How Low Can You Go?

Jazzman

“We try to get to the nitty gritty bottom of whatever genre we’re getting into – the heavy, really rare stuff, whether it’s funk, jazz, soul or more obscure genres like popcorn music, it’s all good and worthwhile stuff.”

“We Dig Deeper” is more than just a motto for Jazzman Records. Over the course of 14 years unearthing rare jazz, soul, R&B, and funk for the UK-based label, founder “Jazzman” Gerald Short has been held at gunpoint, dug for vinyl in dark, dog poo infested basements, and had $20,000 worth of records stolen. Through it all he’s soldiered on, and his impressive back catalog now includes reissues of hundreds of highly sought after 45’s and LP’s rereleased as singles, albums, and compilations. Jazzman recently joined a group of labels making these rereleases available on Bandcamp, so we thought an introduction to the label and its founder was in order.

“It’s nice to get deep into music, but it shouldn’t always be deadly serious, sometimes you want to relax, dance or have a laugh with it,” says Short. By offering well-researched and thoughtful selections, his Jazzman label curates accessible and informative reissues, sidestepping the perception that obsessive vinyl collectors are either obnoxiously elitist or just boring trainspotters. His mission is to make good music (that just also happens to be extremely rare) available to a wider audience, and to provide context on why the music should be relevant. “We try to get to the nitty gritty bottom of whatever genre we’re getting into – the heavy, really rare stuff, whether it’s funk, jazz, soul or more obscure genres like popcorn music, it’s all good and worthwhile stuff.”

Jazzman officies

Before his label and mail order business took off, Short sold records at Camden Market in London, England.  He’d stock a stall with vinyl bought on trips to the US, and garnered a rep for being a dealer and DJ with discerning taste. The idea to turn this business into a label came at a gig in Germany. Watching the sizeable crowd lose it to an obscure version of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” Short realized he should make the track, and others like it, available to an even bigger audience. Kathleen Emery’s ultra-rare funky take on the African American spiritual became the first 7” single to be released on Jazzman.

For Short, dealing in rare records and DJing has faded as his label gathered steam. He now also runs two mail order companies – his own for Jazzman, and another called Fat City. The latter was a store, label, and club night in Manchester, England for 16 years. Upon hearing of its possible closure, Short felt that the shop, which had played a long and important role in the UK music scene, should not be allowed to die. He stepped in and took it over. These days using the internet allows him to track down artists and stay on top of hot records and collecting trends from his office, while juggling label administrative duties. “It’s not like the old days when we had to comb through old American phone books to track people down. All I do all day, apart from accounts and all the boring stuff, is constantly chit-chat about music, discuss it on message boards or research online. There’s so much info out there if you want to find it.”

Up until recently he concentrated on music originating from the US. Jazzman collections were so strong they were even licensed back in the US (for re-rerelease!) by domestic reissue specialist labels like the Stones Throw offshoot Now and Then.  More recent Jazzman titles have reached further afield, tapping and exposing genres like popcorn (an early 70s branch of R&B originating in Belgium) and spiritual jazz recorded in Europe.

Unlike pop music, which can move quickly in multiple directions, the soul, funk and jazz reissue market sees specific records catch fire when they are rediscovered by collectors or DJs. Otherwise tastes and trends in broader styles develop a little more slowly. “A decade ago people were into loud banging funk with lots of drum breaks. But now there’s an interest in a more mellow modern sound, or even softer ballad-like stuff. It’s difficult to predict the future, but in a way you can mold it a little by pointing people in certain directions,” explains Short. When Jazzman releases delve deep into the world of 1960s R&B (“pretty hot right now” says Short) their exhaustive research and output also shines a light on subgenres like jump blues, jukebox jam, and even the curiously named titty shakers. “Ah yes, I did not invent that name,” laughs Short. The risqué description refers to a forgotten style that has been enjoying a resurrection. “It’s basically late 1950s early 1960s burlesque lounge music, perhaps from a 4-piece group playing sleazy juke joint instrumental stuff that may have been the accompaniment for a stripper, or the interlude music between a singer’s sets,” explains Short. “It’s not too much about jazz or R&B, but somewhere fun and quirky in the middle, often with a sense of humor.“

Occasionally Short will champion an artist or sound based purely on personal interest and not market demand, even if it means taking a big gamble. “I do put stuff out that I know will sell well, but that funds me being able to do more obscure titles that might not sell as well. For instance, I put a lot of work into a Jef Gilson record that did just ok, and I’d hoped it would reach more people than it did. And I’m about to put out his unreleased stuff, too, which some might see as a big mistake,” he says. Short had noticed his vast personal collection included a huge chunk of Gilson records that he was very fond of. However, a quick search turned up no Wikipedia entry, and very little general info about the musician. “Here’s a producer, player, composer, etc, who has played with a who’s who of French musicians. If you ask some people about jazz all you hear about is Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Gilson has a voice of his own, and all of his stuff is top-notch; as good as anything else you’ll hear. I still stand by him, I think he’s top class.”

In the past few years, Short signed a couple of new recording artists to the label, both of whom are influenced by the vintage musical past that Jazzman is best known for. Despite admitting that he does not have the time or interest to be deeply immersed in new music, he’s picky about his roster and applies a similar criteria to his A&R choices as he did to the Gilson record. “A lot of new music is crap, but when I listen to Sign of Four or Greg Foat I know that they have their own angle, their own style and identifiable sound, and that they’re doing it well. That is what I like to hear.”

With an increasing label presence on Bandcamp, we asked Short to provide the background on a few highlights:

“Spiritual Jazz is an all-encompassing term that comes from the post John Coltrane period, where music was meant to be more than just listened to.  It’s music that can send shivers down your spine, maybe even change your life – “Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe” as Albert Ayler once said. It’s also music often recorded by neglected artists who perhaps have not been well-represented.”

“Apparently the Red Calender track on the Jukebox Mambo compilation is so rare it does not exist, at least according to Hollywood Records who we’re pretty sure did actually put it out in the first place. Regardless, it’s great and here it is…”

“I had this record once a long time ago and sold it for $10. Silly me, these days it fetches up to $800. I had to reissue it, because now I can listen again once more.”

“There are some songs that I love to collect versions of, such as Summertime, Miserlou and another one – Tequila. There are loads of versions but none quite like this amazing latin banger.”

“When it comes to poetic voices and pretty tunes I’m all ears. Add some jazz to the mix and I’m in heaven – which is pretty much what this Norwegian Christian band are singing about. Stunning music that’s a delight to behold.”

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