By Mike Zwerin
26 January 2002 - 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
Jazz Quartet, Ornette
Coleman) founded by famed moguls and fans Ahmet and Nesui
Ertegun, was merged with Warner Brothers. 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 10 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 (5 - 10 February 2002)
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
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
StepsAhead. 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."
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.
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."
Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald
Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European
correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a
book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press
and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.