Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Prestige Celebrates Its 66th Birthday

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

1949 was an important year for Jazz. Miles, Gil and Jeru released The Birth of the Cool Recordings, Charlie Parker appeared at Carnegie Hall and bassist Howard Rumsey instituted a continuing Jazz policy at the Lighthouse Cafe in Hermosa Beach, Ca.

It was also the year that Bob Weinstock founded Prestige Records and it has been going strong ever since as a record label dedicated to Jazz and its makers.

Prestige Records is celebrating its 66th anniversary this year and the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it would call attention to this fact by reproducing this essay about the label by Thomas Staudter which first appeared in Downbeat magazine [10/2014]

“While a cynic might call the celebration just another exercise in nostalgia, scholars and longtime fans of the label are well aware of how important its heyday was to the evolution of jazz. Prestige offered to listeners numerous treasures from many of the all-time best practitioners of the improviser's art, and over the span of a more than 1,000 recordings stand works that define the modern jazz era, as well as the deep grooving soul-jazz sub-genre and other styles.

The Concord Music Group, which took control of the Prestige Records catalog with its purchase of Fantasy Records in 2004, is commemorating the label's rich history with a special, multifaceted rollout of music and special events. For starters, Concord will make its popular Rudy Van Gelder Remasters series—which was inaugurated in 2006 and saw the reissue on CD of more than 60 albums originally recorded by the legendary sound engineer—downloadable as high-resolution digital releases.

Also, 16 classic albums are being re-released on Prestige, including three from Miles Davis, two from John Coltrane (and Red Garland Quintet's Soul Junction, which the saxophonist plays on), Thelonious Monk Trio, Mose Allison Sings, Sonny Rollins' Plus 4, Eric Dolphy's At the Five Spot, Vol. 1, Charles Earland's Black Talk! and Jackie McLean's 4, 5 And 6. By the end of the year, Concord will have 35 Prestige titles out as vinyl LPs.

Additionally, Concord has created a series of online videos produced by Bret Primack to salute Prestige's anniversary, putting the focus on artists like Davis, Monk, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Gene Ammons and Paul Chambers by utilizing on-camera interviews with various musicians (including Sonny Rollins, Gerald Clayton and Helen Sung) as well as music industry experts. Taken as a whole, the videos present a wide perspective on Prestige's importance in the history of jazz as well as entertaining glimpses at the inner workings of the label and how the recordings were made.

"When you think of the classic recordings of jazz, you'll find a big chunk of them are in the Prestige catalog," said Nick Phillips, vice president of catalog development and A&R for Concord Music Group. "There are only a handful of other labels that can say this. In terms of complexity and purpose, you could argue that many of the recordings were just blowing sessions, but a certain excitement can be found in those situations nonetheless. The musicians felt comfortable working with Rudy, and he was able to make everyone sound great on record. It was a unique situation. Rudy set the standard for jazz recordings that others continue to chase today. It's remarkable that you can listen to Prestige albums from the 1950s and 1960s and be struck by how vibrant and fresh they still sound."

A roll call of the artists who appeared regularly on Prestige during the label's first two years of existence underscores why their documentation remains an essential part of the jazz canon: Stan Getz, James Moody, Max Roach, JJ. Johnson, Zoot Sims, Wardell Gray and Sonny Stitt. In many cases, the Prestige dates were these artists' first studio sessions as leaders.

The narrative history of Prestige Records and its founding by Bob Weinstock in 1949 has been widely recounted. Certain elements of this story come across today as quaint and harken back to a time when driven, obsessive personalities, swept up by a passion for music, could help change the course of the music business.

Weinstock (1928-2006) grew up in Manhattan. When he was just 8 years old, a trip to a local flea market resulted in an armload of jazz discs bought for pennies apiece—and an abiding interest in the intersection of culture and commerce. In his teens Weinstock bought and sold recordings through magazine advertisements before finally renting space in the Jazz Record Center on 47th Street, near the Metropole jazz club, with the support of his family. Friendships with many of the jazz artists who frequented his store led him to start his own label, New Jazz.

The first recording released on New Jazz was cut on Jan. 11,1949, and featured a quintet led by pianist Lennie Tristano with saxophonist Lee Konitz, who was later promoted to co-leader when the album (catalog number PRLP 101) came out. The following year Weinstock, now operating as Prestige Records out of an office on West 50th Street in Manhattan, amped up his release schedule with a bevy of great dates led by saxophonists, along with music licensed from French and Swedish labels. As his catalog increased, Weinstock, the son of a shoe salesman, traveled around the country to promote his recordings at record stores and radio stations.

The first Prestige Records releases cut in Manhattan utilized various recording facilities, but in 1954 Weinstock began to rely on Van Gelder's recording studio, originally located in the living room of his parents' home in Hackensack, New Jersey, and already being booked for sessions by the Blue Note and Savoy labels. Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis were early visitors to the studio on behalf of Prestige, cutting Monk (which included the tune "Hackensack") and Bags' Groove there, respectively, and before long Weinstock was booking Van Gelder's studio every Friday for recording dates. Van Gelder had worked full-time as an optometrist, but a youthful interest in radio and sound technology spurred him to discover and acquire the best new recording equipment available recording equipment available.

"Recording my neighbors escalated into recording jazz musicians," Van Gelder recalled in a recent interview with DownBeat. "I was recording musicians who had heard about me and came to Hackensack so I could record them. The quality of the recordings became known to professional musicians, and I transitioned to recording professionally. During that time there were only three major record companies: RCA, Columbia and Decca. Bob Weinstock, a music lover like myself, wanted to record albums that could compete sound-wise with the majors. I felt that now I had a mission: to allow small private labels to sound as good as the three big labels. That was my goal from then on."

Recording equipment was expensive, and the technology was such that each of the major record companies had their own way of doing things. Van Gelder found other recording engineers were reluctant to reveal their methods to outsiders. "Recording techniques were secrets," he said. "Someone once said, 'If there was a fire, they wouldn't even let the firemen in.' I remember that clearly. I guess some of that rubbed off on me."

Through the 1950s Van Gelder recorded some of the most memorable jazz albums of all time, including Cookin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet, Rollins' Saxophone Colossus and Coltrane's Soultrane and the Modern Jazz Quartet's Concorde. In 1959 he moved his recording studio to a new home in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, and Weinstock moved his operation to an office in nearby Bergenfield. The working relationship between label owner and engineer remained harmonious until the end, in 1972, when Weinstock sold Prestige and its catalog—which included the subsidiary labels Swingsville, New Jazz (which had been revived in 1958), Bluesville and Moodsville — to Fantasy and retired to Florida to focus on his other passion, buying and trading stocks.

"I was in awe of the musicians who were coming to me," Van Gelder recalled. "I opened the door one day, and there was Coleman Hawkins! Bob would call me and say we were going to record Miles Davis on Thursday afternoon. John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet didn't like my piano, so I had to go into New York to record him on someone else's piano. John was right, too. Most of the musicians in the beginning were kind of suspicious of me, not sure whether I could do the job.
"I had the feeling that what I was doing was important — more important than the politics of the time or anything else that was going on," continued Van Gelder. "Working for Bob Weinstock was really fun. He was laid-back. Instead of directing the musicians, he let the sessions flow wherever the musicians took it. As a result, there were plenty of laughs, and we all had a good time."

Among the jazz giants who owe a debt to Van Gelder is Pat Martino. "In time, I was able to establish a personal rapport with Rudy based on my familiarity from working with him," said the guitarist-composer, who first recorded at Van Gelder's Englewood Cliff’s studio as a sideman on Willis Jackson's Grease 'AT Gravy album in 1963. When it came time for Martino to cut his own solo debut for Prestige in 1967, working with Van Gelder was preordained, and the result was El Hombre, a smoking soul-jazz showcase that is also part of Concord's LP reissue program. "The respect demanded by Rudy's presence was formidable," Martino noted. "You were never to touch the microphones or the recording equipment. I adhered to those requests, as did other musicians. Recording for Prestige was an achievement in that era."                                                                                                        
—Thomas Staudter

The following video salute to Prestige Records on its 66th anniversary features pianist Red Garland's quintet with Donald Byrd, trumpet, John Coltrane, tenor sax, George Joyner, bass and Art Taylor drums performing "Birks Works."

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