Building on Founder’s Vision, HighNote Fosters Artistic Freedom
The jazz label HighNote has established a reputation for releasing critically acclaimed albums, thanks to releases by such award-winning artists as trumpeter Tom Harrell, trombonist Steve Turre and vocalist Andy Bey.
Since 1997, the label has been built on the legacy of its founder, Joe Fields, who ran the jazz label Muse from the early ’70s until 1997.
The story of HighNote is the really story of Fields, a “record man’” who remains the heart and soul of the New York-based label, which he now runs with his son and fellow stakeholder, Barney. The amiable businessman held court in his Upper West Side Manhattan office recently, sharing anecdotes from his career.
Fields’ story has its roots in postwar America, when record labels were on the march. He started with Columbia Records in the late ’50s, working the Brooklyn beat. “I hustled my rear end off there for a couple of years,” he recalled. “Then I got a job at London Records in their singles department. During that time, London was distributing independent labels. They gave producers their own label and did distribution. I handled London’s European product. It was hard to get anything that resonated with American rock ’n’ roll—pre-Rolling Stones—really happening, so I got Anthony Newley with ‘Pop Goes The Weasel.’”
Fields later moved to Verve. “That was the Creed Taylor era: the bossa nova, Stan Getz’s ‘Desafinado’ period, some great Jimmy Smith recordings,” Fields added. During this time he got a lesson in artist management and promotion, witnessing Jimmy Smith’s move from Blue Note to Verve.
“That really broke [Blue Note’s] heart,” he remembered. “They were selling a lot of Jimmy Smith, but it didn’t work for him anymore. Later, I worked with Bob Weinstock at Prestige for about five years. Had a No. 1 Billboard single with ‘Misty’ by Richard ‘Groove’ Holmes. It was the beginning of the soul-jazz era. Did a stint with Sue Records, Jimmy McGriff, Ike and Tina Turner. It was there I got to know the future founder of Casablanca Records, Neil Bogart, and joined him at Buddah Records, a label that had mainly pop acts.”
But despite the excitement of the booming pop and r&b side of the record business, Fields was getting restless. “In the back of my mind what I wanted to do was start a jazz label,” he said. “An 8-track tape company came along and they approached Bogart. They made a deal to crank out so many packages per year for X number of dollars. That had Neil scuffling around, looking for talent. My response was to put together a label for Neil called Cobblestone. We recorded people like Pat Martino, Jimmy Heath, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, recorded George Wein’s Newport in New York jazz series, to name a few.”
Fields eventually bought out Bogart and acquired selected artists from the Cobblestone label, which led to the formation of Muse in March 1973. Between the ’70s and the ’90s, Fields worked with imprints such as Onyx, Timeless, Savoy Jazz and Landmark Records, and established distribution partnerships.
“I never pretended to be a Creed Taylor,” Fields admitted, again mentioning the legendary founder of the CTI label. “All I knew was what I experienced and what to listen to. I’d gone to enough clubs, had jazz records I’d collected over the years. And then I started to record, and traveled internationally, setting up distribution and promotion relationships, which continue to this day.”
Fields reminisced about those early, cash-poor years, wherein he survived thanks to some business savvy: “I rubbed two matchsticks together with no financing to get ourselves off the ground.”
In 1997, Fields sold Muse and launched HighNote. “When we sold Muse we sold the masters only, taking the artists with us to HighNote,” said Fields, who maintained an artist-friendly environment, giving the musicians plenty of creative freedom. “Like I said, I’m no Creed Taylor. What am I going to tell Tom Harrell? Nothing. So what you do is give ’em the ball and get out of the way.”
In addition to Harrell, Turre and Bey, the HighNote roster includes saxophonists Houston Person and Eric Alexander, trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, guitarist Kenny Burrell, pianist George Cables and vocalist-pianist Freddy Cole.
On March 25, the label will release Alexander’s Chicago Fire, while its sister jazz imprint, Savant, will release pianist Eric Reed’s The Adventurous Monk.
The label’s online home, called the Jazz Depot, showcases titles on HighNote and Savant, as well as the blues label Fedora.
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Fab Four’s arrival in the United States, HighNote has assembled a compilation titled The Beatles: A Jazz Tribute, featuring eight artists, including guitarist Larry Coryell, alto saxophonist Vincent Herring and vocalist Sheila Jordan.
“What we do here at HighNote is promote the artists, give them visibility,” Fields said. “We work very hard on the print, Internet and promotion side of things, both here and overseas, and we work with our distributors very closely.
“As for Barney, he’s been an integral part of this operation,” the proud father beamed. “I couldn’t do it without him. He went to John Hopkins to study business, got a job at GE. Then he came here to wait until he got another job. But he never left, damn it!”
To learn more about HighNote, visit jazzdepot.com.