Behind the swing

It was Gretchen Carhartt-Valade’s big day at the jazz festival on Hart Plaza last year. She had worked the vendor booth for the label she owns, Mack Avenue Records, hawking discs by her artists. She had attended a backstage reception for her label’s Grammy-nominated jazz veteran, Gerald Wilson, marking his 76th birthday, just before his main stage performance with a big band. And after that moving set, she rushed across the plaza to the pyramid stage to see an all-star combo of her younger artists blow up a storm under the company banner.

She watched as saxophonist Ron Blake, looking like a bohemian sage with his braided goatee, chewed chord changes like musical candy. To his side, Sean Jones, a charismatic and stocky young trumpeter, fired up solos that suggested his bottled water was laced with jet fuel. The Russian pianist Eugene Maslov, Mack Avenue’s first artist, dug into the keyboard as if on some improvisational scavenger hunt.

And at set’s close, as the audience whooped and hollered, Valade stayed out front cheering, rather than going onstage with her stars. She’d been asked by the MC to take a bow — or at least stand and wave — and had demurred. This was their time, not hers. She seems content to have it always be their time.

Having stepped forward as the $250,000 benefactor who bailed out this year’s festival, the pressure on her to take a bow only increases. But after declining to put her label’s name in the festival title — this could have been the Mack Avenue International Jazz Festival, the Carhartt International Jazz Festival or various other branded permutations — there’s little doubt that she’ll step forward reluctantly if at all.

She’s a shy woman who just now happens to loom large in the local jazz world. And, through her label, she’s something of a national presence as well. How this happened involves more than a little happenstance.

Music and business

Gretchen Carhartt grew up in two worlds — art and commerce.

Her mother was a concert pianist in the 1920s and her sisters aspired to be painters.

Her father, meanwhile, had followed his father, Hamilton Carhartt, into the family business. Hamilton Carhartt, according to the company Web site, in 1889 created the first custom overalls for railroad workers, and parlayed it into a business that has gone on to manufacture duds for farmers, steelworkers and (eventually) average joes.

Growing up first in Detroit’s Indian Village and later in Grosse Pointe, young Gretchen gravitated to music. She was enthralled by the Golden Era of American song — or so it would be called in retrospect — and particularly with George Gershwin and Cole Porter. She wrote her first song (a ballad) at age 14 and even sang in a few clubs (though she disliked the scene). Her parents, Mack Avenue President Tom Robinson says, figured she would outgrow her musical aspirations.

She married in 1948, raised two children and took a hand in the company business, which her husband, Robert Valade, became CEO of in 1959. An obituary of Robert Valade, who died in 1998, credited him with overseeing a company that exploded from $2 million in sales around the time he took over, to $300 million in 1997 after the brand caught on with the youth market.

But Gretchen Valade had never entirely left behind her musical ambitions.

“People weren’t banging down my door trying to play my music. So I said that I will fix them. I will start my own record company. That’s how I got started,” Valade says. (She rarely grants interviews, usually has Robinson on hand to step in if questions seem invasive, and other times has him dole out the facts of her life.)

Valade was working on a song demo when her daughter and namesake, Gretchen Garth, introduced her to Stix Hooper, after meeting him at a dinner fundraiser in Seattle. The younger Gretchen thought Hooper — known in jazz circles as drummer for the Jazz Crusaders — could give her mother some pointers and help her make some industry connections. She was right.

First he sent her back to work on her song, “When I Need to Smile.” Hooper liked the melody, but not the lyrics.

That is — happenstance again — where Robinson entered the picture. Owner of a residential construction company and a poet on the side, he happened to be remodeling Valade’s Grosse Pointe Farms home and became involved in the lyric rewrite.

“I said let me have the melody, and I will write the lyrics for it,” Robinson says. “I just thought it would be fun just to see what I could do.” The song led to Valade founding her label in 1999 and appointing Hooper as president and herself as CEO. Meanwhile, Robinson says, Hooper took a liking to him and took him under his wing, showing him the business.

And after Hooper recruited the young Russian pianist Maslow as the label’s first artist, his first album had as its title track, “When I Need to Smile.”

Presidential succession

Hooper presided over the label’s expansion. Along with younger artists, he recruited the veteran vibes player Terry Gibbs and the underrecorded and insufficiently heralded bandleader Gerald Wilson, who started leading big bands back in the big band era. Wilson’s New York New Sound became Mack Avenue’s bestseller, and received a 2004 Grammy nomination for Best Large Jazz Ensemble.

But in 2003, Hooper split from the label. Robinson, who replaced him as president, praises his role with the company.

“Once Gretchen and Stix got all the pieces in the right position where the label was pretty well able to handle things, Stix was able to part company and go back to working on some of his own projects,” Robinson says. “Without Stix we would have never got Mack Avenue Records started. We would still be thinking about it.”

Hooper, in contrast, has nothing to say about the parting.

Since then, Al Pryor, another industry veteran, has joined Mack Avenue as vice president for artists and repertoire. He’s a Grammy Award-winner who has worked with Horace Silver and Harry Belafonte, among others, and held executive spots at both Columbia and the much-missed indie label Gramavision.

“Don’t be fooled by the shyness. This is a smart woman,” Pryor says of Valade. “If stuff is not on track, she will tell you quicker than a New York minute. She’s very polite, caring and nurturing, but she is a great businesswoman.”

And the fact that she’s a songwriter herself, Pryor emphasizes, gives her insight into the artistic process.

“All she wants was to get everybody to appreciate the artists on Mack Avenue Records the way that she does,” Robinson says. “Gretchen is really dedicated and has a real passion for her artists. She gets real excited when she is able to hear them perform. She loves the business and she really wants it to succeed as much for herself as the artists.”

The label, which now has a roster of seven signed artists and a catalog of 20 records, could become an important player among independent labels, which have long been the center of the jazz world. Along with Gibbs and Wilson, the label has recorded the venerable pianist George Shearing and the Brazilian guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves. The younger artists like Maslov and trumpeter Sean Jones tend to the acoustic mainstream that Wynton Marsalis helped define (Jones plays with Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra), but saxophonist Ron Blake mixes that sound up with funk too. And Ilona Knopfler has repertoire that ranges from standards to tunes like “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do.”

“The company has many great musicians now. It’s growing up, and it’s exciting to watch. I would like to see the label have the same value as Blue Note,” Maslov says, referring to one of the most important of the indie jazz labels, founded back in 1939.

Pryor agrees, putting Mack Avenue in the context of indie labels such as Riverside, Impulse, Prestige and Concord (which, ironically, like Blue Note, have all been absorbed into larger labels or consolidated).

“I think all of these labels share certain characteristics,” Pryor says. “They all had strong leaders who were able to cobble together the resources to apply their sense of integrity and vision and make a stamp on the business. We want to do good business with integrity and artistic vision, and the artists are going to be our partners.”

Mack Avenue Records spends roughly $20,000 to $30,000 to launch a new artist, Robinson says, mostly on production and marketing. A small percentage is advanced to the artist. If the artist’s album gets favorable reviews, heavy radio play and climbs the jazz record charts, the company will normally pump more money into marketing the record. And the company is patient enough, Robinson says, to expect that an artist may take two or three recordings to break through.

“They don’t mind spending money,” says Jones, the young trumpet star. “They help us get out there, and they make sure that we are in all the major jazz magazines.”

But Detroiters can’t help but note that the label with a city thoroughfare in its name has yet to sign a hometown performer. Pryor says despite plenty of Detroit talent, Mack Avenue Records is a business first and can’t operate successfully by choosing artists just because they’re from a select city.

“There are many, many factors that we consider when we bring an artist on board,” Pryor says.

Not budging

Valade’s emergence as the festival’s savior came abruptly, Robinson says. A Music Hall board member, she read in the dailies that the festival was in danger of folding when Ford Motor Co. pulled out as title sponsor after a decade.

She and Robinson contacted festival director Frank Malfitano and set up a meeting. “We were just supposed to have a conversation and get some information. I left to go to the restroom, and when I came back we were the title sponsors,” Robinson says, although Mack Avenue didn’t actually put its name in the title.

There was one Mack Avenue stipulation: The festival would take place, as always, over the Labor Day weekend. Before that there had been discussion of moving it to avoid competing with Pontiac’s ever-ballooning Arts, Beats & Eats Festival.

“Labor Day weekend was ours first, if you know what I mean,” Robinson says. “We just knew if we stayed where we were and put on a great jazz festival that the fans would show up.”

He adds that they also didn’t want the Mack Avenue Records name to be included in the title of the festival, or preferential treatment shown to their artists.

“The reason that we got involved was not to promote Mack Avenue Records. Gretchen wanted to get involved because she has the means now at this stage in her life. She saw an opportunity to do something for Detroit. She felt that losing the festival would have been another black eye the city didn‘t deserve.”

And whether she likes it or not, for doing that, she deserves to take a bow.


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Tradition with a twist Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]

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