When I started listening to jazz in 1971, the music's best years had already passed.
Pop and soul singles dominated AM radio, while alternative rock LPs saturated the FM band. Jazz sections of record stores were flooded with thinly packaged reissues, "two-fers" and greatest hits albums. Even worse, most of the masterpieces from the 1950s were no longer in print.
This was the age before cassettes, instant downloads, iPods, CDs, mp3 files, eBay and file-sharing sites. In New York, the only way to hear the old recordings was to tune into WRVR-FM, particularly Ed Beach's Just Jazz program.
Or you could hang out with the aging hipsters in newsboy caps, half-open Spandex shirts and elevator shoes at used record stores in Greenwich Village. There, you'd find mint copies of used Blue Note, Prestige and Riverside LPs in plastic sleeves for $20 and up—that's in early 1970s dollars!
I never warmed to fusion back then (I can hear the e-mails pouring in already). I can appreciate the better fusion recordings today by Herbie Hancock, Return to Forever and Steps Ahead. But back then, I found the genre's message spacey, the solos painfully long and meaningless, and the musicians a tad over-schooled.
When I did buy a new album in the early 1970s by a jazz artist, the LP often was on the Black Jazz Records label.
Black Jazz Records was founded in 1970 by Gene Russell, a jazz pianist. All of the label's artists were heavily influenced by the African-urban cultural movement of the time, and the music frequently featured the Fender Rhodes electric piano, the Hammond B-3 organ and a range of African percussion instruments.
The music was jazz, but it was different—combining a looser feel with a political mood that emphasized peace, love and independence.
The music felt alive—and free of restraint and compromise. That's probably because all of the Black Jazz artists had been spurned by mainstream labels that insisted on electric fusion or slick easy listening.
Black Jazz Records had a relatively short life—the label was around until 1976. The company turned out around 30 albums by artists such as Rudolph Johnson, Calvin Keys and Henry Franklin. But it also made room for experimental old timers such as pianist Walter Bishop, Jr. and new groups such as The Awakening.
The quadraphonic recording technique the label used also was ahead of its time, giving the albums a wider, crisper sound similar to what you hear today on Japanese remasters.
My absolute favorite Black Jazz album was Infant Eyes, by pianist Doug Carn and his wife, Jean Carn. The record had a sensual, powerful feel. What made the album a hit were the soulful lyrics the Carns crafted for jazz standards such as Bobby Hutcherson's Little B's Poem, Wayne Shorter's Infant Eyes, John Coltrane's Acknowledgment from A Love Supreme, and Horace Silver's Peace.
Doug's arrangements and Jean's searing, passionate vocals gave the album a distinctly 1970s African-American feel.
For years, I trawled the web looking for a remastered CD of Infant Eyes and other Black Jazz recordings that I already owned on LP. From time to time I'd find one or two—but they always looked like digital recordings from the LPs rather than the masters. And the prices were out of control.
Then about a year ago, instead of typing the record titles into Google, I took a shot and pecked in "Black Jazz Records." To my astonishment, up came link to a site that featured all the Black Jazz records in both CD and downloadable mp3 formats. What's more, the prices were fantastic.
James Hardge, president of the company that now owns the Black Jazz catalog, picks up the story on the company's website:
"In 1986 I began my quest to own and reactivate Black Jazz Records. I knew that the original owner had passed, so I set out to bring Black Jazz Records to life. It was on my mind 24 hours a day, I was constantly thinking how I could acquire the iconic label.
I moved from my home in Oakland, California to Atlanta and opened Red Beans and Rice Records in 1992. While in business, this beautiful young lady walked in the store and began browsing through the albums. While browsing she came across the album Infant Eyes. She walked to the counter and said, 'That’s me.'
I responded in question and she identified herself as the baby in the album cover picture. She also noted that her mother and father were also in the picture. What a shock! Actually meeting the daughter of Doug and Jean Carn. When I asked if her father was still living, she said 'Yes, and he’s currently living in Florida.'
She gave me his telephone number, and I called a week later to find the number no longer in service. I never saw the young lady again after our encounter.
A year later a freak accident happened. A car ran through my store doing 50 MPH, damaging the building severely. It forced me to relocate the business across town, which turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me!
My employee received a call from a gentleman who said he was the owner of Black Jazz. I immediately returned the call and asked him his intentions. He asked if I knew of a label that was interested in reissuing the titles from the Black Jazz’s catalog.
I responded that I was; I also asked him if he was interested in selling the label. He responded 'Possibly.' I asked him where he was currently living, and the location he told me was less than two blocks away from my store. What a coincidence!
A month later he informed me that he was interested in selling the label. We worked out a deal, and a month after that I was the proud owner of Black Jazz Records. Keeping the tradition alive and keeping it in black hands.
It is now my intent to reactivate Black Jazz Records to reissue all of the catalog albums domestically and internationally on CD and vinyl, and to sign and record new and established recording artists whose musical direction is consistent with the spirit of positively and African-American Awareness through music."
The prices of Black Jazz albums at the site are beyond fantastic. Album downloads are $8.50 each, and the CDs are $13,98 apiece. And the fidelity is stunning.
See and hear for yourself. To access the Black Jazz site, click here.
If there's a name for this type of early-1970s music, it's "jazz soul"—a fusion that feels more natural to me than jazz-rock.
JazzWax track: Infant Eyes is a deeply poetic album. It's also something of a musical time capsule, since the sound is distinctly early 1970s. The music will instantly remind you of car doors that didn't close properly, elephant bell bottoms, afro picks, long hair parted in the middle, and pink-tinted Granny sunglasses.
Don't buy by clicking the image of the LP at the top of my blog. That image is there because uploading it that way from Amazon was easier than figuring out the coding needed to made a non-Amazon image stick.
Instead, Infant Eyes can be downloaded here for a fraction of the cost. Or purchase it by clicking on the "Buy Now" tab at the top of the Black Jazz site. You also can sample tracks from the album—or any Black Jazz album—before you buy.
When I downloaded Infant Eyes from the site, I was astonished by its vivid fidelity—on my laptop, no less! It sounded better than any remastered import.
Bonus: The Black Jazz site also plays free music from its catalog. Go here and click on the site's "Radio" tab up top. The radio feature will come on immediately. I often just let it run while I write and find the sound more than satisfying. Note that I added the "BlackJazz Radio" link in the Jazz Radio section in the right-hand column so you can access it easily in the future. Peace, baby.