Like so many of the most important figures in jazz, his name wasn’t the one on front of the album cover in large-print type, but usually somewhere on the back, in the credits only the most hardcore fans ever bother to read. Joe Fields, who died July 12 at 88—the cause and place of death have not yet been reported—was instrumental in the formation and/or development of several key jazz record labels, including Cobblestone, Muse and, with his son Barney Fields, the HighNote and Savant labels.
In addition, Fields served in the capacities of executive producer, producer and engineer for hundreds of titles released on the labels he ran.
Born in Jersey City, N.J., in 1929, Fields entered the music business selling records for the London label to music stores in Brooklyn. By the ’60s he had held various positions at MGM, Verve (where he was head of sales), Prestige and Sue Records. He moved into ownership in 1972 when he and producer Don Schlitten took over Cobblestone, a label that had previously released singles with distribution by the larger Buddah Records. The pair transformed Cobblestone into an active jazz imprint, releasing albums by artists such as Pat Martino, Sonny Stitt, Hermeto Pascoal and Jimmy Heath, as well as a six-volume set of recordings from the 1972 “Newport in New York” festival.
That same year, Fields founded Muse Records, which ultimately became a major player through 1996, along with its sister label Onyx (which ceased operations in 1978, when Schlitten and Fields parted ways). Beginning with an album by saxophonist James Moody, Never Again!, Muse released more than 200 titles, spanning hard bop to Latin to fusion. Vocalist Mark Murphy, pianist Cedar Walton, trumpeter Woody Shaw, saxophonist Houston Person and guitarists Larry Coryell and Kenny Burrell were among the artists who released music on Muse, as were lesser known artists such as Carlos Garnett, Czatalyst and Dom Um Romão. “You can’t be all things to all people, but you can make everything of quality in its own particular groove,” Fields said in a profile published online by Red Bull Music Academy. “It was always important for me to find a balance and to cater to the many different tastes in jazz.”
Muse was sold in 1996 to 32 Jazz, which reissued much of its content; in 2003, Savoy Jazz acquired the catalog. (Fields had, himself, acquired both Savoy and the Landmark label in the ’80s.)
In 1997, Joe and Barney Fields launched HighNote and Savant, both of which remain active today. The labels’ rich roster includes releases by a range of artists including singer/pianist Freddy Cole, trumpeters Wallace Roney, Jeremy Pelt and Tom Harrell, saxophonists David “Fathead” Newman, JD Allen and Jerry Bergonzi, organist Joey DeFrancesco, vocalist Barbara Morrison and many others. A third label, the blues-oriented Fedora Records, was also launched by the Fields in the late ’90s.