"Jazz Monthly Feature Interview" LARRY ROSEN
Thirty years ago, renowned jazz musicians, producers and entrepreneurs Larry Rosen and Dave Grusin made music history as co-founders of GRP Records. The groundbreaking jazz label became known as the “Digital Master Company” and created a home for and launched the careers of countless artists, including Chick Corea, David Benoit, Lee Ritenour, George Benson, Larry Carlton, Michael and Randy Brecker, Arturo Sandoval, The Rippingtons, BB King, Dave Valentin, Diane Schuur and Special EFX. The label was first to adopt an all digital recording philosophy for all of its releases and was the first to market itself as a lifestyle brand—which led GRP to become Billboard’s #1 contemporary jazz label for five consecutive years. To mark this milestone, Universal Music released the 2 CD retrospective album GRP 30, along with 10 classic albums that were re-mastered and released digitally in the new Hi-Res audio format.
Larry Rosen’s diverse resume includes: being producer/executive producer of over 350 albums, with 80 Grammy nominations and 33 Grammy Awards; creator and producer of the PBS television HD series “Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis”; recipient of Ernst & Young’s prestigious “Entrepreneur of the Year” Award in New Media and Entertainment; recipient of National Association of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) Governor’s Award and inducted into the A&R Producers Honor Roll; and being named Forbes Magazine as an “Internet Icon” in their “Masters of the Universe” cover story. He currently serves on the boards of The Brubeck Institute, UM Frost School of Music Deans Visiting Committee, and along with Dave Grusin, co-founded the National Foundation for Jazz Education (NFJE), a philanthropic group which helps young jazz musicians.
His current passion, JAZZ ROOTS – A Larry Rosen Jazz Series, a concert and educational program created for performing arts centers across America, is celebrating its fifth anniversary. Rosen is also currently producing a television series and multi-media performance program titled “Recording: The History of Recorded Music,” with hosts Quincy Jones and Phil Ramone.
Benson, whose career traverses six decades and has alternately embraced traditional and contemporary jazz, pop and R&B (sometimes simultaneously), was a 2009 honoree as an NEA Jazz Master, awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts as the highest honors that the U.S. bestows upon jazz musicians.
JazzMonthly: Congratulations on the 30th Anniversary of GRP Records. What does this milestone mean to you personally and what do you think it means in terms of being part of contemporary jazz history?
LR: Thank you. Thirty years sounds like a long time! When we talk about 1982, I remember it being an interesting time of change both musically and technologically. What Dave and I did was took both those things and married them together. For many years, maybe up till Miles Davis went the fusion route and bands like the Mahavishnu Orchestra emerged, jazz was pretty much the straight ahead jazz you heard at jazz clubs. Recordings sounded like what the guys played in the club the night before. What we started doing in the 70s, first as Grusin-Rosen Productions and then as GRP/Arista in a deal with Clive Davis, was paint pictures with music—using a more creative production style. We drew on Dave’s writing and orchestration skills and the concept of painting a picture sonically – and applying those ideas to create a different style of contemporary jazz.
JM: Do you see GRP as one of those jazz labels that defines a certain sound or era (or eras) like Prestige, Riverside, Blue Note and CTI? If so, what do you think that vibe is?
LR: Absolutely. Each of these labels has a history, and they define something in particular. Blue Note, Prestige and Riverside were straight ahead labels that covered the technology and music and artists of their time. With CTI, artists like Wes Montgomery started using string orchestral sounds and started to shape things a little differently. Dave and I picked up from there and moved forward, creating palettes for our artists with a lot of instrumental coloring. Musically, sonically and marketing wise, GRP was a brand like Blue Note or Motown. We expanded this to include GRP All-Star tours and big band concerts. Over time, the quality of our recordings inspired a high level of consumer trust. If someone didn’t know the artist but it was on GRP, that person would know it was of a certain quality and might be inspired to buy the album.
JM: What made GRP and its roster so unique? What do you feel the label, its artists and its brand contributed to the legacy of jazz?
LR: Dave and I started as musicians, so it was not surprising that most of our advisers told us that having two musicians start a label was a formula for failure. Most labels were launched by businessmen or producers. But we were hell bent on doing what we wanted to do, with a strong insight into what we wanted to accomplish musically. I think it was the diversity of our roster that made it special. Beyond our jazz roots, Dave had done film scores and classical music and was involved in Brazilian music via Sergio Mendes. When we were Arista/GRP, our work with Tom Brown and Angela Boffill was R&B/jazz. Our label had those styles plus straight ahead jazz and big band. We covered all the bases.
JM: How many recordings approximately did GRP release when you guys were running the company?
LR: We released hundreds of records from 1982-89, and we were selling hundreds of thousands of albums a year. A lot of major companies wanted to acquire us, and we thought MCA was the best fit, so our operation expanded exponentially once we were acquired by them. We signed a lot of MCA artists, including Larry Carlton, Spyro Gyra and The Yellowjackets, and also acquired the classic jazz catalogs MCA had control over, including Decca, Chess and Impulse! So our release schedule doubled and tripled. We stayed on till 1995 to help Universal establish a worldwide distribution system for the GRP brand. Our last signing before Dave and I left was Diana Krall.
JM: I love the GRP 30 Anniversary collection. Who chose the tracks and what were the criteria?
LR: Universal Music, along with Dave, came to me and agreed that I know the catalog better than anyone, so they asked me to produce the compilation. I loved recollecting and going through these great titles, and chose some songs that might not be familiar to people. It’s really a chronology of how the label grew, starting out with Dave and the NY/LA Dream Band and continuing with Dave Valentin, Diane Schuur, New York Voices and some of the artists we started with like Lee Ritenour. Each track captured some kind of meaningful moment for me that represented the growth of GRP.
LARRY ROSEN AND DAVE GRUSIN
JM: Singer Andy Williams recently passed away and I know you and Dave met working in his band. This seems like good place to start talking about your relationship. Tell me about your experiences with Andy and your earliest musical and personal interactions with Dave.
LR: Dave became a pianist and conductor for Andy in the early 60s and they needed a drummer to go on the road. Dave knew about me from my participation in the Newport Youth Band, which was something of an apprentice program created by (legendary jazz promoter) George Wein as part of the Newport Jazz Festival. I started playing with that group when I was a freshman at Manhattan School of Music, and was asked to play a week of shows with Andy in Pittsburgh when I was 20.
They liked me and asked me to stay and I worked with Andy Williams’ band for six years. Dave was with us for all of that time except my final year, when he went off to do TV and movies. Dave was like my big brother, and I looked up to him in so many ways. Andy was a great showman. I didn’t know about the showmanship thing because prior to that I was in the jazz world. It’s a whole different thing when you’re playing with a big pop star, playing Vegas, Lake Tahoe and some of the country’s top clubs. Andy’s professionalism was the greatest teacher I could have had. I like to tell people I went to the University of Andy Williams!
JM: I know there was a long gap between the Williams years and when you called Dave to arrange the Jon Lucien album Rashida. What prompted you to call Dave for that project and how did things progress from there?
LR: I stopped playing with Andy in 1966 and built my home studio two years later, then started working with Jon around ’69. We began working on Rashida in ’70. Dave was living in L.A., doing TV and film composing, and I had started a production company in New York, but we stayed in touch. When I started working with Jon, recording tracks and getting him a deal with RCA to do numerous albums, I called Dave and said I’d love to have him write string arrangements. He flew to New York and we worked on the project. I did another record with Jon and Dave the following year. Not long after, I got a call from George Butler at Blue Note about a new guitarist they signed named Earl Klugh. I called Dave to write strings for that project, and then we worked on another by violinist Noel Pointer. Soon Dave and I were working on a lot of albums together.
JM: How did the Grusin-Rosen sound and aesthetic develop?
LR: It was pretty instinctive. We would look at the way an artist fit into what we were thinking as producers. The uniqueness of these artists made it interesting. Jon was a singer with an island/Brazilian style and Noel was a violinist. Earl could play both electric and acoustic, and when we brought him into my studio, we felt his acoustic playing was more unique so we made the decision to have him focus on the acoustic, backing his R&B/jazzy feel with an electric guitar harmony. Dave played on all these records, so there is always the stamp of his acoustic piano or Rhodes that became an important part of the harmonic and rhythmic structure of the tracks.
We also were blessed to have some new players on the scenes who would become legends, like Marcus Miller, Harvey Mason, Steve Gadd and Lee Ritenour. Sweetening with strings, horns and synths was an important element too. We tailored our production to what would bring out the artists’ talents best. So what we did for Diane, say, was different from what we would do with Earl or Dave Valentin. The coloring was different depending on the artist and project.
JM: What was your criteria for signing artists? Who do you think the most successful were from a company, critical and commercial standpoint?
LR: We looked for individuality, something unique to get across, and whether there was a place in the market for that. Career longevity was also a factor. Another thing that led to our growth was the fact that the format that became known as smooth jazz was taking shape in the late 80s, with stations like CD101 and WNUA. Those stations played so much of our music that they asked us to create special compilations for them. I think our biggest artists early on were Rit, Valentine, Diane, Dave (Grusin), Chick Corea’s Elektric and Akoustic Bands, our Christmas collections, the Happy Anniversary, Charlie Brown project and that digital sampler Glen Miller: In A Digital Mood.
JM: Tell me about your JAZZ ROOTS series, which is celebrating its anniversary. What was your goal for it and how has that been fulfilled or surpassed?
LR: I live part of the year in Miami and a few years ago when the new Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County opened, they approached me with the idea of putting on a jazz series. I saw a great opportunity because there are not a lot of good jazz clubs in Miami. The brand I created for this series was JAZZ ROOTS, the idea that the music of Africa, the rhythmic components, laid the foundation for the music of the Americas, from samba to mambo, jazz, blues, rock, rap and bossa nova.
I create thematic shows featuring different jazz legends (Buddy Guy, Dr. John, Dave Brubeck, Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis) and newer artists like Esperanza Spalding. We’ve done tributes to Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie, and Gershwin. When we started it, we never thought about it running in other cities, but so far we’ve done it in Atlanta, Las Vegas and New Jersey, and it’s continuing to grow. The philosophy is to introduce people to live jazz performances and our educational component allows us to bring in students from different schools to meet and play with the artists before the main show. Our teaching programs are created by jazz roots committees in different cities, that are made up of folks from newspapers and local NPR stations. They are tailored organically to each participating city.
JM: One final question. With all the multiple endeavors you have been a part of in contemporary music, what do you think your cultural legacy will be?
LR: Everything I do is geared around bringing American music to the people. It’s something that we as a country should be very proud of. It’s easy for us to take these cultural contributions for granted and to know just how important the influence of American music is, but it’s cultural impact is recognized all over the world. Understanding our musical roots is the key to understanding the music of today and where we are headed.