He was a record man. When Joe Fields first walked through the swinging front doors of Keystone Korner in San Francisco in 1974, with a bunch of Cedar Walton Firm Roots albums under his arm, I immediately knew I was in the presence of a jazz lifer—even though Joe had only recently opened up his own jazz label, Muse Records, which he transformed from the Cobblestone catalog he acquired from Buddah Records the year prior.
What I also came to know more and more about, over the following 44 years of friendship and collaboration with Joe, was the extent of the commitment he had to both the music and the musicians we worked with all of our professional lives. Little Joey Finkelstein of Brooklyn, N.Y., quickly went from being an all-star halfback at Erasmus Hall and the University of Bridgeport to energetically hustling singles and albums for London Records, MGM, Verve, Prestige and Sue before becoming the national sales manager at Buddha.
Joe surely could have had a very successful career making and promoting pop records, but his heart belonged to bebop, hard bop and soulful blues. As our mutual friend and longtime colleague Michael Cuscuna reflected recently, “First and foremost, you have to understand that Joe was a multicultural New Yorker with both Italian and Jewish roots, who truly loved the music with an appreciation and passion that was both deep and comprehensive. Joe just kept making records, even through difficult eras for our music, for over 50 years. When he did have some degree of financial success—like selling the Savoy or Muse labels—Joe turned right around and plowed all the money right back into making even more jazz albums.”
Houston Person explained further that “Joe Fields gave me a tremendous amount of opportunity to work as both an artist and a producer, to do what I wanted to do. He stuck with me through thick and thin, and always treated me fairly, as he also did for Etta Jones, Ernie Andrews, Charles Earland, Dakota Staton, Jack McDuff, Lorez Alexandria, Pat Martino, Woody Shaw, Freddy Cole and so many others.”
Veteran producer Richard Seidel added that “I always thought of Joe as one of my main mentors in the record business. He even gave me my first break in the industry, doing radio promotion for Muse Records in the Boston area beginning in 1973.”
Joe regularly expressed to me the pride he took in the indispensable role that his son Barney has played in making Muse and then HighNote Records successful. “I’ve always felt very lucky to work with the guy,” the younger Fields told me. “He was my teacher and partner for 30 years, and it’s both an honor and a daunting challenge for us to do our best to further the legacy that Joe created in the record labels he built and developed.”
Fields remained a tireless and effective salesman for our music until the end of his life, and I am only one of many folks who feel very fortunate to have known and worked with this man. He did so much for jazz and its creators, with so little muss and fuss and fanfare.
As pianist and composer Cyrus Chestnut summed it up, while planning to record his third HighNote album: “Joe was one of the real keepers of the flame who did what was necessary to allow the tradition and the beauty to always be presented properly.” Amen. He was a record man.
Todd Barkan is a jazz producer, impresario and 2018 NEA Jazz Master