04/22/11 By Sylvia Levine Leitch
Joel Chriss: Truth in the Music
Jazz booking agent tells his story of starting out as a doorman at the Bottom Line and Sweet Basil, sidetracking into journalism and ticket scalping, and culminating in running J. Chriss & Co.
Joel Chriss, a great fan of jazz music, and a booking agent for more than 25 years, tells his story of starting out as a doorman at the Bottom Line and Sweet Basil, sidetracking into journalism and ticket scalping, and culminating in running J. Chriss & Co., an artist-centered agency that at its peak booked 500-600 shows a year.
- Sylvia Levine Leitch
Music has always been part of my life. From the age of four onward I heard a lot of music. We lived across the street from the Brooklyn Museum and my father would take me to symphonic concerts there. I went to a great grammar school—the best education of my life was in Brooklyn through sixth grade—Pete Seeger and other folk singers came in to perform for the kids. Everybody—our friends and family—listened to music on the radio too. My father was a big opera buff and had a minor interest in jazz, up to bebop: jazz lost him at bebop but he loved swing and early jazz. So I’d hear everyone from Wagner to Charlie Christian at home. The first thing my dad would do when we moved apartments was hook up his little hi-fi set, one of those Fisher tube things with a turntable. We always had music.
We moved out to Great Neck, Long Island, in 1969 in time for me to go to junior high and high school; I just naturally gravitated to the kids who played music. My father gave me a Gretsch drum kit, which he probably got from a legal client who couldn’t pay him in cash, and at 12 or 13 I started playing drums: took some lessons, went everywhere with my practice pad, and at the same time developed an insatiable appetite for rock and roll music.
Rock and roll really drew me in even before that, with the British Invasion and bands like Freddie and the Dreamers, Herman’s Hermits, of course the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five, Jerry and the Pacemakers, Paul Revere and the Raiders. We first got hooked on that music in Brooklyn, and listened continuously—my cousins, friends, my sister, we were all into it. Every car trip, every sleepover was a singalong. My sister and I would play this game in the car of humming the rhythms of a tune and trying to guess the melody.
Big Venue, Enthusiastic Crowd—First Time
In Great Neck I found friends ( lifelong friends, it turned out) interested in country rock: Buffalo Springfield, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, Loggins and Messina. That music really got under my skin. In my early teens I got my first taste of the excitement, the electricity, of a big concert hall filled with music fans. A couple of us took the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan for a Carnegie Hall concert of Delaney and Bonnie and Friends with Eric Clapton and Billy Preston, and the first Loggins and Messina show—before the record came out. Well, I had been to some small rock concerts and heard symphony orchestras, but I had never experienced the enthusiasm of a rock and roll crowd. I thought news of this crowd’s excitement would be on the front page of The New York Times the next day, but I found out that this kind of event happened all the time.
This same friend, a very precocious kid, Bobby, discovered that if you wrote to record labels and told them that you were covering music for your school newspaper, they would send you LPs. So by the age of 14, he had a huge record collection. I would go to his house and we would listen to everything from the Beach Boys to John Coltrane.
There was an important club in Roslyn, Long Island, called My Father’s Place and kids who were also musicians and I would go there with our fake ID. No one would serve us drinks because we clearly weren’t old enough, but I guess the club owners could tell we needed to hear the music. We were basically obsessed with rock and roll—discovering bands before they became bigger names, tracing the genealogy of the bands—and prided ourselves on knowing who was who. At My Father’s Place there was all kinds of music—from Hall and Oates before they became popular to Count Basie, Joe Williams, very early Spyro Gyra, and some of the early CTI artists like Joe Farrell.
At some point I discovered the Bottom Line and some of the other Manhattan clubs of the early 1970s and really began to hear a broader spectrum of music. I still had a desperate love affair with rock and roll, but for example, I was at a Warner Brothers show when they were starting out their jazz label—somehow I found out about this show—and they were trying to decide who to sign. So there was Rahsaan [Roland Kirk], Pat Martino, and George Benson playing at this one show. George was just letting people know that he could sing and be an entertainer; I had been following him as an amazing guitar player and had picked up those CBS records with the black and white covers. Looking for what the next musical step for me, for my listening should be, I went back to the roots of rock to the blues, to the ancestors, and listened to Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson…
Bobby and I would go to concerts in New York. We also went to Max’s Kansas City at Park Avenue and 16th Street. Patti Smith and the whole Andy Warhol crowd would hang out there. I remember hearing Alex Chilton, the Box Tops, at Max’s. I got a whiff of that Andy Warhol/Lou Reed scene. But a truly memorable experience was the night we went to the Village Vanguard. Neither of us knew of it before. But we had heard about something great going on there and we went. Well, when we got there, we discovered that the cover charge was way beyond what we could pay. So we sat down on the steps in that hallway on the other side of the door— to maybe hear a little something. After about 10 to 15 minutes, Max Gordon opened the door and waved us in. It was Keith Jarrett’s original American quartet with Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian.
Nothing was ever the same after that. I had no idea what I was listening to. That music was way beyond my consciousness level at that time. But I knew it was powerful, knew there was communication going on up on that bandstand that I wanted to understand but didn’t. Seeing and hearing these artists truly enticed me and raised my curiosity toward other musical and communication levels—these guys felt different to me. It seemed like they possessed some secret knowledge or understanding. They looked like they were committed to something beyond anything I had ever experienced. And their playing indicated that there was a level of music that was way beyond what I knew.
My other teenage passion was ice hockey. And that was how I got into college, because I was an all-Long Island hockey player. I applied late but was able to make the team at Ithaca College, which I chose because I had friends in the area. I wasn’t really studying music so I couldn’t get in on my musicianship, but hockey—I went to my first Rangers game in 1961 and it made a lasting impression. It was in the old Madison Square Garden, Rangers vs. Detroit Red Wings with Gordie Howe. Alex Delvecchio, and Rangers Andy Bathgate and Dean Prentiss . Like the first rock and roll concert I went to years later, I had never seen that kind of enthusiasm and passion in the spectators, screaming at every goal, every hit, every fight. And it was a memorable game—the most penalty minutes of all time up to that point. The legendary Terry Sawchuck fought Gump Worsley.
My first day at college I bought a guitar. Right away, I was torn between music and hockey. I was there to play hockey and I loved it, but I was hanging out with people who listened to music all day. My first weekend at school I reconnected with my old sixth grade buddy Bobby Stein; we went to a concert over at Cornell, the very early Weather Report on a double bill with John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He and I had heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra in Central Park. I remember I went right out after that and bought Inner Mounting Flame.
So my musical tastes were developing, although I had not lost interest in rock and roll. I signed up for guitar lessons at school, but it was classical guitar and it was beyond my abilities. I didn’t even have calluses. It requires years to learn the basics and a lifetime to become a musician, but I stuck with it and learned, and have not really put it down since, close to 40 years. Between playing and listening, I really wanted to develop a more sophisticated way of engaging with music. I wanted to become a player, or at least a more serious listener.
I left Ithaca College after one semester—I was on the bench and it was frustrating; I remember coming home to New York during a big ice storm, and my dad was kind of relieved not to have the expenses of room and board. So I signed up at Hofstra and decided I wanted to write about music. I took some journalism courses and when I met the editor of the school paper, we hit it off right away—he immediately gave me four LPs and said, “Review them.” Luckily, this was stuff I knew: Hall and Oates, Jackson Browne, so the writing came naturally. I did that for two semesters but had a hard time getting to school—15 miles away on the highway—without a car. I dropped out and went to work for a sports newspaper, which turned out to be more of a gambling rag than anything. But this was in New York and I got to go out to all the clubs at night.
Listening to and Playing Jazz Guitar
While I was at Hofstra I also connected with Mathew, a good guitar teacher from Long Beach. He was a fine player who had a picture of Charlie Parker in his kitchen and one of Ornette in his bedroom. He turned me on to Bird and all of Bird’s disciples, as well as some Herbie Hancock tunes—not that I could play them, but they got in my ear. And he turned me on to Joe Pass: I had never heard a guitar player play like that! So I listened to Sounds of Synanon, Django and the Clare Fisher record, his stuff with the Jazz Crusaders and Les McCann, Gerald Wilson, I just developed as full an understanding as I could of Joe Pass. Then I got into Jim Hall and at that time a record came out of his, Live. It was more uptempo than the other stuff I had heard of his and it was swinging. Then I went back and listened to all of his older recordings with Chico Hamilton, Paul Desmond, Bill Evans, Billy Taylor, the clarinet player Bill Smith. I had a strong desire to understand and really dig deep inside this music—and I was now listening, since the Village Vanguard night, to Milt Jackson, Freddie Hubbard, Trane, Sam Rivers, Wes Montgomery, following all the places that the music can take you.
Now I was 20 years old, hanging out, taking the LIRR into town, going to the Bottom Line, Gregory’s, the Vanguard, Boomer’s—I used to hear Clifford Jordan and Cedar Walton there all the time. (Actually, I’d been hanging out at Gregory’s even before that, when I was a teenager, with Jack Wilkins, Atilla Zoller, Chuck Wayne—Albert Dailey used to play there.) There was also the Brecker Brothers’ club, where the Breckers, Jaco Pastorius and Mike Stern used to hang out, and, later Sweet Basil.
I had a girlfriend in school at Stony Brook, so I went back to college and majored in history and journalism. The first course I ever took was with a New York Times writer, Irving Molotsky. He opened the semester by promising an automatic A to anyone who could name the only opera Beethoven ever wrote. Well, my dad's opera enthusiasm came in handy. No one else even guessed. "That would be Fidelio," I said. I did get the A but I went to classes anyway, and he was very encouraging. I worked with the college newspaper, The Stony Brook Statesman, and because it came out three times a week—way more than most college papers— I was able to build up my writing chops. I was arts editor and started the section "Proscenium," where we reviewed books, theatre, stuff on campus.
Discovering Sonny Rollins
Stony Brook had some very good concerts while I was there. Along with James Taylor, the Doobie Brothers and Carly Simon, I heard Sam Rivers, Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins. Some weren't even well attended. Sonny was in a 250-seat theatre and there were probably only 100 people there. That was when he had just signed with Fantasy. Looking back, it was probably a comeback time, a resurgence time in his career. The record "Nucleus" had come out on Fantasy, which I still love; maybe it‘s not classic Sonny, but it was the first one I had heard. Then I went back and listened to all the earlier stuff, with him and Max Roach, with Clifford Brown, Kenny Dorham, and became enamored with the sound, ideas, look and life of Sonny.
After graduation I moved to Woodside, Queens, in a two-bedroom apartment. I rented out the other bedroom and had enough money to hit the clubs six or seven nights a week, something I was to keep up for years, while I looked for jobs in music journalism—you know, use my education as a means for career development. I wrote for some local publications: I got a number of bylines in Good Times, a Village Voice knockoff based on Long Island. I did get a few assignments after sending resumes to literally dozens and dozens of publications: I covered Sonny Rollins at Carnegie Hall, Gato Barbieri, Codona (Colin Walcott, Don Cherry, Nana Vasconcelos), but not much money.
To add to my meager income, I went to the Bottom Line—where I'd been hanging out for years anyway—and asked Allan Pepper for a job. This was 1979. He hired me to be floor manager/doorman. It paid a couple of bucks and I got to eat for free. I got to hear everybody: Bruce Springsteen hung there, Sonny Rollins played the Bottom Line in those years, and comedy acts, some amazing comedy improvisers. Uncle Floyd was a regular there [writer: didn't know anyone else loved Uncle Floyd, we used to see him on public access TV in the middle of the night].
Dressing Room Access
Often I’d go in the dressing rooms to give the artists whatever they asked for and cleaned up after the show and that’s likely where I got comfortable being in the dressing rooms or other areas where artists hung out between sets. Sometimes I slept in the sound tech booth instead of going home to Queens and went to a day gig I had for a couple of months at a vanity publishing house right from there. I found a Y I could shower at on the way. Allan Pepper remained a friend long after that, well into my career as an agent.
Trying to piece together a living this way wasn't working out great so eventually my father said, "Joel, if you want to be a journalist, you've got to be able to write about anything, not only music." He suggested I try trade magazines; I didn't even know what they were. But I sent out my resume to a bunch of them and got a job. I eventually worked for all kinds of food magazines, among them Dairy Field and, for four years, Natural Foods, and other industry and consumer publications.
Even with my day job, I was still playing guitar, going out to the clubs all the time, and developing my record collection of about 4,000 LPs, listening voraciously. So when the publishing company got sold, I thought I'd take some time off.
I became a ticket scalper for a while—Yankees and Mets tickets—during the years when they were both very competitive and there was good money in it as well as the opportunity to see the games. I'd get arrested from time to time; there are actually holding cells down in the basements of both Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium. They don't take you down to the precinct. No, it's down to the holding cell with the professional scalpers until the fifth inning, then they let you go. Still, that’s not really a career path.
My love and knowledge of jazz music helped me get the next job, one that was really way over my head. I answered an ad in The New York Times for a marketing specialist for Meredith Publications. The woman who interviewed me was on her way to a Duke Ellington Society party right after. I was enthusiastic and we talked about the great bands, Ben Webster, Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges. I knew way more than she did about Duke even though I was only 26. So she hired me. My colleagues were Princeton and Dartmouth business and journalism grads and they were in a different league. It was tense and I lasted less than a year, but I got a serious education that turned out to be invaluable.
I went to Mel and Phyllis at Sweet Basil and asked for a job. I’d been hanging out there practically from the first day it was open, before they owned it [writer: see the interview with Cho in this series for more on early Sweet Basil]. The first show at the club, I recall, was Barney Kessell and Herb Ellis; all the great guitar players played there, and I’d hear McCoy Tyner and Art Blakey there as well. So Mel and Phyllis already knew me, as did a lot of the musicians.
I was never afraid to get friendly with the players all those years I was hanging out, maybe that started when I worked at the Bottom Line and my job involved going into the dressing room. But I would go to the Village Gate, for example, knock on the dressing room door and hang out with Sonny Stitt like I belonged. I don’t know why that felt ok to me, but it did. I hung out in the kitchen at the Village Vanguard long before I had any reason to be there. Musicians didn’t care. I followed Dexter Gordon and Sonny Stitt around, everywhere they played. There was a year or two when they were hanging out a lot together in New York, and playing together too. One place on Fifth Avenue in particular, Chopped Meat Charlie’s or something like that, was a hamburger joint, but they had a music room, the Jazz Emporium, and Sonny and Dexter used to hang out there quite a bit for a while. One would have the gig and the other would sit in or vice versa. It was amazing. I’d sit at the bar, which was very close to the band; I’d even follow them right into the bathroom and watch them get high! Anyway, I got to know a number of musicians; I think they saw that it was more than just fandom, I was seriously interested in learning about the music, about the life, about understanding who they were.
So when I got the gig at Sweet Basil, I had some background. I was prepared to go to all the jazz clubs to find a job, but Mel and Phyllis needed a door guy right away. The title was Floor Manager/Doorman, but it was really a doorman gig. I think Steve took my job when I left [see the interview with Steve in this series]. I have to say that by this time, my father thought I was wasting my life away. Many years later, after Chriss & Company became successful, he said to me, “I just couldn’t imagine in those years that you were actually developing a specialty that would allow you to make a living for yourself.” He became a great supporter when I figured a way to make a life in the music.
I started thinking about how the business of music works. I asked the bartender, Cho, “How does this run? I mean, how do the musicians, the different bands get the jobs, get to the bandstand?” Cho explained: “They have agents. Mel and Phyllis talk to the agents, or sometimes to the artists directly. They work out a deal and the band is given a date.” Hmm, I thought. Agents? I started hanging out a little more after the club closed, talking to them and to Allyson [see her interview in this series], and a couple of other people who worked there, drinking cognac, asking questions and getting a feel for how it all worked. One day, I said to Cho, “Hey, if any of these agent types come into the club, could you point them out to me?” Cho, of course, said he would.
Turning Point: Working as a Booking Agent
Cho called me over one night during a McCoy Tyner week. “See that guy over there? He’s McCoy’s agent—Abby Hoffer.” So I introduced myself and asked him if I could come to his office sometime. “I’m interested in what you do,” I told him. He said I could call him the next day. So I did. I got his wife Terry on the phone and talked her ear off for a good long time, probably more than half an hour. Well, she must have liked something about me because she said, finally, “You know, Abby’s not really looking to hire someone. But I’ve really enjoyed our phone conversation. So come in tomorrow or the next day, and I’ll make sure he has time to talk with you.” I did that and he was pretty brusque: “Listen,” he said, “don’t give me the hullaballoo you told my wife about how much you know about music. We’ve already had people work here who know the music, the musicians, but that doesn’t sell the music. It’s tough work, you’ve got to pound the phones, go through that Rolodex every week, just make calls, calls, calls. It’s tedious; it’s a pain in the butt. I’ll pay you $100 a week.”
I told Mel and Phyllis about the interview and that Abby said he’d hire me. They told me I had to choose. I couldn’t work at the club and for an agent. I didn’t see the conflict at the time but they did. So I thought about it—I’d been at Sweet Basil about six months—and decided to go with Abby. I went from making $48,000 a year at Meredith Publications to earning $50 a night at Sweet Basil to $100 a week with Abby Hoffer. Financially speaking, I was going downhill fast. But in some mystical way, I thought I was making progress. I mean, I knew all along that being a doorman would be a stepping stone. But when I started, I had thought it might lead to one day managing or owning a club or going into the food and beverage area in a room with music. I knew that I wasn’t going to be working at a club staying out till 2 or 3 a.m., falling asleep on the subway, forever. There was a lot about working in the club that I liked, meeting the artists especially. I didn’t have to break up fights at Sweet Basil. Look at me, I’m no bouncer. They’d assign me a bouncer at the Bottom Line—there were fights there, for sure, and John Curtin was the bouncer. (I ran into him years later at the Blue Note, he’s passed away now.) Maybe David Murray and Ming had a fight at Sweet Basil while I was there!
So, the first day, Abby says, “Here’s a desk, here’s a phone, here’s the roster list. Go to work.” It didn’t take long to see that Abby had all the “A” accounts, his son Paul had all the “B” accounts, and I got what was left over—little or nothing. However, cold calls would come in and the two women who ran the front office would decide where to send these calls. I got friendly with these women, taking them to lunch, buying little gifts—a charm offensive. It worked because I had no competition! Abby and Paul, the whole family, really, were kind of out of touch and we didn’t see the business or music in the same way.
But I stayed two and a half years with Abby Hoffer. I knew I needed an education in the business. Even if they didn't teach me directly, I learned by osmosis. I worked in the office in the day and hung out in the clubs at night. Terry, Abby's wife, used to warn me: "You can't be both a day person and a night person." "Well," I'd think, "watch me!" So I'd strut in at 11 a.m. when I was supposed to be in at 10—and tell them the truth, I was out looking for new clients. I wasn't in the business to be disconnected from the music. I wanted to become part of it, to be an agent who represented artists out of a desire to see those artists succeed, because I loved who they were and what they did. I needed to be around the musicians, hear what they were doing, become more knowledgeable about the music, not only for the business but also for my own personal pleasure and growth.
I asked Abby why he couldn’t give me more money or at least a commission on money I brought in. He told me I was crazy. “You’re going to be an expense for at least six months: You’ll have to listen, develop relationships with promoters, it’ll be months down the road before you start making us any money.” But by the end of the first week I had booked three dates. By the end of the first month I had 15. They weren’t big dates, but they were dates. I filled in some free days on McCoy Tyner’s itinerary and on Stephane Grapelli’s, maybe one or two for Phil Woods or Johnny Griffin. Itineraries were in big loose leaf binders at the time and I remember flipping through them looking for open dates. I had earned my salary for the first eight months in a month.
My secret weapon was an incredibly generous gesture from Art Blakey’s road manager, Mark Romero, before I left Sweet Basil. Art was playing the club that week and I told Mark that I was going to try working as an agent. I asked him if there was any way that I could see the Messengers’ itinerary to get an idea of how it all worked. Well, he brought in a big memo book full of the dates for the previous five years! I had that book when I went to Abby’s. That’s how I was able to start booking dates so fast. I could call these places, bring up that Art had played at their venue or festival, and buyers would feel that I was in the loop.
So I went back to Abby and said, “Abby, this is inequitable.” He said, “Ok, you’ve got $150 a week.” Then two months’ later, “Ok, you’ve got two percent commission”—or maybe it was five percent on everything I booked, something like that. Within about seven months I was making about $250. I could pay the bills.
I started to bring in artists—with not only no encouragement from Abby, but his antipathy. He didn’t think I could spot talent. “Nobody you bring in here will be bookable,” he’d say. Well, call it the cockiness of youth, whatever, I thought I could do it. “Maybe not right away,” I’d say, “but I can bring in people worth developing, and in a year from now, we can book them.” “What garbage,” he’d come back with. “I hear this stuff all the time and the band is someone’s relative or their wife’s relative.” What can you say to that? But I did tell him that people I brought in would be on the scene for a very long time.
Art Blakey Lends a Hand Again
Art Blakey was again indirectly responsible for helping me out. The first artists I brought in were Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison; I had gotten friendly with Blakey and knew Donald and Terence when they were with Art. When they started their own group, I invited them to meet Abby. I believe he was shocked when he met them and heard the music. I actually could spot talent!
That was an important first step in establishing my presence. I can’t tell you who worked out and who didn’t, but Terence and Donald were well respected and that gave me some cred. The next person I brought in was Kevin Eubanks, who I had first met at a Chinatown bar where he was playing with Sam Rivers. I thought he was a unique guitar player; he had been with Arista when Bruce Lundvall was there (Kevin was part of an Arista concert at Carnegie Hall) and later on moved to GRP. Then there was Cassandra Wilson, Geri Allen, and Bobby Watson— I brought them to the agency and they were all bookable or became bookable.
Abby and Paul held tightly onto all the best and most frequent presenters and were booking the bands that I brought them at all the venues with reasonable budgets. I told Abby it didn’t seem right that I introduced all these new artists to the agency and didn’t get compensated when they were booked in the better venues. I thought I should get a small percentage when artists I was responsible for got booked.” “Absolutely not,” was the reply. “Are you sure about that?” I asked. “Yeah,” he said. “We’ll see what happens in a few years.” I began to plan my departure.
The Abby Hoffer office was a duplex. I made my move one day when everyone was upstairs in a meeting with McCoy Tyner. It wasn't planned exactly. I had brought a canvas bag because I was staying at my girlfriend's place that night and had a few things with me. But I was alone downstairs and I realized: This is the time. I put my rolodexes, log books, and some directories in that bag and yelled upstairs, "Hey, Abby, have a good weekend." I never came back. I did see him over the weekend at the Blue Note—Stephane Grappelli was playing there—and told him in person that I was leaving the agency. Encouraging? No. He said, "If you're going to start your own agency, that's a stupid idea. It's a crazy business and besides, there's a whole level of finance that you don't know anything about —it requires that you hire people, have a knowledge of accounting. Don't try it."
J. Chriss & Co. Opens for Business
Next day, I started making calls. I was still living in Queens. There weren't any computers in our business yet and everything happened on the phone and in the mail. You had to make packages to send out and give away. I called Betty Carter and she said, “List me.” It wasn’t exclusive but I could put her on my client list. The same with Bobby Watson, Geri Allen, Kevin Eubanks and Emily Remler. I didn’t call any of Abby’s clients except to let them know that I’d left—and I got a lot of positive feedback, regrets from artists that they didn’t have me to deal with at Abby’s office.
Within a few months, I had put together a pretty good roster. Without any solicitation Johnny Griffin called me, later so did Phil Woods, and then I heard from many artists who might have gone to Abby first in the past, to see if I was interested in representing them. It was a good time to be an agent for musicians here in the U.S. and abroad: the European festival scene was pretty strong at that time; they had just developed the federation of festivals, banding together to block book tours so that they could bring in many of the same artists.
I hired a friend to help me organize the business; he was out of work at the time and I was glad to have his skills, even though he wasn’t into jazz particularly. Then I hired a guy right out of the University of Michigan that I met at a panel discussion. My mother worked for me for 14 years. I had the good fortune or the knack for hiring the right people at the right time. The music was so vital to me and I think lots of artists and promoters were attracted to the agency because they felt my passion. Seth Abramson, for example, who now books the Jazz Standard, was a long-term employee, and I think stayed with the agency because of its artist-centered culture. Eric Addeo, who now has his own agency, was with me for 13 years. Brian Friedman became a comedy agent. Sam Kaufman went into music marketing. A lot of good people came through as employees and a lot of great people came through as artists. I was extremely fortunate over the course of about 23 years, from 1986-87 to 2008 to have worked with not only established giants like Johnny Griffin, Max Roach, and Phil Woods, but top emerging players too.
So many artists worked with J. Chriss & Co.: Dave Holland, Joe Lovano, Cassandra Wilson, Pat Martino, Bill Charlap, Dave Douglas, so many amazing musicians. We worked really hard at it and I’m proud of the job we did. I created a life and a business that provided immense pleasure. Some artists stick around for many years, and some don’t. As loyal as musicians may want to be or say they want to be, when they feel they’ve gone as far with you as they can, even if they’re wrong, they tend to try somewhere else to know if it is possible to get to that next level. That’s the reality you have to live with and sometimes a heart-wrenching aspect of the business.
The Fluidity of the Jazz Life
At its peak J. Chriss & Company was one of the most active booking agencies in the world. It certainly was not like other businesses. What I’ve spent my life doing over the past 26 years has been a continuing education, more than a bit mind twisting, but I’ve done what I wanted to do. There is a fluidity to everything that goes on in the music booking, management and production business. It’s not always, “Hey, we’ve put together this tour” and everybody does it. So many things can go wrong and they all have to go right or the whole sand castle crumbles. Everything is in motion all the time. At the peak of J. Chriss & Co., with 500 to 600 dates booked a year, there were multiple crisis to be managed every day: people got sick, people cancelled, sometimes one side or the other would try to renegotiate at the eleventh hour. It’s a unique perch into the human heart and mind: competing interests and everyone involved trying to get a seat at the table—literally, musical chairs.
The old school business pros and musicians were masters at finding ways to squeeze more money out of any situation: It was not that unusual for someone to sign a contract, wait till the promoter publicized the event, and then demand more money. So you learn how to cope and what your breaking points are, what your limitations are in dealing with human beings who are capable of a whole range of behaviours—from the most altruistic and giving to, really, near criminal! It’s an education like nothing else I could have had.
Putting It All Together—Recording and Touring
At the same time as I was putting J. Chriss & Company together, I worked as an A & R man for Arabesque Records. They asked me to manage the label when I Ieft Abby Hoffer, but I thought I could still work with them in some other capacity while building my agency. So I got my brother hired to run the label—at that time their focus was mostly classical with a few jazz releases by Billy Taylor—with an agreement that we could actively pursue recording jazz. I brought in the music and my brother did most of the heavy lifting. Over the years we recorded Charles McPherson, Art Farmer, Dave Douglas, Ray Drummond, Jane Ira Bloom, Thomas Chapin, Edward Wilkerson, Jr., Frank Foster, Carmen Lundy, Bobby Sanabria, Craig Handy, Horace Tapscott, and Billy Hart—that’s a partial list. We released around 75 CDs before the business climate changed and the financial backer became less reliable. Having a label to record some of my artist clients on opened up another dimension for my own expression: It was kind of a complementary way to support artists, and build audiences within a creative process and with gifted musicians.
Someone else that I worked closely with and formed a lasting friendship with was Paxton Baker. I met him in the mid 1980s; he was booking music as a student at Temple University. We worked on a Kevin Eubanks concert date together that was cancelled because of a blizzard; but that was the start of a strong friendship, which led to creating a jazz circuit in the Caribbean where Paxton had made important contacts. He’d come to New York from Philly and hang at my place, talk till the wee small hours, listen, dream about a life in the music, brainstorm. To get ahead in anything, I think you have to build alliances, relationships, with people who share your passion, and are also willing to put time, energy and brains into figuring out how to live the life imagined. Paxton and I never forgot those early days. Now, 25 years later, he just donated some musical charts and other possessions of the Dizzy Gillespie estate that he owned to Jazz at Lincoln Center.
An Open Door
My apartment has always been open to musicians who live and play in New York. In addition, a few jazz heavyweights who didn’t live here called my place home when they came to New York City: Johnny Griffin, Mal Waldron, Von Freeman and others I can’t even remember always had a bed or couch to sleep on in the Village.
Griffin’s health was in serious decline the last time he visited New York. I recall that it was one of the big Jewish holidays—Yom Kippur maybe. Griffin was opening at the Blue Note for a couple of nights and then going on to Duke University for a few days of concerts, clinics and workshops. On the morning of the first night at the Blue Note, Griff was clearly struggling just to get out of bed. I took him to the hospital, to St. Vincent’s in the Village, and he was checked in. At the very least he needed some IV nutrition and hydration. Well, around 5 p.m. he looked at me, squeezed out a smile, and said, “Get me out of here. I’ve got musicians waiting for me.” He made the gig and went on to Duke. I’ll never forget his courage and determination. He returned home to the south of France where he’d lived since the 1960s, and I never saw him again.
His was the generation that lifted my own personal bandstand. Bebop, the language and the great practitioners, grabbed my soul early and completely. I need all kinds of music in my life, but my music and soul models from my early teens on were: Griffin, Phil Woods, Jackie McLean, Bud, Dizzy, Dexter, Sonny, Blakey, Stitt, Brownie, Miles and Trane. Most of that generation is gone but I still hear their voices—I could list many more, Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Art Farmer, George Adams, Don Pullen, Clifford Jordan, Art Taylor—so many singular sensations that won’t pass this way again.
A New Era—Decision Time
By 2008 the business started to tail off. You could see the political landscape changing—Republicans paying off their debts. A big change was that the recording industry was no longer a prime mover in the marketing end of the business. I used to be able to call up people like Matt Pierson, Bruce Lundvall, Tom Everett, and George Butler at the major labels and say, “If you want to get your new signings—say Jacky Terrasson or Cyrus Chestnut—on the road, let’s make a tour plan.” I could go into their offices, make a proposal, and something—maybe $5000 or $10,000—would come through for the tour. When it wasn’t money, it might be tickets, or a big PR push for radio. The labels were a powerful source of marketing/promotion in our world—a speck of beach sand compared to other, more commercial styles, but they could pledge something you could take to promoters with the hope of persuading them to book your clients.
That conversation could no longer be had in 2007, 2008. But labor costs and real estate costs were not going down. The era of booking 500-600 dates a year was over, for me. So I made a strategic decision to get out of that office with its $6000 price tag and alert my employees that they would have to find other work; a quarter of a million in salaries was no longer feasible. Most of my decisions were based on gut instinct and that’s still the way I operate. I'm working with fewer artists now but doing other things that are more interesting to me at this point in time. But booking/management will always be a part of my daily work. I’m excited about creating new performance opportunities and developing the next generation of music appreciators and, of course, working with amazing new artists. Really, I’m just trying to contribute in ways that make sense to me now.
As much as the business of music—of all the arts—is going through an upheaval and nobody knows where it’s leading, there are many musicians who really excite me. All of us who care have to invent the next economic model. Transitions are tense but I believe jazz and its principles have to be central to reorienting the world if we’re going to keep our humanity as we progress.
The current generation of players and all generations , say the musicians of Peter's [referring to Peter Leitch, the writer's husband] generation who are still playing continue to inspire me. I mean, I just got hip to Don Friedman; rediscovering people like Peter or Don when they have reached master level is exciting, as is discovering younger artists who are really committed. Maybe the psychology has changed a little, but the commitment is there: Jon Irabagon , Myron Walden, Brian Blade, Jaleel Shaw, Bill McHenry, Michael Formanek, Marty Ehrlich, Myra Melford, Jane Ira Bloom, J.D. Allen—so much inspiring music. But the reactionary forces will continue to present obstacles and challenges.
My father commented years ago when we were sitting in our den, sipping some scotch and listening to something swinging: "You really found some truth in this music." He helped me find my way.