June 13, 2024


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The first Black-run jazz company, but was Black Jazz Records owned by a white guy? Photos, Video

The timing, on paper, was poetic. Black Jazz Records, sadly out-of-print for most of the last four decades, would be revived during the summer of Black Lives Matter.

With its hands-clasped logo and distinctively monochromatic covers, Black Jazz represented more than just music. As the 1971 article in Billboard Magazine announcing its creation proclaimed in a headline, “Black Owned Jazz Label to Bow With Black Acts Only.”

Except that it might not have been Black-owned.

That reality has renewed a long-standing conflict as the first set of Black Jazz reissues arrive this month from Real Gone Music, the specialty label with an eclectic catalogue that includes Ben Folds and Question Mark and the Mysterians. The campaign that was intended to celebrate the partnership of Gene Russell, a Black pianist and producer who died in relative anonymity in 1981, and Dick Schory, a White percussionist and arranger who earned millions during RCA’s golden era, has instead revived a debate over the romantic mythology surrounding the label’s history. It has also brought to the surface the complicated, decades-old web of business dysfunction that kept these albums from being properly released over the years.

The recent wave of conflict began earlier this month when Russell’s family learned of the reissue campaign through the reporting on this article. Russell was 55 when he died, six years after the release of the last of 20 Black Jazz albums. Toi Eugene Russell, his 56-year-old son, has long believed that his father wasn’t just the label’s co-founder but a partial owner with Schory.

And he had no idea that Schory, 88, who has always insisted he owned Black Jazz Records outright, recently sold the label to 43 North Broadway LLC, which in turn licensed it to Real Gone.

“Gene Russell was an amazing guy,” Lowy says. “He saw there were no labels run by and putting out only music by Black people. If you look at all the artwork, it’s all with a focus on Blackness. The fact that it ends up in the hands of a bunch of White guys is particularly squalid.”

It is easy to understand why Russell’s family might question Schory’s accounting of history. Toi Russell, who was 5 when his parents divorced in 1970, has boxes of newspaper accounts and publicity releases left behind by his father, each detailing his role in founding the lone Black jazz label in an industry dominated by White men.

“Too many Black jazz artists are being denied a chance to showcase their talents,” Gene Russell states in a pamphlet sent out to promote the label and promising that he “oversees the entire operation . . . even engineers the recordings himself.”

As president of Black Jazz Records, Russell signed and produced a range of music, from the spiritual space jazz of Doug and Jean Carn to the soul funk of former Count Basie bassist Cleveland Eaton. The label gave headlining shots to a range of young artists, including bassist Henry Franklin, guitarist Calvin Keys and singer Kellee Patterson.

And even if Black Jazz Records couldn’t compete with majors like Columbia, Blue Note and Impulse!, it did develop a loyal fan base.

“I considered myself a Black nationalist, so I was looking for music that not only musically but lyrically supported my lifestyle,” says Erik Nuri, a former RCA artist and repertoire vice president who was a freshman at Harvard University in 1972 when he began to pick up LPs at Skippy White’s record store in Boston’s Roxbury section. “The Black Jazz label struck a chord in me.”

It was meant to.

Russell took pride in his vision. And he never acted like an employee.

“He used to say, ‘my record company,’ ” remembers Doug Carn, whose “Infant Eyes” was the first Black Jazz Records release when it came out in 1971.

The Billboard article announcing the founding of Black Jazz laid out Russell’s vision of a company “owned, operated, staffed and aimed at blacks.” The article noted that the label would be distributed by Ovation Records, which was owned by Schory.

The Billboard article announcing the founding of Black Jazz laid out Russell’s vision of a company “owned, operated, staffed and aimed at blacks.” (43 North Broadway)

Kellee Patterson remembers meeting Russell at a trade fair in Chicago in 1971. He spoke passionately about his idea.

“It was about making sure that Black artists were more represented, because so many of them had their work stolen and never got the benefits of it,” Patterson says. “Gene was determined to change all that.”

At a time when fusion and funk had replaced organic jazz, when Miles Davis’s “On the Corner” and Weather Report’s “Mysterious Traveller” were dominating the genre, Russell followed his vision. He recorded “New Direction,” which was a return to the old direction of organically produced piano soul. Black Jazz signed Walter Bishop Jr., the pianist who had started out playing with Charlie Parker and Miles Davis in the 1950s, and bassist Franklin, whose first album as a leader, “The Skipper,” came out in 1972. Money was tight.

Franklin, now 79. There were never any royalties. But he got something more important than money from Russell’s label.

Artists remember talking to Russell about music, with the producer working long hours in the studio with a pack of his ever-present Kools on the board next to him. But he didn’t reveal much about the business side. Years later, they are left to speculate about Russell’s stake in the company. Though Patterson believed Russell was the owner — “How does a White kid from Iowa decide he wants to help Black performers?” — Franklin, Carn and guitarist Calvin Keys always assumed Black Jazz was driven by Schory’s wallet.

“I mean, what African American had that type of money other than [Berry Gordy at] Motown?” says Keys, who put out two albums on Black Jazz. “We were victims of society just like the rest of the musicians were.”

Schory says he considered Russell a friend and creative partner. But recently, after learning of the family’s continued questions about whether he had the authority to sell the label to 43 North, he began to dig through his files. He could not find a contract for Russell or documentation of purchasing Black Jazz Records. But he did find bills for label costs and also a 1973 memo to his then attorney, describing the origin of the company.

This memo, a copy of which was given to The Post, reveals that one additional layer of ownership existed in the first months of Black Jazz.

In the account, Schory says that Ray Lawrence, a White promoter who died in 2017, introduced him to Russell in 1971 and encouraged him to support a new company, Black Jazz Ltd. But by early 1972, Schory learned that he had been misled to think Russell owned the entity. Schory says that Lawrence and his business associates actually owned 60 percent of the company to Russell’s 40.

“There’s only one person who put money into that label, and that was me,” declares Schory, who says he still owns Ovation Records.

Doug Carn’s brand of spiritual space jazz was one of the highlights of Black Jazz Records.
Doug Carn’s brand of spiritual space jazz was one of the highlights of Black Jazz Records. (Harun Akbar)

The Russell family is not alone in disputing the ownership of Black Jazz Records.

Erik Nuri, the saxophonist who eventually left RCA, says that he is the owner. Nuri, 66, bought the label off Schory for $60,000 in the 1990s. But Nuri said an illness left him unable to proceed with his reissue plans. That’s when he met James Hardge, who was running a record store in Atlanta. They agreed on a sale, and Hardge provided a down payment of about $50,000. Nuri says he gave him the master tapes but that Hardge never made another payment.

That led to a decade of confusion surrounding Black Jazz. Hardge, claiming ownership, licensed the music to a company in Japan and later to Snow Dog Records, a Massachusetts label that reissued the catalogue on CD in 2012. He also tried to sell Black Jazz Records on Craigslist for $285,000.

When the specialty label Numero Group mocked his price tag in an online post, Hardge delivered a series of email rants accusing the label of racism and trying to devalue Black Jazz. (Numero Group’s co-founder Ken Shipley said the label took down the post after Hardge’s complaint. “We probably shouldn’t have done something public,” he said.”)

Hardge also battled with some of the artists who recorded for Russell. Guitarist Keys remembers trying to hold a Black Jazz reunion concert in San Francisco. He says Hardge showed up, screaming that only he had the right to authorize such a performance.

Eventually, Nuri sued Hardge to get the label back but says the case became too costly to pursue. With Hardge’s death in 2017, the masters remain missing.

Nuri knew nothing about Real Gone’s reissue campaign until this month, when he was contacted by The Post. The current revival of the label started with Real Gone’s Anderson. He knew, from scouring record collecting sights, that original, clean Black Jazz vinyl could fetch hundreds of dollars on the Internet.

In 2019, Antone DeSantis, a freelancer for 43 North, approached Real Gone and told Anderson that the label was available for licensing. Anderson called Zev Feldman to see whether he was interested in consulting on the project. The Washington, D.C., native is a jazz lover, archivist and respected producer who has earned acclaim for recent projects that involved Thelonious Monk, Eric Dolphy and Nat King Cole.

“These are incredibly rare albums,” he says. “The music is killing, and these are important time capsules.”

But Nuri says he doesn’t understand how the deal could be made without him.

An undated publicity still of Dick Schory, the founder of Ovation Records. The 88-year-old has always insisted he owned Black Jazz Records outright, and he recently sold the label to 43 North Broadway LLC. (Ovation Records)

It is unclear what proof 43 North asked Schory for when it acquired Black Jazz. Schory said that he did not provide documents to owner Curt Frasca but only his verbal assurance that he owned the label. “I gave him whatever I had in my mind of what happened,” he said. “There was no other evidence that I had that I didn’t own it.”

When 43 North approached him, Schory did not consider Nuri a factor. His memory was that Nuri did not pay him in full, which meant he had defaulted and the label rights returned to Schory. But Nuri said he has his Black Jazz paperwork in a storage facility in New Jersey. Family health issues and covid-19 concerns prevent him from flying across the country to retrieve them, but he said he will probably talk to an attorney after the reissues come onto the market.

“For the life of me, I don’t know how 43 North would take Dick Schory at his word,” Nuri says. “Just Googling Black Jazz records, just Googling James Hardge, that should show them that Dick Schory can’t claim outright ownership just because he founded it. There is a paper trail. There is a path.”

When told that Nuri insisted he paid completely for the label, Schory said he hasn’t found the documents to show that.

“But that doesn’t mean that he didn’t,” Schory said. “Now if he can prove that he did, or I can prove that he did . . . then I’ll work something out with him.

Frasca, DeSantis and Joseph Serling, an attorney representing 43 North, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. But Feldman, the archivist, said the conflict that has emerged as release day approaches has left him struggling to sleep. Recently, he sent Anderson a note asking that he be removed from the Black Jazz project. His name is listed with Anderson as a co-producer of the reissues.

“I’m just beside myself,” he says. “I’ve based so much of my work on integrity and the relationships working with families. I wish I had never gotten involved.”

Toi Russell says he has no issue with Anderson or Feldman. He just wants somebody to show him paperwork proving that his father was treated fairly. At his home in Los Angeles, Russell has stacks of tapes and photographs. Russell hopes he can help Real Gone in the future as it continues its reissue campaign.

“They’re doing an awesome job,” Russell says of the label. “I’m hoping to God it gets worked out. My whole point was that the history that went behind the company, that’s what I want to get out.”

Gene Russell - New Direction (1971, Vinyl) | Discogs

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