in the '70s when I had the Keystone Korner, in San Francisco. My involvement in Japan reached a peak in the very early '90s. From '91 to '94, I was working on a club called Keystone Korner Tokyo.The name and trademark of Keystone Korner were franchised, and I was booking a club and working on a club that actually had a Japanese owner. [The owner] which was a Japanese record company known as Alfa Records, for which I had produced albums. My work in Japan continued periodically throughout the '90s. I haven't really been traveling to Japan much since then.

AAJ: When you travel to Japan, do you go mostly to Tokyo, or do you travel around the country?

TB: Almost always just to Tokyo, because that's where my work has been. I have been on a couple of tours. I road-managed the final Japanese tour of Gerry Mulligan and his quartet—that was a great experience. I toured a little bit around Japan with Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band. I've been to Kyoto, Kobe, Nagoya, Fukuoka, Sapporo—all major cities.

AAJ: Do you find the support of jazz pretty consistent throughout Japan?

TB: Yeah. All over Japan.

AAJ: There are great clubs all over?

TB: Well, there are some clubs. Or "jazz societies." Most of the jazz clubs are in Tokyo. There are a few in Osaka, in Fukuoka, and Nagoya. Then there are little jazz bars, bars where jazz is played all the time, where you can go and request CDs and LPs.

AAJ: Oh, coffeehouses.

TB: Coffeehouses, right. Jazz coffeehouses.

AAJ At the Keystone Korner Tokyo, did you employ American jazz players, or Japanese players, or both?

TB: We programmed only American jazz players. I also programmed a jazz club in Oakland that was called Keystone Korner Yoshi's, in '92 and '93. So I would sometimes hire groups that would play both these clubs, Keystone Korner Tokyo and Keystone Korner Yoshi's in Oakland. I continue to work with many of these musicians to this very day, at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, where I've been the Programming Director since 2004.

AAJ Who are some of the musicians you've worked with?

TB: Cedar Walton, Kenny Burrell, Bobby Hutcherson, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Marlena Shaw, Little Jimmy Scott, Ernestine Anderson, Paquito D'Rivera, Randy Weston, Freddy Cole, Kenny Barron, Buster Williams, Mulgrew Miller, Frank Wess, Eddie Henderson, Ron Carter, just to name a few.

AAJ: What do you think it is about jazz that appeals to Japanese audiences?

From left: Grady Tate, Freddy Cole, Todd Barkan

TB: From only the strictly statistical point of view, straight-ahead jazz accounts for just about two per cent of the record buying public, whether it is in the Japanese or U.S. or the European marketplace, but the worldwide jazz audience is a much more profound and widespread phenomenon than that—reaching people of all ages and persuasions.

The Japanese jazz audience is as dedicated and passionate as any jazz audience has ever been in the history of our music. For many, many years, jazz musicians such as Art Blakey and even Miles Davis would make a considerable amount of their income in Japan. The Japanese paid well, they paid all expenses—they had to: if they wanted you to come over there, they picked up your airline and hotel bills. So the Japanese quickly established themselves as a legitimate—no, not just legitimate, but passionate and important and vital—ongoing jazz market, supporters of the culture of jazz.

As a producer of jazz recordings, I'm even aware of the passion that Japanese jazz fans have just regarding certain songs. I don't find that in the American jazz market at all, it doesn't exist. There are no devotees in the States for "My Foolish Heart" or people who love "Autumn Leaves" and have every recording ever made of it. Or "Angel Eyes." There are certain songs, and of course in that culture there is a certain partiality to minor keys. Minor keys are part of what their passion is about. That's not saying they don't like songs in major keys, but there's a predilection among Japanese listeners for songs in minor keys. Minor keys seem to strike more emotional resonance overall. That's a very pronounced element of the Japanese jazz listener's profile.

AAJ: As an instrument, the piano seems particularly favored by Japanese listeners—piano trios, in fact.

TB: By far the most popular format for Japanese jazz recordings, for what Japanese fans will buy and support, is piano trio recordings. It comes, over the years I think, from great love for artists like Kenny Drew and his trio, Oscar Peterson and his trio, Ahmad Jamal and his trio. These groups had that emotional resonance with the Japanese jazz fans and popular music fans. It's the pristine nature of it, the classic dimensions of the piano, bass, and drums, in perfect balance and harmony with each other.

AAJ: It's like a string quartet in classical music.

TB: Right. It's the jazz version of a string quartet.

Then the second most popular format is the tenor saxophone with piano trio. But that doesn't really factor in the popularity of someone like Miles Davis, who defies all categories.

AAJ: Sure, or Art Blakey, whom you mentioned earlier.

TB: Or Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Now Art Blakey brings up an important part of the story. Art Blakey was one of the first jazz artists to become extremely popular, even on billboards, all throughout the Japanese scene. Papa-san was an icon, a folk hero, of pop star magnitude in Japan. He played everywhere, little clubs, big halls, all over that country, regularly. I became more aware of his status when I used to book him two weeks on his way to Japan, or two weeks on his way home from Japan, at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco. Even in the '70s his tours there were still going on, and they started in the '50s.

What happened after World War II is that in the rehabilitation of the Japanese state, or in the very transitory period of Occupation by the American government, the Japanese got on their feet again very quickly and developed a wonderful "new" culture. Two things, two American elements, really took root: baseball and jazz [bebop]. The Japanese adopted these things as their own. And American songs. The Great American Songbook, which had been popular, even before the war, became even more popular. All things American became more popular. But baseball and bebop, and hard bop eventually with Art Blakey, became exceptionally popular. That is what we are still experiencing today, a continuation and augmentation of that popularity.

Now it's true that the Japanese jazz market has "grayed," a lot like the American jazz market has. Many older listeners have continued to support the music, whereas it has been more of a challenge to reach out to and significantly develop a really large number and percentage of younger listeners. I disagree with recent articles in the press—Terry Teachout did something recently in the Wall Street Journal and there have been several others. I profoundly disagree with these articles on "the death of jazz." I think in many important ways the actual audience for real jazz is growing and more and more younger people are growing to appreciate jazz. I saw that great young audience when I was working at the original Keystone Korner in San Francisco and now I see it even more at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola and the other concert venues at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Twenty-year-olds screaming to Roy Haynes' drum solos, and (to) Charles McPherson's alto saxophone cadenzas.

The overriding reality operative here is that we have an entire "civilization" suffering from Attention Deficiency Disorder Syndrome, which makes it extremely difficult for any of us to concentrate on (anything) for more than a few moments.

It's just hard because of all the "background noise" there is in the culture—all the environmental buzz that we have to cut through. It's the cacophony of everyday modern life, the ADD/ADHD that our universal culture suffers from, the sensory bombardment. It's harder to cut through that media haze, for anything to be heard, much less some quality jazz. Anything of quality has a much harder time getting through. There is just more crap disseminated more effectively than there's ever been.

It's hard to know whom to "consult" with, if you're a jazz fan. Jazz critical writing doesn't pay very well, and as a result, writers are struggling to even make a living. So jazz doesn't always attract the highest level writers, the most discerning writers. There are a lot of writers who write about jazz who for whatever reasons just wind up writing little "puff pieces" or short little advertising blurbs instead of any incisive journalism or cogent analysis.

AAJ: Do you think young listeners are involved in jazz because of jazz education—in schools on all levels, including colleges and universities?

TB: Jazz students who are educated are a tremendous backbone of the music. We're graduating more jazz students than ever. They are a big part of the people who will support the music now, and long into the future. They are the future of the music.

AAJ: Do you have much of a sense of the jazz education scene in Japan?

TB: I really do not know very much about the jazz education scene or institutions in Japan.

I do know that jazz radio in Japan is struggling, to the point of being almost non-existent. In the States, it's different. There's the entire National Public Radio Network and a lot of small radio stations all over the United States which are still playing a lot of jazz music every day of the year. That is where the music lives, as well as in jazz clubs and concerts and in restaurants. And on Satellite Radio, which also reaches a lot of people. The Real Jazz Station on the Sirius/XM Satellite Jazz Network plays straight-ahead jazz seven days a week, 24 hours a day, including weekly live broadcast recordings from Dizzy's Club Coca Cola and historic jazz recordings from Keystone Korner in San Francisco.

AAJ: A little more about Venus Records. Do you have any new projects coming up for Venus?

TB: We just released one of my favorite Venus recordings of all time, a recording by trumpeter Brian Lynch and the Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra with Phil Woods, Bolero Nights for Billie Holiday (Venus Records, 2009), and we did a beautiful recording with Tessa Souter, a British jazz singer, called Nights of Key Largo (Venus Records, 2009), with Kenny Werner, Romero Lubambo, and Billy Drummond. We have great new projects with the Kenny Barron Trio, singer Alexis Cole with pianist Fred Hersch, the Eric Alexander Quartet, the Dan Nimmer Trio, John DiMartino and The Romantic Jazz Trio, the Joel Frahm Quartet, and the last recordings of Eddie Higgins.

The Japanese jazz audience is passionate and, more importantly, consistent. And very faithful. They hang in there, year after year.

AAJ: You said you communicate well with Mr. Hara. Do you know Japanese?

TB: I really know very little Japanese, perhaps only a few dozen words at most. The only really important thing is that Mr. Hara and I are good, longtime friends who like and totally respect each other and this music we both love so much, and (which we) try to serve as much as possible, jazz music. We both speak the language of jazz.

AAJ: You mentioned that you worked with Mr. Hara on the final Bill Evans recordings. Would you reflect further on them?

TB: Bill Evans was one of the most gentle, warm, and completely positive and non-complaining people I ever knew or worked with in my life. But when Bill started his final eight-night run with his trio at Keystone Korner in San Francisco, it was very apparent to all of us that he was struggling horribly with his health.

We introduced Bill to a couple of very good doctors who both strongly advised that he immediately go to the hospital to be put on a very special diet to try and avoid the liver failure that was soon to overtake his life. But it was also very clear that he did not want to voluntarily spend any time in any hospital or undergo any special treatment to try and save his life.

On the bandstand, for those last eight nights at Keystone Korner, Bill was surprisingly upbeat and animated and unusually "talkative" to the audience. Although he did not say anything to me that seemed at all fatalistic, he did make it a point to make sure that I was making board recordings of all the sets because, as he put it, "some nice moments are definitely happening and we really would not want to lose them."

And our spirits can cling to these music polka dots and moonbeams, to make even our heaviest hearts sing.

Photo Credits

Page 1: Peter Gontha

Page 2: Roberta Zlokower

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