UPDATED on 12-23-2010: Click here for the vid
Living in Grand Rapids has given me many opportunities to meet some very interesting people. Lately I have had the pleasure of meeting several well known jazz musicians through my friend Hugo Claudin, who runs a semi-notorious bohemian art space in Grand Rapids known as Mexicains Sans Frontieres.
Mexicains Sans Frontieres hosts some of the highest caliber avant garde jazz you will find anywhere. Recent shows brought out a well known West Coast trombonist and his trio, a rare solo performance from a pre-eminent double bassist, and a surrealist brass trio of european improv artists.
Hugo’s knowledge of jazz history, and ear for talent has lead him into contact recently with Chuck Nessa, founder of the jazz record label Nessa Records. After several weeks of communication over the internet, Hugo arranged for us to do an interview with the man who brought about some great jazz recordings from artists such as Air, Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith, and NRG Ensemble
the early days…
Nessa told us how his story began in 1966, meeting Bob Koester at Jazz Record Mart in Chicago. Mr. Koester offered him the job of managing the record store. Nessa knew that Koester also ran Delmark Records, and accepted the job on the terms that Koester would allow him the opportunity to record some jazz records himself. Koester agreed, even though this was a pretty ambitious counter-offer from a 22 year old with no recording experience. “Well, yeah, I was… arrogant!” laughs Nessa in reply to Hugo’s amazement that the gambit worked.
birth of the Chicago Jazz Fest…
The Jazz Institute’s idea for the Jazz Fest began as a weekend dedicated to the music, and through a board member’s serendipitous meeting with the Head of the Park District one night, a weekend was dedicated to the Jazz Institute to hold the event. The Jazz Institute now had only one major obstacle to successfully executing the event; money.
In an attempt to garner financial support for the event, the board members of the Jazz Institute approached the Mayor’s Office with the request. The office in charge of special events accepted the request with a promise to find some funding to support the festival.
Nessa explained to us how back then the Park District and the City of Chicago were two seperate government entities locked in a power struggle for control of major events downtown. When Mayor Jane Byrne found out about the event, and the Park District’s support, she recognized it as a potential turning point in the battle between City Hall and the Park District.
Now the City of Chicago would fund the event with to the tune of $200,000. In addition, an entire week of space, support services, and police presence was dedicated to the Jazz Fest. The event was such a success that the following year the City of Chicago upped the funding to $500,000.
times are tough all over…
In the mid 1980’s, Nessa started a new job and moved his family to Whitehall, Michigan. With 2 kids not too far from their teenage years, he wanted to focus on providing them with a good education and safe environment. He continued his work recording great jazz music, even though times weren’t always easy. He explains how the transition to digital format was a tough one. “People were sending LP’s back.” The stores couldn’t sell vinyl in sustainable quantities. There were some casualties in the digital revolution. On top of all the problems the record label was facing in trying times, Nessa’a own finances were strained. The job he had taken in Michigan turned out to not be a good fit for him. He left the company to find something to support his family that would be more fulfilling.
don’t call it a comeback…
After several years of diminished activity from Nessa Records, Nessa started to dig into his extensive archives of unreleased material to release onto cd. He started with a few limited edition packages. The releases were successful enough to help fund the next releases.. Throughout the 1990’s Nessa Records was able to release material in cd format and maintain a sustainable production rate using this method.
In the 2000’s the agenda has been to release all the material in the archives on cd format. Nessa painstakingly remasters the albums using the original recording studio tapes. Hours upon hours have been spent converting the tapes to digital format, remixing them, discovering long-forgotten takes of sessions from over the years.
Sometimes the material yields some surprising results. New alternate versions of songs have sprung up as a result of Nessa’s laborious efforts. “Where I can add extra material, and it makes sense to do so, I include it if I have the consent of the artists. I won’t just add extra material to pad the length of an album.”
moving forward, looking back…
Nessa records has several upcoming releases in process right now, with many more lined up in a long stream of releases and re-releases. The goal is to convert 100% of the archive to cd format. To date, roughly 1/3 of Nessa’s archive has yet to be released on cd, so there is a plethora of incredible jazz music that has yet to be shared with the world.
February 2011 will bring 2 disc release of Roscoe Mitchell with Art Ensemble of Chicago recorded in 1967, followed up with a new recording of Anthony Braxton and John McDonough on trumpet. A reissue of Eddie Johnson is also scheduled for 2011.