"Jazz Monthly Feature Interview" DAVE WILKES
When Jazz Monthly last interviewed music industry veteran David Wilkes, he was midway through his eight year tenure (2002-2010) as Vice President of A&R (Artists & Repertoire) at Koch Records (now known as E1 Music), whose roster included Ringo Starr, Joan Baez, Chris Brubeck,numerous country and hip-hop artists and contemporary jazz greats that Wilkes signed to the label. He brought to this position many years of experience in different genres, dating back to the mid-60s, when he managed The Bitter End Café in NYC and became the first manager of future stars Barry Manilow, Emmylou Harris and Jerry Jeff Walker. He later worked as a publisher for MCA Music and Sire Records and became President of A&R with Vanguard Records, whose roster included Joan Baez, Buffy St. Marie and Kinky Friedman.
In the mid 70s, Wilkes started his own management, publishing and production company and purchased The Coffee House Circuit which he had originally helped to set up while at The Bitter End Café. The Coffee House Circuit booked acts such as Harris, Jim Croce, Harry Chapin, John Denver and many other artists through a joint venture with the NEC (later NACA). His later endeavors included working at Mercury Records as VP of A&R and creating a joint label deal with Koch and Shanachie/Cache Records.
JazzMonthly: What are the accomplishments at Koch Records that you are most proud of? Talk about some of the artists you signed and worked with there.
Dave Wilkes: I’m most proud of the fact that I took this label that had no true jazz history and gave them a presence in the contemporary jazz world. They distributed some jazz that came out on European labels, but part of my job was to sign established artists to their roster. I was most excited about the great dobro player Jerry Douglas, Sophie Milman, Earl Klugh, Bob James, Marcus Miller, Michael Franks, Oleta Adams, Bela Fleck and Steve Oliver. It’s pretty remarkable how many Grammy nominated artists I had the opportunity to sign. It was also exciting to see Jerry win three Grammys and be voted CMA Instrumentalist of the Year a few times during my time with the label. I wanted Koch to be a diverse label with artists I loved.
JazzMonthly: I understand you have worked with a lot of Canadian artists since leaving Koch.
DW: I left Koch/E1 after 11 combined years as a VP of A&R as well as a consultant and that allowed me to start working with Canadian artists who I greatly admire. I also admire their government support of the arts, which let me be able to consult for a fee, even unknown acts that I felt struck a chord in my psyche. I always wanted to work with artists I dug, as people as well as musical creators and this Canadian set-up with government support allowed them to hire me. I was the first American to sign Stan Rogers while I was with Vanguard Records in early 1970's. Stan became a great star in Canada and my early association made a lot of friends and fans for me up there as well. I didn't even know that until about 5 years ago when I was invited to do a few seminars up there...again for some of the provincial music conferences, and who knew I had so many friends north of the border.
JM: You mentioned you have worked with Canadian jazz artist Nikki Yanofsky, whose Phil Ramone produced debut Nikki went gold in Canada. In what capacity?
DW: I worked with Nikki since she was 13 or 14. Her dad hired me as a consultant for his management company, starting with her release of the live CD/DVD project Ella…Of Thee I Swing in Canada through Fontana distribution. I helped bring her band into the U.S. market and targeted venues across the U.S. for showcase performances, like Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola at Lincoln Center and Catalina’s Jazz Club in L.A. I invited all the label execs who got very excited and this resulted in Nikki’s signing with Decca. She also recorded the single “I Believe” for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, which became a #1 pop hit in Canada. I’m involved these days to some degree with Nikki, but not as a full time consultant.
JM: What else are you doing these days? Who are you working with?
DW: I represent True North Records and Linus Records, which are owned by Geoff Kulawick. Koch licensed Sophie Milman from Linus Records, and in fact licensed their complete label. I work with two artists connected to these labels, legendary folk singer Bill Bourne and True North’s female duo MadisonViolet, helping them find traction for their careers in the U.S. Another management client is Sultans of String, a multi-award winning and Juno nominated instrumental group. These Canadian artists keep me very busy these days!
JM: Some of the early artists you managed were Barry Manilow, Emmylou Harris and Jerry Jeff Walker. Has managing artists changed a lot since then? What is the role of manager now vs. then?
DW: Everything has changed so much. In the 60s, it was based on a very personal relationship to your clients and how good the artist was. You could get record deals for unknown artists and there were many ways of developing artists. Today, it’s very difficult to secure a management or label deal for a new artist, so many artists release their music independently and build their careers step by step. These days, a record company is one of the elements but not the most important one. Back then, you could have two or three artists you worked with full time and if they played two or three days at a tastemaking club for $75 a night, that was good money. I think the downloading aspect has made music more accessible but also more disposable. When music is too cheap or free, people don’t see it as having the same value. Full albums are less important. In general, that leads to more generic music over the airwaves. When I started the big labels were launched by passionate music people like Ahmet Ertegun, Jac Holzman and Maynard and his brother Seymour Solomon. Today, major labels are gigantic corporations run by accountants. The bottom line is their main concern, not developing an artist over a longer period of time.
JM: I’m a big Barry Manilow fan. After his pop heyday, he had two critically acclaimed jazz releases in the 80s and later did Big Band and Sinatra styled albums. Was his jazz success a surprise to you?
DW: Barry was one of the most talented musicians and arrangers I knew, so his success in any genre was never a surprise. I first met him when he was the musical director for a show called “The Drunkard” at the historic 13th Street Theatre in the Village. He also had a cabaret act with Jeannie Lucas, but when she got married, Barry sort of retired for a few years. His sense of swing was great. As his first manager I wasn’t trying to do anything of great depth, just help book him and Jeannie. The funny thing is when Clive Davis first heard him, he didn’t know what to do with him. Later of course he figured it out and launched a legend.
JM: Your earliest artists were more in the pop rock vein. What was your background in jazz and when did you start working in it? What kind of jazz do you like the best?
DW: That’s a hard question to answer. I came out of the folk and singer songwriter era, but when I worked at Vanguard, the label was devoted to artists in many different genres, from folk and classical to jazz. It’s never been about genre for me, because great artists are great artists period. You either have a tremendous talent and a charismatic approach or you don’t. An artist’s unique style is what makes them an artist. I was a fan of singer-songwriter music based on the Civil Rights era of the late 60s and gravitated towards jazz via my experiences with Vanguard and later with Danny Weiss, who I started the Cache label with that eventually became part of Shanachie Records. When Danny and I were at Vanguard, we signed Larry Coryell, Oregon, Brazilian artist Sivuca and the Players Association. At Shanachie we signed Noel Pointer, Kim Pensyl and Nelson Rangell. Nelson later released several recordings under me at Koch.
JM: What is it you like most about working with jazz artists?
DW: When I work in jazz, I am most often among people who are intelligent, well spoken and interesting to have dinner with! It’s almost a mantra of mine that I wouldn’t want to work with an artist I don’t want to have dinner with! I relate best to people who are either formally or self educated and have the same values as I do and a level of sophistication. What’s the old cliché – if you want to fly with eagles, don’t hang around with the turkeys?
JM: You started your career as the doorman at the Bitter End, wound up as manager and used your contacts to launch a career as an artist manager and then worked at various labels. Did you start out with a game plan or did you just do a great job where opportunity knocked?
DW: I had no game plan, or even an idea that there was a music business. I loved music and listening to albums and the radio, and when I starting hanging out in the village, I became enamored of that scene, met some amazing people and they started asking me to do thing for them. I was always driven by my passion for music. I was a little like Forrest Gump, stumbling upon amazing things and taking advantage of the opportunities. I guess if I had started with a master plan I might have had even more success.
JM: What do you feel you have brought to the table with every artist and company you have worked for?
DW: Sensitivity to the great talent artists have, and the intuitive understanding of their greatness and being able to hear things at early stage before others heard it. For a long time, I didn’t think it was a real gift or anything that special. Sometimes it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time. When I was at The Bitter End, I was on the ground floor of an explosive era in music history meeting great artists and creative people. When you are in the gold mines, it’s not so hard to pick up something shiny that might change your life.