By James Hale
Gary BartzCopyright © 1997, James Hale
Talk about having a 'killing' tone: at an academic conference to examine the music of Miles Davis in May 1996, Gary Bartz slayed a roomful of Davis aficionados with just a few notes. He'd taken out his soprano to demonstrate some of his former boss' favorite phrases. When he finished, one of his fellow panelists summed up the feeling in the room: "Damn, Gary, I forgot what a great sound you have."
It's a sound the 56-year-old Baltimore native has been cultivating since 1952. At 17, he was enrolled at Juilliard and hanging with classmates like Lee Morgan, Andrew Cyrille and Roland Hanna. As the '60s dawned, he was back home, studying at the Peabody Conservatory and soaking up live music at his parents' nightclub, the North End Lounge. Having grown up in an era when individualism ruled jazz and Bird still ruled the alto, Bartz worked on developing a distinctive alto sound that is smoky and round like a tenor yet takes full advantage of the alto's mid-range wail.
In 1964, Bartz joined Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, and a year later pianist John Hicks recommended him to drummer Art Blakey. In the late '60s, he began to make a name for himself in bands led by McCoy Tyner and trumpeter Blue Mitchell, and then Miles called.
Replacing Steve Grossman in Davis' group in August 1970, alongside Keith Jarrett, Jack DeJohnette and Michael Henderson, Bartz immediately caught listeners' attention with ferocious solos that never lost their melodic core. To many, Bartz dominated Live-Evil - one of Davis' best recordings of the era. Although playing with Davis exposed him to huge audiences - including 300,000 rock fans at the Isle of Wight Festival - the band didn't go into the studio. The only documents of that terrific group are some bootlegs, a heavily edited excerpt from the Isle of Wight and the Washington, D.C., performances that were captured on Live-Evil.
When we talked in early May, Bartz had just finished writing new liner notes for Columbia's long-awaited North American CD debut of Live-Evil. The subject of reissues is one of several for which he holds strong opinions.
"Jazz music doesn't seem to be valuable in the moment, even though it's music of the moment. It doesn't become valuable until years later. Most record companies realize that they'll never lose money on a jazz record. Even if it takes them 20 years, they will eventually make their money back. So they don't see any need to invest money in promoting music when it's first recorded. They have the luxury of waiting until the artist gets older or passes away."
Bartz has good reason to be cynical about major record labels. After two strong, critically-acclaimed recordings (Red & Orange Poems and The Blues Chronicles) for Atlantic, he has left the company. "Like most labels, they don't want to support the music. They'll record it, but they don't give you any support afterwards.
"They want to market jazz like pop music, and it's not pop music. If it doesn't sell in the first three months, they stop trying to sell it.
"I was watching the Oscars this year when they honored film producer Saul Zaentz (whose Milestone label released several recordings by Bartz's Ntu Troop in the '70s). I started thinking, here's a guy who owns jazz labels yet in all the movies I don't think he's ever used jazz on the soundtrack. You'd think that would be a good way to promote the artists whose music you record, wouldn't you? He's doesn't care about selling the music. There's some other motive to it. I mean, these are very good businesspeople; they could sell the music if they really wanted to."
Bartz believes that record companies have confused consumers by releasing too many recordings, and hurt younger artists by pushing them into leadership roles before they're ready. "You have musicians doing records before they've ever been in a band. With some of them, the first time they're in the studio it's for their own record date. They don't know anything about recording, how to pick musicians, or how to pick songs. They don't even know how to play in a band yet, and here they are making records. I find that very offensive. It took me many years to learn; years of watching guys like Blakey and Max work, before I was ready. It's impossible to do it any other way. I don't slight the musicians, I give them their due, but they'd make better records if they waited."
One thing Bartz wants to make clear is that he's not bitter about the state of the record industry, just resigned. "I've been frustrated in the past. In the '80s, I gave up on recording and concentrated on just playing my music for the people. I did that for about eight years and then I decided that I wasn't accomplishing anything. So, I went back to recording (for Steeplechase, Candid, Timeless and, finally, Atlantic), but I don't delude myself that the labels are going to try and sell the music."
Bartz's answer is to take things into his own hands, buying up his recordings from the companies he records for and selling them himself at his gigs. Even then, he says, there are frustrations of bureaucracy to deal with - enough to make him feel that big business is out to control the music.
On that point, Bartz the firebrand, whose explosive sax was one of the fiercest voices in the politically charged '60s and early '70s stands firm in his conviction. "You cannot control jazz; it is uncontrollable. The very artform is of the moment. It's not even controllable by the musicians. Certainly the record companies will never control it. Once they recognize that, then we can get on and try to spread this music and let the world know what a great artform this is."
James Hale has written and lectured about jazz in his native Ottawa, Canada, since 1977. A former radio host and head of an international jazz festival, he is now a regular contributor to Down Beat, Coda and The Jazz Report. His work has also appeared in Pulse! and Rhythm Music. He is also jazz critic for The Ottawa Citizen.
C o m m e n t s
Gary Bartz 1 of 1 David Toman September 16, 97
Don"t despair, Gary. Your music reaches out, beyond the bull and bureaucracy, and touches the receptors of our hearts. You kill me every time!
I"ll never forget the night I saw Gary Bartz and Eddie Henderson at Iridium in New York on a Sunday night (Aug. 25, 1995?). John Hicks sat in as George Colligan headed back to Baltimore for a gig. They played three sets, each one with more fire, totaling over three hours. And the audience, which was definitely not large enough to be called a "crowd," knew they had artists on stage who were there to play for people who cared. No one left early that I can recall, and the tunes burned with the passion of the best Trane at the Vanguard.
David in Taipei
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