Chris Robinson sees crystal clear through any blindfold test.
If you did a quick scan of the covers of Downbeat and JazzTimes in recent years along with their annual critics and readers polls, you’re bound to see the same names and faces come up again and again and again. Sure, a newly discovered Coltrane or Miles or Sonny Rollins live record is important, and I’ll read about anything that Kamasi Washington or Esperanza Spalding does. But there are more stories that aren’t being told and more voices that aren’t being heard. The musicians who recorded for the black-owned and operated Black Jazz Records in the early 1970s are precisely the kinds of stories, voices, and music we’ve been missing. Thankfully, the catalog of this relatively obscure label is now being reissued.
Pianist and record and concert promoter Gene Russell and percussionist and owner of Ovation Records Dick Schory founded Black Jazz in Oakland in 1971. Although the label only lasted four years and released 20 albums that quickly went out of print, its roster included artists who may have been little known to mainstream audiences, but who possessed deep jazz credentials. Their alumni recorded albums with a cult following among serious heads and crate diggers, which explains the steep Discogs prices for OG pressings. Over a dozen of the label’s albums are now available, with the rest presumably on the way.
Russell’s press release announcing the label got straight to the point: “Jazz is Black and must be kept that way.” One of the label’s promotional pamphlets (as quoted in the Washington Post) noted that “too many Black jazz artists are being denied to showcase their talents.” With Black Jazz Records, Russell asserted jazz as a singularly Black music and attempted to counter the decades-long attempts by white critics, record executives, and tastemakers to “universalize” jazz as a music for all people. Although musicians throughout the history of the music, from Duke Ellington to Archie Shepp to Nicholas Payton rejected the “jazz” label, Russell embraced it, taking ownership of the wide array of music that jazz could be. As Black Jazz’s catalog demonstrates, the term was all-encompassing, from hard bop and blues and funk to fusion, disco, and cosmic soul.
Black Jazz’s initial promotional materials drew the ire of eminent jazz critic Leonard Feather. In the Los Angeles Times Feather took an “all jazz matters” stance, deploring the separatist attitude he felt Russell’s press release represented, saying he was “reluctant to see any art form become the private preserve of black or white or any other people.” In an interview with Feather, Russell clarified what he meant in the press release:
“I don’t think you really understood what I was really saying. But I think Black people understood. You see, never in your life will you or any other white person say, ‘I know how you feel,’ because man, I wake up Black every day. My culture is chitlins and ham hocks… You see, this is what happens when a Black person makes a statement in this day and age. A group of people may say we want our own land, do our own thing—and the first thing white people will say is ‘racism.’ Yet his control of our people has been going on for hundreds of years. This is why I made the statement; I believe everybody should get their just dues.”
While not unprecedented, Black-owned and operated jazz labels are a rarity. Sun Ra’s Saturn Records was a paragon of jazz DIY. Charles Mingus and Max Roach started Debut Records in the 1950s and trumpeter Charles Tolliver and pianist Stanley Cowell founded the highly successful and influential Strata-East Records in 1971. At the same time, artist collectives such as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the Black Artists Group, and the Union of God’s Musicians and Artists Ascension were creating performance, recording, and educational spaces and opportunities for black musicians. Russell was part of this larger history and effort among black musicians and entrepreneurs to gain further control over their music and livelihoods.
Russell and Schory picked an awfully difficult time to start an independent jazz label. In 1971 jazz sales were a fraction of what they were a decade earlier and the hope of a small indie outfit getting wide distribution and airplay—let alone making structural changes to the jazz industry’s racial politics—was a tall order. Russell’s task was especially difficult given that the Black Jazz roster lacked serious star power along with the capital, infrastructure, and experience needed to compete.
By this time, the era’s biggest jazz labels were all imprints and subsidiaries of major labels. ABC-Paramount owned Impulse!—the home of John Coltrane. Liberty bought Blue Note in 1966, which was then absorbed by United Artists in 1970. Creed Taylor’s CTI label—which released scores of slickly produced commercial hits by the likes of George Benson and Stanley Turrentine—was owned by A&M. At the same time, these major labels featured star producers who have been responsible for shaping much of the history of recorded jazz from the 1950s to the present. But, despite being outclassed in resources and experience, Black Jazz managed to release an important body of work by musicians who might not have otherwise been heard. Here’s a few albums that speak to the label’s depth and breadth:
Doug Carn – Spirit of the New Land (1972)
Black Jazz’s marquee artist, Keyboardist Doug Carn, recorded one-fifth of the label’s output. His second album for the label, Spirit of the New Land), is an astral-cosmic masterpiece. Featuring his wife, vocalist Jean, it travels the same spaceways as those transited by Alice Coltrane, Lonnie Liston Smith, and Sun Ra (and now traveled by Kamasi Washington, Damon Lock’s Black Monument Ensemble, and Angel Bat Dawid).
The album is less a showcase for Carn as a band leader and primary focus, as it is a realization of his work as a musical architect. Rather than always taking the first solo or being the highest player in the mix, he writes soaring melodies for Jean — hanging shimmering keyboard chords in the air for the band to revel in, and setting up his horn players to tell impassioned musical stories. Jean’s vocals on “Arise and Shine” show off her powerful, full-bodied, and nimble voice. Backed by Alphonse Mouzon’s snappy drumming, Earl McIntyre’s burrowing tuba, and George Harper’s clarion soprano sax, Jean sings Doug’s consciousness-raising Black pride lyrics:
“Arise and shine, beautiful people arise, arise in the light of God’s wisdom, beautiful people arise/your time has come, beautiful people arise, create your ancestor’s vision, go back to your old time religion, shine in the light of God’s wisdom, beautiful people arise… You gotta see what you can do about getting yourself together/if our nation’s to be strong you gotta be prepared for any kind of weather… kings and queens arise, it’s time to visualize, it’s time to realize, beautiful people arise.”
The instrumental “Trance Dance” opens with kazoos, shakers, and little instruments a la the Art Ensemble of Chicago before transitioning into a sly and deceptively complicated groove, upon which trumpeter Charles Tolliver, Harper, and Doug take fiery solos. Carn and company also reimagine two standards: Miles Davis and Bill Evans’s “Blue and Green” and Lee Morgan’s “Search for the New Land,” both of which include Doug’s original lyrics. “Blue in Green” captures the pathos as heard on the original on Kind of Blue and Doug’s lyrics transform Morgan’s instrumental hard bop classic into a call for freedom and self-determination for all black people. In this way, Spirit of the New Land is Black Jazz’s artistic and social mission rendered in sound. Carn’s Revelation (1973) and Infant Eyes (1971) are also available. And he’s still prolific, releasing Jazz is Dead last year, alongside Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.
Rudolph Johnson – Spring Rain (1971)
While Carn may draw most of the attention to the label, there are several other excellent albums to dig into, such as tenor saxophonist Rudolph Johnson’s debut Spring Rain. The Columbus, Ohio, native has a big, bold tenor sound that immediately commands attention. Joined by pianist John Barnes, bassist Reggie Jackson, and drummer Raymond Pounds, Johnson jumps right out of the gate on the no-nonsense hard bop steamer “Sylvia Ann.” His tone, complex lines, and rhythmic approach are reminiscent of Coltrane, and his unorthodox note choices create biting tension. “Diswa” is a funky back beat soul jazz shakedown and on the stomping blues “Devon Jean,” Johnson channels the spirit of the honking, bar-walking tenor players of early rock and roll. He shows off his sensitive side on the delicate bossa nova “Fonda.” While light bossas can easily go into cruise ship schlock, Johnson is sultry; one gets the feeling his love letters were peppered with blush-inducing dirty talk.
The quartet works together as a band as opposed to just four guys brought in to make a record. This should come as no surprise given the group’s pedigree: Pounds had worked with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, and Pharoah Sanders, while John Barnes can be heard on several Motown records. Spring Rain is one Black Jazz’s can’t miss titles.
Calvin Keys – Shawn-Neeq (1971)
Guitarist Calvin Keys paid his dues playing with B3 organ masters Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, and Richard “Groove” Holmes. Here, he fronts a quintet rounded out by Larry Nash on piano and keys, Lawrence Evans on bass, Bob Braye on drums, and Owen Marshall on flute. The record opens with “B.E.” and its capacious, gaping Sun Ra space chord is filled with chimes, strummed guitar chords, and a throaty, singing bass clarinet (uncredited but presumably Marshall). Riding on a simple but catchy five note melody, the tune unfolds through a tasteful Keys solo, Marshall’s wailing bass clarinet, and a solo from Nash, who settles things down.
“Criss Cross” is a spirited, swinging blues, on which Keys digs in and is especially inventive, with single melodies tumbling out of his guitar in a seemingly unending supply. The title track is a waltz furnished by a bed of keys, cymbal rolls, and chimes. Keys’s gentle, unhurried runs sound as if he is pulling back the curtains on a sunny Sunday morning. The group isn’t so much playing a tune as it is capturing a moment through atmosphere and vibe.
Throughout the album Keys’s and Nash’s solos are relaxed, and economical, building phrase after phrase, telling a story along the way. Sometimes, however, the band sounds like it could have been a little better rehearsed. The ending to “B.E.” feels a bit ragged and the groove on “Criss Cross” sometimes falters. The album ends with the heavy back beat jam “B.K.” Nash’s snarling Fender Rhodes tears gashes in the sound, filling in the spaces in between Keys’s blues lines. Think Wes Montgomery standing in line to buy a ticket to Sun Ra’s Rocket Ship #9. Halfway through the nine minutes the group seems to run out of ideas and Nash, whose earlier presence was essential to the group’s energy, largely disappears. A more skilled producer could have helped give “B.K.” the shape it needed. Shawn-Neeq is close to being a classic record.
Cleveland Eaton – Plenty Good Eaton (1975)
Bassist Cleveland Eaton’s Plenty Good Eaton blows open what might count as “jazz,” drawing from several corners of Black popular music. Eaton, who died in 2020, spent twelve years in the Count Basie Band and recorded 17 albums with pianist Ramsey Lewis. Like any successful character actor, he’s one of those unsung musicians you’ve probably heard a million times and never learned his name. On Plenty Good Eaton, he pulled together a large ensemble with brass, woodwinds, and strings, giving the music a lush and often cinematic scale.
The party kicks in right away with the chicken-scratch guitar funk of “Chi-Town Theme,” which brings to mind Bohannon’s disco-funk and almost sets the listener up to expect an Isaac Hayes voiceover. “Moe Let’s Have a Party” makes no bones what it’s about. Except for the vocals chanting the song title, everything on these two cuts is in service to the groove, with no one voice taking the lead.
“Keena” is a melodic feature for the string section that could be the music for a film’s closing credits, while “Are You Out There Somewhere Caring” is a soulful r&b vocal track. Where Side A was dedicated to the ensemble laying down a groove and letting it ride, Side B showcases the band’s soloists. “Kaiser 405” has a Kansas City big band style, where horns and strings play short riffs over Eaton’s walking bass line before making way for a series of swinging solos. “All Your Love All Day All Night” is another blaxploitation funk track with spoken-sung male vocals that elaborate on the song title and features a ripping trombone solo.
The album closes with “Hamburg 302,” a hard charging set piece showcasing several members of the band. Plenty Good Eaton is one of the most stylistically, sonically, and instrumentally varied albums in the Black Jazz catalog, and that variation and combination of elements is representative of the label’s sound as a whole—based in the blues and radiating outward.
Roland Haynes – Second Wave (1975)
Keyboardist Roland Haynes’s Second Wave is as tantalizing as it is frustrating. It’s Haynes’s only record as a leader, so its reissue is important on that basis alone. Haynes’s band—Kirk Lightsey on Fender Rhodes, bassist Henry Franklin, and drummer Carl Burnett—is stacked: their collective resumes include work with Ornette Coleman, Vince Guaraldi, Hugh Masekela, Cal Tjader, Art Pepper, Chet Baker, and Pharaoh Sanders, among others.
Despite the firepower and the appeal of two crackling Rhodes keyboards squaring off, Second Wave lacks a grounding point and never quite gels. It doesn’t know what it wants to be: the weird avant-funk kid brother of Miles’ On the Corner, or the more mainstream soul jazz girl who lives next door to Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”
In this in-between land it can sound like Dali’s melting clock trying to tell time—the hands are moving, but maybe not always in the same direction. Franklin, who recorded The Skipper (1972) and The Skipper at Home (1974) for Black Jazz, and Burnett do what they can to make the album work. On the title track Burnett lays down a crisp groove that would leave Clyde Stubblefield salivating, but the keys just kind of noodle, with Lightsey adding some color here and there through what sounds like a wah pedal.
The driving “Kristin’s Place” has some phosphorescent interaction between Haynes and Lightsey, but then the ballad waltz “Aicelis” gets stuck in the mud. On the last track, “Funky Mama Moose,” the band finally sorts out its identity: kings of the radio-friendly soul jazz boogie-down. It’s the clearest indication of what might have been. In the background this album is exciting. But listening with closer ears it becomes clear that even with the flashes of electricity throughout, this band with heaps of potential simply needed an identity.
In addition to these releases, the Black Jazz catalog includes albums from Russell, vocalist Kellee Patterson, keyboardist Chester Thompson, bassist Henry Franklin, pianist Walter Bishop Jr., and the Chicago-based sextet The Awakening. Going through these albums now it’s somewhat ironic and unfortunate that a label founded on Black ownership designed to foreground the music of Black people (although Black Jazz’s status as a black-owned label has recently come into question) is now owned by a label that specializes in repressing deluxe LP editions of records by Vanessa Carlton, Soul Asylum, Paris Hilton, the Grateful Dead, and The Bangles. Given this, it’s clear that Russell wasn’t able to make the systemic change to the recording industry and wrestle back the ownership of jazz to Black people that he had hoped.
However, the only way that kind of change is going to happen is through people like Russell who have a vision and the desire to put in the work. It comes from the bottom up.
Despite Black Jazz’s relatively small output and the scarcity of its albums over the past 40-50 years, the label held a great deal of importance for the musicians it worked with. As Franklin told the Washington Post, while he never received royalties from his albums “it gave us musical credits. This is where we could get in the door.” And getting in the door was the way to have a voice. With these reissues, now we can hear them.