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Finding a Jazz Essence

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tommy LiPuma’s career represents the kind of success story rarely seen in the often quixotic world of jazz. Starting his career as a saxophone player, he has been, successively, a record promoter, a song plugger for a publishing company, an A&R; man, a producer and the owner of his own record company.

His remarkable track record includes more than 35 Grammy nominations, a record of the year award for producing George Benson’s “This Masquerade” and album of the year award for Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable.” He has received 18 gold and platinum albums for his work with Al Jarreau, David Sanborn, Rickie Lee Jones, Michael Franks, Anita Baker and others, and he produced Barbra Streisand’s “The Way We Were” album.

LiPuma is well aware, however, that all his achievements won’t guarantee a thing in his new job heading up the combined jazz labels resulting from Seagram/Universal’s $10.4-billion acquisition of Polygram. The merger brings together two markedly disparate imprints: Universal’s GRP, founded in the early ‘80s by musicians Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen and headed in recent years by LiPuma, has been instrumental in the emergence of smooth (generally described as “contemporary”) jazz; Polygram’s Verve, on the other hand, is a company with a fabled jazz legacy (Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, to name only a few) and a solid, continuing dedication to the mainstream in the work of Joe Henderson, Shirley Horn, Nicholas Payton, etc.

The two companies’ combined resources easily make the new entity that emerges under LiPuma’s direction one of the major international jazz players. But the merger also raises many questions regarding the impact it will have upon the enormously valuable existing Verve and Impulse! (a GRP subsidiary) catalogs, the current artist rosters of both companies, and the jazz record business.

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LiPuma suggested via a phone conversation from his New York office that matters are very much in a state of flux.

Question: Universal has not exactly been known as a haven for jazz in the past. Do you envision a supportive environment for the GRP/Verve merger?

Answer: I think they’re very conscious of jazz--especially Zach Horowitz [president of the Universal Music Group]--and they do look at it as being very important. If that wasn’t the case, I’m sure they’d turn it over to a catalog operation and sell the catalog. To the contrary, my sense has been that they expect this to grow.

Q: How do you see that growth taking place? There have been reports that the merger could result in the loss of as many as 3,000 jobs. With 70 or so employees at GRP and Verve, can one assume there will be some departures?

A: You’ve got two companies here of equal size, and something’s got to give somewhere. We’ll start having meetings with key staff members after the holiday break. At that point we’ll be getting an overall sense of the philosophy that we want to go forward with and we’ll start making some of the hard decisions.

Q: How do you envision those decisions affecting the combined companies?

A: Well, first of all, we’ll have one staff. And, although it’s not etched in stone yet, we’re talking about calling it the Verve Group, obviously with several imprints--GRP, Impulse! and so forth. But Verve is the label that has the most cache and to call it anything else would be foolish.

Q: Do you see this kind of corporate coming-together and slimming-down as a potential template for the jazz future throughout the industry?

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A: It’s possible. The difference between the way it is now, and the way it was in the ‘40s and ‘50s is that in those days you had real entrepreneurs. And they didn’t have to answer to anyone. They just did what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it. If they wanted to hold on to an act for years, they were able to do it if they were making money with them or not, so long as the overall financial situation was right and they weren’t going broke, they let them record.

Q: And today?

A: Today, the climate in the jazz record business, as far as retail is concerned, is that marketing any one record has become both expensive and time-consuming. It used to be that you made a record, and within a month you’d put it out. And now, from the time that you have a finished master, it’s four months before you can release the record. Four months between the finished record and the release of the record!

If you have a roster that’s too big, you can’t expect a staff to give any single album the attention and time that it deserves. That’s what any record company has to keep in mind at all times.

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Q: As the new philosophy emerges, and as you take a look at the roster changes you’ll be making, what do you see are the most important considerations in signing new jazz talent--whether it’s at the Verve Group or at any other label?

A: I think the most important aspect today is that an artist has to have a sense of who he or she is and what it is that they want to do with their careers. And that they look at what they’re doing as a career. In the past 20 years we’ve had a lot of records made by great musicians who weren’t necessarily artists. They were great sidemen, but they weren’t artists. They would do a record, the record would be released, and the next thing you knew, they’d be going out with so and so for a tour as a sideman for someone else.

I want to work with artists who, first of all, look at their life, and their music, and what they’re doing as a career, for better or worse.

Q: For most long-term jazz fans, the Impulse! and Verve catalogs include some of the finest music ever recorded. And both labels have been doing a comprehensive job of intelligently repackaging and, in some cases, restoring those original recordings. How will those programs be impacted by the merger?

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A: This is an incredible treasure trove of material, and I view caretaking it with great seriousness. We have some people at Verve--Michael Lang specifically--who are masters at working with reissues. And at GRP, the Impulse! reissues were probably responsible for a third or more of our billings. The success of something like the Coltrane boxed-set we’ve just put out, for example, makes you realize that, although these things are 30-something years old, they not only are obviously viable, but that people are willing to go out and pay $99 or whatever the retail price is. So it speaks a bundle for the importance of the music, and for our responsibilities in dealing with it.

Q: Is it accurate to say that the sense of responsibility you describe is fundamental to the way you’re approaching the merger?

A: I hope so. If anyone were to have told me a year ago, let alone 10 years ago, that I was going to wind up in this position, well, just the thought humbles me. Verve is a label that produced some of the important records in my life--Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Jackie Cain and Roy Kral with the Charlie Ventura Septet, Jazz at the Philharmonic, Bill Evans with a symphony orchestra. These records really not only had an influence on me, but basically they influenced the manner in which I ultimately ended up making records.

I collect American modernist pictures. And I came to the conclusion that when you collect pictures, you’re really a caretaker. The same thing is true here, and, yes, I view it with a powerful sense of responsibility.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Crossroads

The daily Calendar section will continue through Jan. 7 its series of interviews, conducted by Times critics, with leaders in the arts and entertainment.

MONDAY

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Movies: Steven Spielberg

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TUESDAY

Classical music: MaryAnn Bonino

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WEDNESDAY

Television: Jeff Greenfield

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TODAY

Jazz: Tommy LiPuma

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FRIDAY

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Dance: Garth Fagan

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SATURDAY

Restaurants: Nobu Matsuhisa

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JAN. 4

Architecture: Philip Johnson

JAN. 5

Stage: Beth Henley

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JAN. 6

Pop music: Bryan Turner

JAN. 7

Art: Gary Kornblau

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