We were crafting records for an educated consumer, one that loved jazz, but wanted the complete package. Yet in retrospect it was not all clearly thought out, much of it just happened. – Larry Rosen
In the beginning there was ARC Records, OKeh, Paramount and a whole host of labels that took jazz, blues and country artists, as well as just about any other performer who the early music moguls thought might make some money, into the studio to cut records. Soon enough jazz became popular with the companies that would become the major labels, companies like Decca and artists such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, who were as much pop stars as jazzmen. In the post war era there was a shift towards other more definable genres and soon new, more focused, record labels came along, often ran by enthusiasts for the music that had stopped being pop, but was no less popular with jazz fans around the world.
Norman Granz whose, ‘Jazz at the Philharmonic’ series began in 1944 started his own record label soon afterwards – this was Clef Records in 1946, later, in 1953, he formed Norgran and then in 1956 he started Verve Records – a name that is synonymous with all that’s great in jazz. There were many other labels run by committed individuals who loved jazz and the musicians that played it; among the best known were Prestige that started in 1949, Riverside in 1953, impulse! in 1960 and CTI in 1967. All had production values that were of the highest standard and all of them reflected the kind of jazz their founders liked.
In 1982, two men, who were steeped in the jazz tradition, started their own label – GRP Records. G being Dave Grusin, R for Larry Rosen and the P stood for Productions, which is how they began working together prior to actually starting a record company. They produced recordings for major labels and their first major hit was Tom Browne’s Funkin’ For Jamaica for Arista Records in 1980 that topped the American R&B charts and was a hit around the world.
It was a far cry from how Dave and Larry first got to know one another,
In the early 1960s Dave and I started out as musicians for singer Andy Williams, I was the drummer and Dave was the pianist and arranger. But we loved jazz and we’d play Dave’s arrangement of Miles Davis’s ‘Milestones’ as Andy would go on and off the stage. When we left Andy in the late 1960s, Dave moved to Los Angeles to start writing music for films and I stayed in New York and built a recording studio in the home that I bought. I started working with a singer named Jon Lucien in 1974, and I needed an arranger, I called Dave and we made a record for RCA.
From making records for others the logical step was to make records under their own name, but true to their love of quality Larry and Dave had their own way of doing things. Dave is clear that the vision for GRP Records was Dave’s,
I never had a vision of owning a record company, that was all down to Larry. It was only once we started working with the young artists that the vision for GRP and the fabulous music we were making that we began to get something of a vision; but the vision was all Larry’s.
But as is so often the case the vision was not necessarily so clearly thought out, it was a logical progression as Larry is quick to point out,
We were so busy working with others that we blocked out the studio for weeks at a time and having so many productions on the go we put together what was effectively our own house band and soon enough we got to the point where we had so many artists working with us that our own label was inevitable.
It was a record label built on a sound principal – quite literally. Despite being a drummer and musician, Larry was always drawn to the recording process,
I found myself gravitating towards the control room to watch how things were done. When I built my own studio I was fascinated by the sonics, the placement of microphones and I experimented to make things sound as good as they could be. We would spend ages working on the demos and then when we got into the studio, usually Studio B at Electric Lady in New York City, we recorded things that were already honed.
But, according to Dave, there was a special ingredient that made their recordings work so well,
Nobody had used sound on jazz records like Larry did. He used reverb, echo and delays not usually associated with the genre; it was techniques that were normally associated with pop and R&B. Larry loved they way they used the studio and that’s how the GRP sound came along.
Larry eloquently describes this use of the studio in a way that neatly sums up what is at the heart of every GRP record,
It was so different to the early days, when it was all about capturing the moment in the studio. Whereas what we were doing was using multi-tracking and every conceivable piece of technology that allowed us to be more like painters. The production side became a very creative medium.
For Dave, the sonics brought another benefit,
People couldn’t believe how good our LPs sounded and Hi-fi stores started to use our records as test recordings, which helped our music to be introduced to a whole new market. We saw ourselves in the tradition of the labels that went before. CTI and ECM were very involved with the sonics of their recordings and that’s what Dave and I thought about. They were also very involved in what their records looked like, the design, which was another thing that we took from the labels that went before us.
Initially, it was unknown artists helped get us started, Dave Valentin was one of the first we worked with and it was through word of mouth that we got introduced to new artists. We were first timers and so we made for perfect partners. The musicians were not demanding of big deals, which was helpful, as we did not have the money! But we had the studio time, unlimited almost, that we could invest in working with new talent.
The image of the label was all-important and it was something that Larry recognised from the outset.
GRP was the place to be, it became brand marketing, because as a jazz label you could not compete with the mainstream artists and record companies without having a strong identity. It was early on that we came up with the name “The Digital Master Company”, because it said everything about what we trying to do, the quality of our records – the technology we employed, the look and most of all the music.
Soon other artists joined the digital revolution,
We got my friend Lee Ritenour on the label and also my brother, Don Grusin. Then through working with Chick Corea we got some of the people who played with his band to record albums for us, Dave Wecki, Jon Patitucci and Eric Marienthal.
Each record had its own distinct personality, especially when Dave and I were very more physically involved in the early days. Dave would be writing the charts and I’d be in the in the studio. Later I spent more time working on the business of running GRP, but neither one of us ever lost our passion for the music and the artists that we worked with.
In another nod to jazz’s rich heritage Dave put together The GRP All Star Big Band. According to Larry,
It was bringing a whole bunch of artists together to play for people all around the world. It was in the tradition of Jazz at the Philharmonic that was important to us. Norman Granz was one of the greatest, a man who understood so much of what the music was all about. He was the precursor of what we did.
And just like their illustrious forebears Dave is convinced of one thing,
All the people we used on the GRP Big Band project, all stars in their own right, all understood ensemble playing. To go out and play live with this band was phenomenal. I used to think, ‘this must be what Basie must feel like every night.’ Of course it was great music, but above all else it was great fun. Solo players like Arturo Sandoval were just brilliant live, but the studio players who worked with us added so much.
Soon enough Dave and Larry got to work with some of those they admired so much. According to Dave,
I loved Be-bop and whenever I had the chance I pushed for the jazz side of the fusion.
Working with Dizzy Gillespie was like working with one of my all time heroes. Bringing him together with young players like Kenny Kirkland and Wynton Marsalis was a dream. Although I found it the hardest thing in the world to give Dizzy direction in the studio, but he made it so easy for me – a real dream to work with. Gerry Mulligan was another monumental player and to go back to recreate his work with Gil Evans and Miles Davis on “Re-Birth of the Cool” was a thrill.
The GRP label is everything that was wonderful about jazz in an era when the music was making a move away from what people had traditionally thought it should be. And if there was a secret ingredient it was simple, according to Dave,
So many of the best records are not just about how they came out, it’s all about the process of making the record, the fun we had. But to me you can hear that fun was being had and that made for great music.
Besides those that have been mentioned there’s George Benson, Diane Schuur, Larry Carlton, Ramsey Lewis, Patti Austin, Tom Scott, The Brecker Brothers. All have helped to define modern jazz and all have helped to define the sound of GRP.
I wasn’t aware of how productive we had been until time went away. –Dave Grusin