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Chops: Musicians as A&R Professionals

The best recruiters for jazz record labels are often other jazz musicians

Jazz Musicians as A&R Professionals
Matthew Shipp (photo: Anna Yatskevich)

Tenor saxophonist Nicole Glover was no stranger to the jazz world before September, when she released her debut album as a leader, Strange Lands, on the Savant label—she’d played with George Colligan, Esperanza Spalding, and the quintet Out to Dinner—but she wasn’t exactly high-profile either. (Disclosure: I wrote the liner notes for Strange Lands.) How did HighNote/Savant head Barney Fields get wind of her? 

Through the artists he’d already signed. “[Trumpeter] Jeremy Pelt and [pianist] George Cables were on tour with a trio in February of 2020,” Fields says. “And they heard her. Cables first brought up Nicole: ‘Oh, she’s particularly good. She’s a great player, she’s been around, playing with a bunch of different people.’ Then Pelt took it on himself, when he came back from the tour—he came into the office and says, ‘Okay, let’s go ahead and do a record with Nicole Glover.’ He brought her in, he produced the record, Cables got involved, and that was the genesis.”

In the larger, more corporate corners of the music industry, what Pelt and Cables did with Glover is a full-time job known as artists and repertoire: A&R. It has historically constituted an entire division of a record company, responsible both for recruiting talent and for finding ways to market and promote that talent (such as choosing tracks to become singles). John Hammond—the socialite-turned-Columbia Records executive who brought artists from Billie Holiday to Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen to the label—is the classic example of the A&R man. 

That said, there’s also been a longstanding tradition of having musicians themselves function as talent recruiters. Columbia employed oboist and conductor Mitch Miller in an A&R capacity during the 1940s and ’50s; later they used both bandleader/arranger Bob Belden and saxophonist Branford Marsalis in the role. (It was Marsalis who brought Columbia’s attention to the decidedly uncommercial David S. Ware Quartet in the 1990s.)

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The reason for this dynamic, Fields explains, is a simple one. “The cats know the cats,” he says. “They’re the ones who are out at the clubs or touring the festivals. They hear each other, they meet each other, and they bring each other to us.” It’s a less complicated task in a genre like jazz, where elements like pop singles (let alone viral TikTok videos) aren’t relevant.

Avant-garde pianist Matthew Shipp (a member of the aforementioned Ware Quartet) served for almost 20 years as the small label Thirsty Ear Records’ “artistic director”: a fancy title, he says, for A&R. “I was already going out a lot, checking out music and hearing people when I wasn’t on the road,” Shipp recalls, adding that his horizons were broad. “I was searching for things that were cutting-edge but not downtown jazz avant-garde. I brought in all those electronica people, hip-hop people, and genre-busting things. But at the same time, I had a well-defined circle of musicians who I worked with, many of whom I brought into Thirsty Ear.”

Artists and repertoire (A&R) has historically constituted an entire division of a record company, responsible both for recruiting talent and for finding ways to market and promote that talent.

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In the 21st century, it’s much harder to find artists doubling as A&R professionals; indeed, it’s increasingly hard to find A&R professionals at all, as record labels both cut costs and adapt to contemporary trends in marketing. There is still, however, a steady stream of musicians who recruit talent in a less official capacity, as Pelt and Cables did with Glover.

Shipp is now an informal “advisor” for Tao Forms, the label started last year by his friend drummer Whit Dickey. “I talk to Whit on a daily basis about who he’s signing, and what the future of the label is and what projects are possible for the future,” he says. “The first three releases were me, then Whit, then Ivo Perelman, and then I said, ‘We can’t just stick with our generation.’ So we brought James Brandon Lewis in, and that album [Jesup Wagon] got a really great buzz.”

“I do rely on the community to hear about musicians I might not otherwise pick up on,” says trumpeter Dave Douglas, who owns and operates Greenleaf Music. “A young artist who has the support of friends and colleagues…. That is always a good sign.” Yet he does most of the work himself: He always has his own antenna up, constantly listening to music and sorting through the artists who approach him.

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Pianist Kris Davis, on the other hand, releases music on her Pyroclastic Records label by invitation only. “I know everybody on the label and their music well; so far I haven’t trodden out of that realm,” she explains. “I do get quite a few inquiries, but we’re a nonprofit, and we only have five or six releases each year. With all the other things I’m doing, I have to limit the amount of time I’m spending on the label.”

Dave Douglas (photo: John Abbott)
Dave Douglas (photo: John Abbott)

“There’s a lot of guilt involved for me, because of the amount of people I have to turn away,” says pianist Fabian Almazan, who runs Biophilia Records. The boutique label’s mission is sustainability; its physical product, called a “biofolio,” is a folded paper card with art, album information, and a download link for the music. Almazan says that an interest in sustainable musicmaking is his only criterion for bringing artists to Biophilia—they needn’t even be jazz artists. However, showing shades of A&R’s traditional marketing aspect, he also takes a curatorial stance: There are aesthetics at play, and he has to go with his gut. 

“The albums released from year to year have sort of complimented each other, and so that plays a role in it as well,” he says. “I wouldn’t put out four albums that are all trumpet/saxophone quintets, for example. The year that María Grand’s, Adam O’Farrill’s, Justin Brown’s, Kim Anderson’s albums came out, that was a very balanced set of releases. Anyone who stumbled across the roster that year would have been able to enjoy the differences between the albums.” 

It all boils down to the same thing: The musicians know the music. The cats know the cats. That makes recording artist recruitment a role tailor-made for the artists themselves. 

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.