Mack Avenue Records has been one of music’s jazz label success stories over the last 15 years. Since its founding in 1999, it has collected Grammies and built an impressive roster of established names like Gary Burton and Christian McBride; and up-and-comers, too, like Beyonce’s No. 1 saxophonist, Tia Fuller and vocalist Sachal Vasandani.
Hometown Detroiters and Detroit-rooted musicians have also been part of the mix from Mack Avenue’s early days; from the eminent bandleader Gerald Wilson to the upstart jazz band Hot Club of Detroit. But the label is taking its commitment to Detroit’s jazz scene to a new level after the recent launch of the imprint The Detroit Music Factory, catering only to Detroit jazz musicians.
Two years ago, Gretchen Carthartt-Valade — the owner of Mack Avenue Records, the Dirty Dog Jazz Café and the chief benefactor of the Detroit Jazz Festival — started thinking earnestly about establishing an independent label that would give a national platform to Detroit jazz musicians. The musicians Valade had in mind included those she saw performing countless times at the Dirty Dog, where is a regular on Wednesdays.
“I’ve been so overwhelmed with the talent that I saw every week at The Dirty Dog,” Valade wrote in an email response. “I thought I could do something to provide an outlet for these wonderful Detroit artists.
After some brainstorming — and legal wrangling — with certain Mack Avenue executives, Valade finally opened the Detroit Music Factory. This was another commitment from Valade to the furtherance of the city’s jazz scene. In 2005, when the Detroit Jazz Festival was near bankruptcy, Valade donated $15 million to the keep the festival going.
“Her first plan was for Mack Avenue to be like the Detroit Music Factory,” said Darrell Garrett, Mac Avenue’s marketing coordinator and the project manager at The Detroit Music Factory. “[She wanted] a label for Detroit jazz musicians, but that didn’t happen.”
Garrett, a husky man with a welcoming disposition, sat in Mack Avenue’s Harper Woods office explaining how the Detroit Music Factory will work and benefit Detroit jazz musicians — most of whom have spent their careers independently promoting their work. Garrett knows the struggles that many jazz musicians without a label face having worked on both side of the music business, first as a guitarist in various R&B bands (most notably the ’80s group Kiara) and a six-year run with Mack Avenue.
The vetting process is simple: A panel of Mack Avenue executives — Valade, CEO Tom Robinson, A&R-man (talent scout) Al Pryor and President Denny Stilwell — give a listen, then decide whether to move forward. Accepting the musicians master recordings isn’t a given. If the panel feels the album doesn’t measure up, they can demand the musicians then go back to the drawing board.
Once the panel has given the green light, the label goes to work: It designs the cover art; albums are distributed to the major outlets like Amazon and iTunes; and distribute CDs to stores as well as process online sales.
There’s a push to get the albums reviewed in all the local newspapers, and jazz magazines such as JazzTimes and DownBeat, and regular play on jazz radio stations across the country. The label prints roughly 5,000 units, which is considerable for an upstart jazz label; 1,000 units are advanced to the musicians for direct sales opportunities, and profits are the solely the musician’s.
When the initial print run is sold out, musicians may purchase more from the label at a discount. The label and the musicians work as partners, with the musicians absorbing the production costs and the label underwriting distribution and marketing costs.
The goal, Detroit Music Factory reps say, is to sign six musicians a year. Thus far, the label has signed four: pianist Scott Gwinnell; drummer RJ Spangler; and the Planet D Nonet, drummer Sean Dobbins and bassist Ralphe Armstrong.
Gwinnell’s album, Cass Corridor Suite, was the label’s first release. According to Garrett, sales have been strong and it’s receiving national radio play.
“One of the good things about the label is it increases visibility in the short term,” Gwinnell said recently, by phone. “When I was pushing my projects independently, I didn’t have the resources to get the projects outside of Detroit. That has changed being signed to this label”.
Gwinnell’s fourth album, “Cass Corridor Suite” is his most ambitious yet. The artist has been in the trenches for years making solid jazz with his orchestra and other ensembles, which seemed to be training for this masterwork. On the album, Gwinnell paints a portrait of the Detroit neighborhood where he lived and that, for decades, was home to many musicians, painters, scholars and writers. It was also a haven for drugs and prostitution. He saw it all and it comes out on every movement of the suite — as a sort of utopia, a place the creative sort could flourish.
Sean Dobbins, one of the city’s leading jazz drummers and leader of Sean Dobbins & the Modern Jazz Messengers, sees the label as a boon for local jazz musicians; a label that won’t comprise the musician’s freedom. Dobbins’ album, Blue Horizons, is due out in May 2013.
The drummer recalls a story of how a friend was signed to a known jazz record label that dictated what style of music it wanted him to make.
“He’d come off the road from touring and met with the label to discuss his upcoming album, and the label had already picked out all the tunes they wanted him to record,” Dobbins said. “They had the mentality that ‘we’re putting up the money so you have to do what we say.’ That won’t be the case with the Detroit Music Factory, and that’s why I’m happy to be signed.”
Charles L. Latimer writes for MetroTimes. Send comments to him at [email protected]