Producer in Paradise
Joel Dorn revisits a golden age of jazz.
By Ted Drozdowski
APRIL 13, 1998: Joel Dorn describes himself as "a stand-up guy. I grew up on the street corners and in the playgrounds, and I was raised to believe you've gotta do right by people."
Lately those people have included some of the greatest artists in American music: Louis Armstrong, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Sonny Stitt, Charles Mingus, Ella Fitzgerald, Woody Shaw, Count Basie, Grant Green, Ike & Tina Turner, and others. The 56-year-old Dorn's done right by them by reissuing some of their finest recordings, on CDs that are respectful of the original, rich-sounding reel-to-reel tape sources, beautifully packaged, and priced at less than $10 per disc.
For the past three years Dorn and his partner, lawyer Robert Miller, have put out more than 60 titles via their company 32 Records. The label specializes in re-releasing historic music, though 32 also issued the Jazz Passengers' 1997 CD Individually Twisted, which Dorn produced with his son Adam.
That was a rare return to the controls for Dorn, who in the mid '80s semi-retired from a 25-year streak producing albums. From 1967 till then, he had produced more than 100 sessions. He began working in the studio under the wing of Atlantic Records co-founder Nesuhi Ertegun and rapidly rose to vice-president. Dorn made classic albums for Atlantic and other labels with great jazz and R&B instrumentalists like Hank Crawford, Yusef Lateef, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, plus a wide embrace of pop artists ranging from the Neville Brothers to Leon Redbone, Mose Allison, Mink DeVille, and Roberta Flack. He won his first Grammy in 1972 with Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and an armload more for further recordings with Flack as well as Asleep at the Wheel and the duo of Keith Jarrett and Gary Burton.
By the time he started 32 Records, Dorn had been recast in a new career as the pre-eminent custodian of some of the most distinctly American music ever made. After retiring, he spent the rest of the '80s traveling and amassing a collection of more than 250,000 hours of rare, unreleased live recordings -- mostly of jazz. Some of those -- including gigs by Eddie Harris, Cannonball Adderley, and Les McCann -- surfaced on his pre-32 label, Night Records, but most are still in his vaults.
In the early '90s, Dorn was commissioned by Rhino, GRP, Columbia, and other labels to oversee reissues of classic LPs from the '40s, '50s, and '60s. His first-hand experience hearing and recording many of the artists who made those recordings -- from Billie Holiday to Ray Charles to Charles Mingus -- gave him the right ear for the job. (I say "ear" because he's deaf on one side; he can't hear stereo.) Among his finest reissue projects, which have been lauded for the warmth and detail of their sound as well as their packaging and liner notes, are his 13-CD historic overview of the Atlantic Jazz heyday for Rhino and The Heavyweight Champion, a seven-CD set of John Coltrane's recordings for Atlantic that was a year-long labor of love.
"I'm lucky to be able to work with something I would hang out around if I couldn't work with it," he says over the phone from his Manhattan office. At 32 Records, that "something" these days includes the entire Muse/Landmark label catalogue, 20 classic Atlantic albums, and of course his collection of live recordings, which has thus far resulted in absolute gems like the late-1997 Rahsaan Roland Kirk set Dog Years in the Fourth Ring and this year's Sonny Stitt CD Just in Case You Forgot How Bad He Really Was.
The selections 32 Records releases are governed by Dorn's taste, not the marketplace. As his production experiences tell, he is an Epicurean who works with only the finest artists, but whose tastes run all over the menu of American music. Dorn modestly explains his musical gourmet's palate as an accident of birth. "The bottom line is, we're all sperm cells that get lucky. I was born in 1942. I got to be here for the second half of the golden age of jazz, all of rock and roll, and the best of American pop music. With all that in my lifetime, how lucky could I be?"
The music's fortunate too: an artist's legacy couldn't ask for a more loving and respectful friend than Dorn. As a kid, he'd grab $1.98 off the top of the modest paychecks he put aside for college and run to the record store to buy a new LP every Friday. That was the highlight of his week, unless Ray Charles was playing anywhere within a couple hundred miles.
Dorn began his career as a jazz disc jockey in his native Philadelphia, where his on-air influence on local record sales made him important to Atlantic. He had already struck up a relationship with Nesuhi Ertegun through letters he'd written as a teenage fan of Ertegun's productions. Eventually they became friends, and Ertegun offered Dorn a chance to produce one LP by an artist of his choice. He picked Hubert Laws, a flutist from the Philly scene, and started his years in the studio.
"I loved jazz and R&B, and that's what I mostly worked with, but my guys were Phil Spector and Leiber & Stoller," Dorn says, talking of these rock production and songwriting pioneers with reverence. "These guys approached records as if they were films. They created little dramas. I'll still listen to one of their records before I begin a project, just to get my bearings."
When Dorn speaks, his passion and enthusiasm for 32's artists -- and jazz in general -- seem boundless and fiery. He is a firm believer in the superiority of analog sound and in preserving the integrity of the artists whose music he works with. And few things seem to infuriate him more than those who betray the past with which they've been entrusted.
"The ultimate crime, the one that set the standard for stupidity, was the Charlie Parker movie, Bird," he relates, his ire audibly kindling. "They eliminated everybody but Bird from the original recordings and put real good new guys in to make the music sound better. I actually stood in the movie theater and screamed at the screen. That's how pissed off I was. If I was in a studio and heard that happening, I'd go in there with a fuckin' fire ax."
With Mose Allison and Eddie Harris sets ready to emerge from 32 Records in May, Dorn has moved on to his newest project, a Judy Garland box culled from television performances. If Garland seems like an odd interest for him, consider his discovery and launch of Bette Midler, whose debut, The Divine Miss M, he produced in 1973.
"I've never had what I consider a standard approach as a producer, other than to capture the artists at their best. For Bette, that meant providing her with an entire framework to work in. For Keith Jarrett and Gary Burton, I got the sounds up and then let them play all night while I put my feet up on the board.
"The one thing that's remained constant for me is that I've always been
attracted to one-of-a-kind artists. People who have excellent abilities and are
originals . . . the second you hear them you recognize what they
are. Then the trick for a producer is to capture what they do and complement
it. If you can combine excellence and originality -- that's the real thing!"
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