Mike Stern: Between a Mega-Merger and an Economic Meltdown

Mike Stern: Between a Mega-Merger and an Economic Meltdown

by Mike Zwerin
copyright © 2002 Mike Zwerin

Paris: The new year finds Mike Stern trapped between a mega-media merger and an economic meltdown.

First, his record company, Atlantic, an historic label (John Coltrane, Ray Charles, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ornette Coleman) founded by famed moguls and fans Ahmet and Nesui Ertegun, was merged with Warner Bros. That eventually became Time-Warner, and now the guitarist-bandleader has been put on-hold by the newly formed media giant AOL-Time-Warner, where downsizing is the order of the day. After making ten CDs in 15 years for Atlantic, he is in danger of being dropped. He could find a smaller, independent record company (there have been offers), but such a change would make it difficult if not impossible for him to get his current release Voices marketed and heard. And who knows about releases past and future.

In the more immediate future, Stern is, or was, scheduled to begin a South American tour in Santiago, Chile, on January 9th -- followed by Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Panama. He's popular in South America; he toured Colombia last year. However between riots, looting, devaluation and falling governments, Argentina has become a whirlpool to be avoided and the dates there are also on-hold. Coming in the middle, it puts the entire tour up in the air. Stern is calling agents and impresarios to try and fill the possible hole. (Either way, he's booked for three nights in Tokyo at the end of January followed by a week (Feb 5-10) in the important New York club Iridium.)

Having to fight to hold course between such a geo-political Scylla and Charybdis is ironic for a musician well known in the trade for just wanting to play. His persistent enjoyment from making music after 25 years as a professional is a big part of his personality and how good he is. He still loves to spend hours practicing Coltrane improvisations at home. But in the real world, in order to play he must also cast a band and sell it, help set up the tours, co-produce and at times co-finance his own recordings and keep nagging his multi-national record company to set up promotional tours like the one that brought him through Paris recently.

Along with Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman and very few others, the 55-year old Stern remains both a respected and financially viable jazz act. That he plays electric guitar helps him continue to find a young audience around the world. As do his credits. For two years he was a sideman with Miles Davis and is on the trumpeter's albums Man With The Horn and We Want Miles. He's worked with high-profile fusion names like Blood, Sweat and Tears, Jaco Pastorius, David Sanborn and Steps Ahead. Explaining why most of his gigs are abroad, he said: "There seems to be more interest in the arts in general in Japan and Europe. It's called culture. In America, the closest thing we have to it is . . . agriculture." This was accompanied by a boyish smile, a shrug and an unspoken apology for such silliness.

His rock-flavored records sell modestly but "enough so that the record company and I get our money back and make a little profit and I can tour behind them." Modest goals. Unlike pop records, quality jazz continues to sell year after year in small quantities that eventually add up. All 10 of his albums remain in Atlantic's active catalogue, a rare availability. This would probably change should Atlantic terminate him. The distributor has to be willing to service the stores, and to convince them that Stern is worth their shelf space. Stern has gotten to know sales clerks and the office people who arrange interviews and radio play and send out review copies in the Time-Warner offices around the world. Meanwhile, pre-occupied with synergy, AOL-Time-Warner is considering consolidating several of its labels into a new division. It is possible that the name Atlantic will just disappear -- presumably along with the jobs of many of those office people around the world he's taken such trouble to stroke. Unlike many, he considers interviews and networking as part of the job.

It's not about making lots of money, the most important thing is earning it, no matter how little, with music. Stern still goes out of his way to play for peanuts one or two nights a week in a tiny club called the 55 on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village. As in other clubs like it in Europe, guitarists often make up half the audience: "Sometimes the bread isn't so great, and the clubs can be kind of funky. But it's essential to continue to play for people. Miles used to say that he was always trying to 'catch somebody.' Put your heart and soul into your music and maybe you'll catch one person out front. Catching one person will always be enough for me."

Mike Zwerin, who recorded with Miles Davis in the Birth of the Cool Band, originally published this piece in the International Herald Tribune. MZwerin@compuserve.com.

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