Saturday, May 30, 2015

Debut Records - Part 1

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

“The new phase of independent labels, in which for the first time the musicians themselves took a major role in ownership and management, seems to have gathered momentum at the turn of the decade (of the shortlived 1940s companies, only Mezz Mezzrow's King Jazz and bassist Al Hall's Wax labels came into this category). With the major companies' interest in jazz at a new low after the second A.P.M. strike, first Dave Brubeck had helped start the Fantasy label in 1950, then in 1951 Dizzy Gillespie (Dee Gee) and Lennie Tristano (Jazz Records) had created their own outlets, as did Woody Herman (Mars) around the same time that Debut was founded. Also, despite still being contracted to Columbia, Duke Ellington had in 1950 formed the Mercer label to record small-group tracks which would not tempt the major companies, and he it was too who a decade earlier had set the precedent of an independent publishing company (Tempo Music) for his less commercial compositions.”
- Brian Priestley, Mingus: A Critical Biography

Aside from functioning as a platform to share the pleasure of my interest in Jazz and its makers, this blog also serves as a catalyst to search out aspects of the music that have been largely unfamiliar to me in my pre-blog days.

A case in point is Debut Records which like so many other small, record companies had ceased to operate before I developed an awareness of what a rich source these short-lived “boutique” labels were for important recorded Jazz, especially in terms of the work of underrepresented artists.

By the time I got hip to it, recorded Jazz was largely the business of big labels such as Columbia, RCA and Decca and labels that specialized in the music such as Blue Note, Prestige, Riverside, Argo, VeeJay, Emarcy, Pacific Jazz and Contemporary.

Some early research made me acutely aware that many smaller, early Modern Era [1945-1955] record companies including Black & White Records, Bop Records, Comet records, Jewel Records, Central Records, Treat Records, Dial Records and Treat Records along artist owned record companies such as Dee Gee [Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Usher] and Debut [Charles Mingus and Max Roach] were only in existence for very short periods of time.

So when I came across a 12-CD boxed set entitled Charles Mingus - The Complete Debut Recordings [Debut 12DCD-4402], I knew I best acquire it especially after reading this marketing pitch:

“This handsomely packaged and thoroughly annotated 12-CD set represents the most significant early work of Charles Mingus: his complete recorded output as leader and sideman for the Debut label.

The 169 selections (including 64 previously unissued tracks) showcase Mingus with artists such as Pepper Adams, Art Blakey, Paul Bley, Kenny Clarke, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, J. J. Johnson, Elvin Jones, Thad Jones, Hank Jones, Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Knepper, Lee Konitz, John Lewis, Charlie Parker, Oscar Pettiford, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Art Taylor, Mai Waldron, and Kai Winding. The 40-page booklet features an informative essay by Ira Gitler plus session notes, photos, and discographical details.

A musician-owned and -run record company, Debut had been conceived as a means for Mingus and his partner Max Roach to get their own compositions recorded. During Debut's seven-year existence, from 1951 to 1958, Mingus emerged as not only an indispensable player in company operations but a vital force in the music as well—a giant on his instrument, an innovator in composition and bandleading, a mentor to up-and-coming musicians.

More than a decade after his premature death in 1979, Charles Mingus's presence continues to be strongly felt. Posthumous recordings and ongoing performances of works such as Epitaph have served to keep his name and creative spirit very much alive.

Likewise, the music in this box represents a fundamental chapter in the history of a jazz visionary.

Produced by Ed Michel”

The detail booklet - about which more later in Parts 2 and 3 of this series on Debut - contained this announcement of Debut’s formation in the July 1952 edition of Metronome Magazine:

“CIGAR salesman William J. Brandt is conscious of the responsibility of fatherhood; so conscious that he visited the now defunct Downbeat Club in New York to find out where and how his son was spending his evenings. He found pianist Billy Taylor and bassist Charlie Mingus, enjoyed himself immensely and further found, before the evening was over, that he was co-owner of a new record company in partnership with Mingus who had convinced him that money spent at the bar could be better used to further the cause of jazz.

In this manner, the Debut label was born in April, 1952. Orthodoxy was never a watchword in the Mingus household and Debut and its operations were no exception to the rule. The first two sides, Portrait and Precognition, both written by Mingus, were products of his feeling that jazz was maturing to a point where it was ever approaching the complexities of classical music, that the main distinction between the two forms was the rhythmic content of jazz, and that jazz could be so written that a classical musician would swing just by correctly reading the music.

Just through his knowledge of the working musicians Mingus has managed to snare a good percentage of the best in jazz; names that sell in spite of their ability to play well. 

Vocalist Jackie Paris was the first Debut commercial hit with Portrait and with his Paris Blues and Make Believe. Max Roach is a consistent seller. The first volume of Jazz at Massey Hall, an on-the spot recording of Dizzy, Charlie Chan [pseudonym for Charlie Parker], Bud, Charlie Mingus and Max, was of more than passing musical interest and sold well to boot. The company's latest LP featuring trombonists Willie Dennis, J.J. Johnson. Kai Winding and Benny Green has some of the most exciting jazz of the year.

Because of a questionable union ruling that musicians cannot own record companies, Mingus was forced to sell the company to attorney Harold Lovett, this Fall, but the label's policy remains the same: a policy which is best described as pro musician and artistic qualities with loot gratefully accepted.

Behind all the successes and failures is Charlie's considerable talent both in writing and playing. In an art form where integrity is an essential element, and a manufacturing field where this element is most often sadly lacking, he fills a huge gap to the benefit of jazz, its artists and its followers. Debut is more than an entrance into the field of jazz, it is a portable concert hall filled with stellar attractions who play much of the best in modern music.—B.C.

Some commentary, huh? I especially “liked” the part about the musicians’ union not allowing a musician to own a record company!

Ed Michel, the producer of the boxed set offered these words as to its significance:

A producer's note on sound quality

The key to this package is the quality of the music Charles Mingus made available during his Debut years. Audiophile listeners are not likely to be enchanted with the quality of the sound heard here. Debut was an almost classic example of the small independent label, and most recordings were made under rushed circumstances, hardly ever under the best possible conditions or in the best available studios.

Moreover, over the years, the tapes were handled roughly almost from the beginning, and are frequently damaged, accounting for the several tape wows, slips, speed changes, level changes, and bumps which can be heard throughout these sides. Much of the remarkable music heard here was recorded in live performance, and some of the problems which can be heard are directly attributable to the often-chaotic conditions under which those recordings were made.

In some cases, no master tapes exist, and transfers had to be made from disc sources, 78 RPM, extended-play 45s, and LPs.

Charles Mingus viewed tape editing as a part of composition; unfortunately, many of the edits made in his music were all too audible, and, regrettably, since in most cases the original edited fragments no longer exist, there is no way to restore the missing pieces or smooth over these dubious edits without losing even more segments of the music.

The splendid engineers with whom I worked on this project did everything possible with current technology to remove the audio problems standing between the listener and the music, but in every case when there was a choice to be made between audio smoothness and loss of musical content, I chose to keep the music. It is my hope that this choice will not interfere overmuch with the listener's enjoyment of Mr. Mingus's work.

—Ed Michel”

After reading Ed’s producer note, one gets the impression that it is a miracle that so much of the music recorded for the Debut label even exists, all the more reason to highlight what we do know about it and its history.

The following video features Thad Jones on trumpet performing his original composition Ditty Bitty from his Debut LP with Frank Wess on tenor saxophone, Hank Jones on piano, Charlie Mingus on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums.

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