Sunday, November 20, 2016

Larry Rosen Didn't Save Jazz, But He & Dave Grusin Gave It A New Lease On Life

Larry Rosen and Dave Grusin in Studio B, Electric Lady (1977)
Jazz has a dirty little secret.  From the outside looking in, the only musical genre that America can claim to be its very own appears to be healthy, and it indeed seems there has never been a more dazzling constellation of greats ranging from old cats like Horace Silver and Chick Corea to newcomers like Gregory Porter and Joey Alexander.  But from the inside, jazz is struggling to survive.   There are more empty seats than full ones at jazz clubs -- the ones that manage to survive, that is -- and few jazz musicians are able to make the big leap by quitting their day jobs, and many of those who do are struggling to survive by living a gig-to-gig existence. 
This is not new.  Indeed, playing jazz has been as much about living on the edge as cutting edge since Buddy Bolden started his first band in New Orleans in 1895.  But the situation was especially parlous in 1978.  That was when drummer Larry Rosen teamed up with keyboard player Dave Grusin to start GRP Records. 
GRP did not "save" jazz, as some people would have it, but Rosen and Grusin did provide a safe harbor for many jazz musicians who had been dumped by their record labels as disco, funk and punk rock dominated the charts.  Those artists came to include the bands Spyro Gyra, the Yellowjackets and Brecker Brothers, musicians Corea, Ramsey Lewis, David Sanborn, Lee Ritenour, Kenny Kirkland and Dave Valentin, and singers Angela Bonfill, Diane Schuur, Patti Austin and Diana Krall.  And of course Grusin.   
Hazel Rosen and Deborah at the NJPAC tribute.
Larry -- and we're on a first-name basis here because my companion Deborah and he and wife Hazel and their kids were close friends for many years -- died in October 2015 at the much-too-young age of 75.  There has been a round of tributes in his honor this month, including a blockbuster at NJPAC last week starring Grusin, Rittenour and Sanborn.  At 82, Grusin not only has not slowed down, but the multiple Grammy and Oscar winner is playing better than ever.   
Where Larry and Grusin were true pioneers was in introducing digital recording to jazz, which in the early 1980s was confined to classical music.  The entire GRP catalogue was digital, and Larry and Grusin went on to embrace MP3s years before they became the coin of the realm.  They sold GRP for a cool $60 million in 1990 and launched N2K, an early online music site at a time when artists of all stripes were especially struggling because free downloads were robbing them of their precious recording royalties and reliably greedy record companies were struck deaf and dumb as the world passed them by.   
When rocker David Bowie, ever the improvisor, defied Virgin, his label, by insisting on releasing a single digitally without a parent album to promote, he approached Larry for help. 
"Technology is going in one direction, consumers are going in that direction, and you are a total ass if you are trying to stop it," Larry famously said. "But that's what they tried to do.  And you can see what happened.  They killed themselves." 

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