Dave Douglas: The Art of Being Heard

Reflecting on the first decade of his Greenleaf Music company

Dave Douglas
Shigeto, Mark Guiliana, Dave Douglas and Jonathan Maron play music from "High Risk" in Poland, 2015
Dave Douglas Quintet: Linda Oh, Rudy Royston, Douglas, Matt Mitchell, Jon Irabagon
Dave Douglas and company in the Dolomites of Northern Italy, 2003
Dave Douglas Quintet 2009: with Donny McCaslin (sax), Uri Caine (piano), Matt Penman (bass) and Clarence Penn (drums), in Europe. Courtesy of Dave Douglas

Dave Douglas has always, it seems, been a musician ideally suited to the art of multitasking. A tirelessly prolific trumpeter, composer and bandleader working within and beyond the jazz mainstream, he runs the Festival of New Trumpet Music, a nonprofit New York City institution now in its 13th year. He’s also the founder and owner of Greenleaf Music, an independent label and music company that celebrated its 10th anniversary last spring.

A concert at the Manhattan venue SubCulture in May showcased the breadth of the Greenleaf roster, with performances by Catharsis, a pugnacious postbop band led by the trombonist Ryan Keberle; Sun Pictures, a chamber-esque vehicle for bassist Linda Oh; and the Donny McCaslin Quartet, a hard-nosed fusion outfit led by its namesake saxophonist. Had the lineup been a little more comprehensive, it would also have featured groups led by drummer Rudy Royston, bassist Matt Ulery, alto saxophonist Curtis Macdonald-and at least a few led by Douglas himself.

His next album, out in October, will feature his acclaimed quintet with Royston, Oh, saxophonist Jon Irabagon and pianist Matt Mitchell. Titled Brazen Heart, it bears a dedication to Douglas’ older brother, who recently died of cancer. “It’s a record of resilience and love and compassion,” the trumpeter says. And in certain respects it will form a companion to two other Greenleaf releases: Be Still, a 2012 memorial for Douglas’ mother, and Mountain Passages, released in 2004 in tribute to his father. “It’s driven home for me how personal the music is,” he reflects of these albums, “and given a profound new meaning to the work that I do.”

As for Douglas’ most recent album, High Risk, it’s an assuredly sleek outing made with Shigeto, a prominent young electronic artist who happens to be a former jazz drummer. One day after its release this June, on the cusp of a North American tour, Douglas, 52, sat for an interview about the trajectory of Greenleaf Music-with ample digression about the state of the industry-at a riverside park in the New York commuter town of Croton-on-Hudson, where he lives.

My understanding is that Greenleaf Music began like many artist imprints, in that you were simply looking for a way to get your own music out. Is that accurate?

At that time I had recorded for a lot of different independent labels, which opened up pathways for me, because each had its own unique distribution and promotional channels. Then around ’99, when I got signed by RCA Victor, I made it a part of the deal that I could make records at a certain pace, and that each one would be a very different project and vision.

Did you receive pushback on that point?

Not at the initial signing. The problem was that I was there five years, and during those five years there were seven different presidents of the label. And the label kept changing names, too. It was a period of rapid change in the industry, and consolidation. I completed the seven records that I was under contract to do, and it was as the last record came out that RCA got bought by Sony. And I knew that I wasn’t going to get the same deal again, that I had lucked out getting it in the first place. So I started Greenleaf because I didn’t want to think of a new project and have to justify it to somebody. And I wanted to keep ownership of the music. Also, with the way the industry was just beginning to change-this was in 2004-having ownership of a small company that was quick on its feet was a good idea.

Your first album on Greenleaf, Mountain Passages, was very personal. I remember thinking that to start the label on that footing is a statement of some kind.

It’s funny that you say that now, because at the time I felt like that was an odd record to start the journey with. It was such an anomaly: clarinet, tuba, cello, trumpet, drums. I had wise advisers around me saying I should do a really straight-ahead, mainstream-type release as my first. But Mountain Passages was a suite commissioned by the Sounds of the Dolomites festival, which is this festival in Northern Italy that invites you to come and hike up to the locations. My father was an amateur musician, and the guy who got me started in music. And he was a mountain trail runner. So with this commission, and my father’s love of folk music, that’s what I wrote, and I dedicated the suite to him. He never got to hear it; he passed just as we were going to do it in Italy. His middle name, and my brother’s middle name, was Greenleaf, and I was looking for a name that felt like growth, that felt like continuity and a rebirth of something.

It’s a serendipitous name in that regard.

I guess it is. It didn’t occur to me until that moment. And of course when I announced the name, people thought I was talking about weed. And we’re still not selling marijuana, 10 years later.

Well, there’s still time.

We’re thinking of opening a Colorado branch. [laughs]

Can you recall what the learning curve was for you? What factors presented themselves as challenges for a brand-new label head?

I didn’t anticipate how it would impact the creative outlook of me as an artist. I think about what I’m doing differently, because now I’m a part of the whole package from the beginning to the end: from the genesis of an idea to playing the gigs with the band, producing the recording session, generating the graphic design and coming up with a plan to put it out. Dealing with the good reviews and the bad reviews, getting the CD around worldwide.

It’s really a farm-to-table approach.

It is, and as I’m doing each one, the next ones are on the horizon. Very early on, I knew that I didn’t want it to only be Dave Douglas records. I was looking to find musicians who wanted to be on a team, and who wanted to play, get out there and fight for the music. So in the midst of putting my first record out, I called Shane Endsley, who’s one of my favorite trumpet players, and asked if he had a project. He said, “Well, I play in this band called Kneebody,” and that became our first non-Dave Douglas album. Then I also had my working quintet, which had recorded with RCA, with [pianist] Uri Caine, [tenor saxophonist] Donny McCaslin, [bassist] James Genus and [drummer] Clarence Penn. I went to the engineer Joe Ferla, my friend and co-conspirator over many years. We found a studio to record in, and made the record Meaning and Mystery under these new Greenleaf Music circumstances.

That quintet was also involved in one of your riskier business decisions: the documentation of a week at the Jazz Standard, with downloads of each set available the next day.

It was incredibly psychically taxing on the whole band to know that we were going out there every night, and that it was going up overnight: available the next morning, every note that we played. And it was a summary for that band. We recorded, I think, 50 different songs. It’s not like we did the same set every night. Every tune we ever played was coming up for review.

It was like a retrospective box set that unfolded over the course of a week.

We played 12 sets. It went up every day, and the momentum was incredibly inspiring. This was in 2006. Every day you would see the downloads coming in, and where they were coming from: people in Moscow, people in Japan, waiting for it to come up and grabbing it.

This was just a year into the label, and it was a pretty ambitious undertaking.

Well, the Internet was changing things. I felt like part of the excitement of the label was being able to get things to the listeners with immediacy. It’s why we love live music so much, because you’re actually there in the room as it’s happening. So that was the feeling of that release. But there were songs in that batch that hadn’t been on a CD before, so we ended up collecting them on a physical two-CD box called Live at the Jazz Standard.

With your label roster, you’ve taken some of your collaborators and given them a platform.

The first record that came about that way was with Donny McCaslin. I felt like Donny was making these great records but not getting the attention he deserved. He’s a great composer, and he was doing these large-ensemble records. And I said, “Donny, let’s make a record where we just put you out front as a player.” That was Recommended Tools. I think that record still holds up as one of the great tenor trio records from the last decade or so. The biggest joy for me is that on the heels of that record, Donny’s been out there nonstop, playing.

When we talk about these releases that aren’t your own albums, would you say that they add up to an identifiable Greenleaf aesthetic?

That’s a good question, and I don’t know if I have an answer, because I feel like I’m just going day-to-day, and following my ear and my heart and my head. I think there is [an aesthetic], but it would be hard for me to put my finger on exactly what it is.

With artists like bassist Matt Ulery and saxophonist Curtis Macdonald, who aren’t on the scene in New York or part of your immediate circle, which comes first-is it the player or is it a project?

I think first and foremost it’s the music itself. I had heard Matt Ulery in a band that went on either before or after me in Chicago. I remember thinking, “Here’s a guy with a sound.” When you see a musician who’s really raising everybody up, it’s always memorable. Then Matt came to me with these tapes. They’re orchestral, they’re huge, and he does it with very good taste. It’s a hard fight for us to get that music out there, but I believe in it. That’s the aesthetic, for me. It’s the whole package: the person, and the repertoire, and the sound, and the approach.

It’s quite a different landscape for the recorded music industry than it was 10 years ago. How would you characterize the difference in practical terms?

Well, it’s a sea change, and actually, at this very moment I feel like we’re on the cusp of the next big change. I’m just finishing a quintet record, which will come out in October. And as I’m producing it, I have the feeling, “Wow, this may be the last CD I ever produce.” Probably not, but the way the music is coming out, and being encountered by listeners, is changing quickly.

What are your thoughts about the business of streaming, both as an artist and a label head?

Obviously I’ve given this a lot of thought, but I feel like these issues are really at the corporate level. And a lot of artists are now releasing their work on Soundcloud or Vimeo or YouTube. So the deeper question is, what does it mean to put out an album? I talk to a lot of young musicians who are incredibly talented, and I say to them, “When are you going to make your record?” And they go, “What do you mean?” You’re asking me about streaming, but I feel like the question is, to people who are half my age, what does it mean to document and release recorded music? Maybe the corporate streaming problem isn’t the real crux of the issue.

It’s interesting to think of Greenleaf, which is essentially a record label, grappling with this existential question: What is an “album” in this day and age?

And that’s why I called the company Greenleaf Music. Because I think of it as a music company and not as a record label. I think the record label aspect is a part of what we do, but the meaning of the enterprise is in the whole picture: supporting the touring, and sheet music, and podcasting, and education events. The whole world being in touch with all the aspects of what we do. So for me, that makes the meaning of releasing recorded music a little different. We still sell a lot of CDs, don’t get me wrong-especially at gigs, but also through our distributor, eOne. CDs are still in demand by people who listen to our music, and also, I would suspect, a lot of other jazz artists and labels. But I think it is changing.

Did you look at any point to labels run by your peers? Tim Berne had Screwgun Records, and Tzadik, John Zorn’s label, is obviously a shining example.

Tzadik is just amazing. He’s one of my closest friends, and I still don’t know how he does it. It’s a miracle. I also used to talk to Greg Osby a lot [the saxophonist who founded Inner Circle Music], and Tim Berne was an example for me. And I read a lot about Charles Mingus’ label, and what Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell did with Strata-East back in the day. And Max Roach, and Mary Lou Williams. When I was touring with Horace Silver in 1987, he had a label of his own called Silveto, and he was schlepping the records on the road. To me, the model that intrigued me the most was where there was actually a team in place to support the artists, where it wasn’t a service-for-hire situation.

How has social media changed the reality for the distribution and reception of the music?

For independent artists, there are a lot of good things about this new realm. There’s a freedom to have your voice heard on platforms that didn’t exist before; to respond to criticism; to tell your own story your own way. What’s interesting is this combination of music and personality, people developing a way of thinking about what they do.

A Noise From the Deep, your podcast, is interesting too, because in many cases it does not serve any direct promotional function. What role does it play for Greenleaf Music?

I see the podcast as a chance to let musicians talk about their work and process in a way that they aren’t often asked to do. My cohost is [bassist and composer] Michael Bates, and we go back and forth with lists of people who would have something interesting to say.

Do you hear from people who are specifically loyal to the podcast?

Oh yeah, a lot. They also give us suggestions. The first suggestion was, “Can you get Kenny G on the show?” And I thought, that would be great. I don’t think Mr. G would do it, but boy, I would welcome

that opportunity.

What is your advice to younger musicians entering a world in which your career trajectory-recording on a major label as well as independents-is no longer much of a possibility?

What I would say is something that’ll probably never change: You should always take the attitude that you’ll have to do everything for yourself. You’re not going to find a manager or a booking agent or a record label who’s going to make everything happen for you. I don’t know that it’s any different than it’s ever been. But now there are more components, and to turn that into a survivable existence is harder. It’s easy to lose sight of the music being the number-one priority in all of this. I think that the current environment of this creative art form is one in which there are challenges and there are opportunities. People are releasing their music all different kinds of ways, and monetizing it in different ways, and it’s being heard.

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Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen

Nate Chinen is the director of editorial content for WBGO and a longtime contributor to JazzTimes, which published 125 installments of his column “The Gig” between 2004 and 2017. For 12 years, he was a critic for The New York Times; prior to that, he wrote about jazz for the Village Voice, the Philadelphia City Paper, and several other publications. He is the author of Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century (2018) and the co-author of George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others: A Life in Music (2003).