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Jazzed Up

To see how much power media Goliaths wield in the entertainment arena., you need to look no further than the recording industry. The $12 billion dollar record industry is dominated by a mere six players -- Time-Warner, Sony, BMG/RCA, EMI/Capitol, Polygram and Universal/MCA -- who control just under 85 percent of the market. The number of major players will dwindle to five when Polygram and Universal complete their merger by year-end. That the majors control major moneymakers like rock and country is obvious, but they also penetrate the smallest of niches, including classical, new age and various ethnic styles, to virtually dominate the industry.

A small piece of the record industry pie, jazz accounted for less than 3 percent of total industry sales in 1997. Just how small are jazz sales? Consider this: Only five jazz albums went gold in 1997, and all but one of them were released over 20 years ago. Yet, despite the small size of the jazz market, all six major players have a significant presence in this niche through various subsidiary labels such as Polygram's Verve, Universal's GRP and Impulse labels, and EMI's Blue Note. While Soundscan, an auditor of record industry sales, has no breakout of the major vs. independent share of the jazz market, a look at recent Billboard charts showed the majors clocking in 20 of the Top 25 mainstream jazz albums and 17 of the Top 25 contemporary jazz albums. Even though the majors own the category, dozens of independent jazz labels are battling economic reality and vying for a spot in the modest jazz marketplace.

Enter 32 Records. Formed in 1995 by world renowned producer Joel Dorn and prominent bankruptcy lawyer Robert Miller, the independently owned and operated record label specializes in acquiring and reissuing records -- most of them jazz. Though 32 Records does have sub imprints that market other music genres -- 32 Blues, 32 R&B, 32 POP & HIP -- jazz accounts for the vast majority of the label's catalog. Given that the odds in favor of a jazz label's success are practically nonexistent, why would anyone start one?

"I have no idea," Dorn laughs hysterically. "I don't know how to do anything else. It's like if I don't do this, what am I going to do? Sit in the park? I really love doing shit with music, with records. I really enjoy it. I know that might not be the great spiritual answer, but I really love making records."

An eight-time Grammy winner, the affable Dorn knows something about making records. He produced his first recording for Atlantic Records in 1965 when he got a then unsigned flutist and Houston native named Hubert Laws to record Laws of Jazz. Laws of Jazz was a success, and Dorn was soon working full-time for Atlantic Records where he stayed for seven years before moving on to other labels. During his 20-plus year career as a producer, Dorn worked with several important and successful names in music, including Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Les McCann, Eddie Harris, David "Fathead" Newman, Hank Crawford and Yusef Lateef on the jazz side and Roberta Flack, Bette Midler, Leon Redbone, Lou Rawls and the Neville Brothers on the pop side.

After a lengthy career as a producer, Dorn changed directions in the mid-eighties. He spent several years researching and compiling unreleased and unknown live jazz recordings and eventually started the short-lived label Night Records, which issued previously unreleased live recordings. A subsidiary of Virgin, Night was a casualty of EMI's purchase of Virgin. After Night Records quietly disappeared, Dorn consulted for Rhino, GRP and Columbia on several reissue projects and produced some box sets, including a Grammy nominated John Coltrane box. Still, the bug to run his own record company hadn't faded, and in 1995, the same year the Smithsonian added his works and papers to their collection, Dorn started up 32 Records with partner Robert Miller.

32 Records's primary niche is jazz reissues, with more than 1,000 titles in its possession, including 600 masters purchased from Muse/Landmark. A sound business move, the Muse/Landmark catalog has recordings by several artists who are popular, if not best-selling jazz artists such as Woody Shaw, Sonny Stitt, Jack McDuff, Kenny Barron, Houston Person, Wallace Roney, Cedar Walton and Pat Martino. The fact that many of these records have not appeared on CD doesn't hurt, either. Another source 32 Jazz is tapping for material is one Dorn is quite familiar with: Atlantic Records. Though Atlantic's reissue program is overseen by Rhino Records, the Los Angeles-based reissue specialists can only feasibly release a certain number of albums each year. Dorn's strategy has been to license Atlantic albums that Rhino doesn't have room on its schedule to release. "I have an emotional attachment to the Atlantic catalog," says Dorn. "It's not a business decision on my part. I'm a big Atlantic fan. A lot of those records I made. I fell in love with Atlantic when I was 14 years old and I heard my first Ray Charles record. The whole reason I do what I do is pretty much Atlantic. I worked there in its golden age and I don't want to see these things languish. These guys are friends of mine. They're people I recorded, and I want to make sure their work is out there for the public to have access to it."

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