Luke Kaven, producer and owner of Smalls Records,
interviewed by Motoko Hasegawa from Swing Journal

[translated and printed in edited form in Swing Journal, June 2005]

SJ: How was Smalls Records born?

LK: Before starting Smalls Records, I had been on a post-graduate academic journey through philosophy and related sciences. But I was also a lifelong student of jazz, and in 1995 I was introduced to Smalls. I was astonished by the constant flow of musical energy from dark until dawn every night. It was like the NY jazz scene had found a new hub. The elders of the scene would come by, and play alongside the younger musicians. New ideas developed, and unknown elder masters emerged. It was like a jazz renaissance. Yet I knew that some of this music was not going to be understood in its own time; unless anyone undertook to record it, some of these exemplary talents would be lost to time. Something bothers me very deeply when I see talent unappreciated. A good society is made better when it recognizes and benefits from excellence, and made worse when it fails to do so.

With the little money I had saved, I bought my first recording equipment, and I began bringing it to Smalls in 1996, where I made recordings for free as a favor to musicians who needed them. I particularly encouraged certain musicians who I felt were doing something musically important. I got to know many great musicians this way, and in the course of time, we all started talking about the idea of a record label for Smalls.

At this point, Impulse Records came to Smalls, and said that they wanted to make a compilation CD. This is the CD that would be later released as "Jazz Underground: Live at Smalls". They told us that they wanted to represent the Smalls scene. But in reality, they were making the album mainly to favor two artists, who were featured on six out of nine tracks on the record. These two were being specially promoted because they were seen as commercially viable crossover musicians conforming to Impulse's marketing strategy. But artists like Frank Hewitt and other highly talented artists were being squeezed off the record and out of the liner notes. This gave the false impression to the public that artists like Frank Hewitt were somehow unworthy of attention. The destructive force of this may surprise some who haven't witnessed such a thing. By misrepresenting our artists to the public, Impulse had made the careers of some musicians at the expense of irreparable damage to the careers of other equally talented musicians--most notably, the great Frank Hewitt. This infuriated me! How could they destroy the career of a great jazz master? And to make matters worse, Impulse had made all the artists and Smalls sign a one year recording ban. Within weeks, Verve Group was bought by Seagram's and the label dropped all the artists they had signed.

Angered by what we experienced, the artists and I all resolved that an insider label would benefit all those whose hard work made Smalls a famous place. The artists asked Mitch to give me the rights to use the Smalls name for Smalls Records, and he gave it to me in an unselfish way. This was one more reason why Smalls was so worth fighting for.

SJ: Please tell me about the albums you recorded so far.

LK: I'm especially aware of the musicians who have passed since they made recordings. I recorded Frank Hewitt when I could, and will always wish I could have recorded him more. He was first in everything. I'll miss Jimmy Lovelace too. I've recorded most of the artists that held down long term weekly engagements at Smalls in an attempt to provide something in the way of historical documents of what really happened there. It shows a number of musical connections that one wouldn't otherwise get. Across 7 Street played every Sunday night for nine years. Their harmonies are way advanced and they've been writing and performing challenging material for years. They were influenced by Hewitt and the legendary C Sharpe. I've been recording their book [Made In New York/SRCD-0002]. Guitarist William Ash also played with C Sharpe and with Hewitt. I've been recording his book [The Phoenix/SRCD-0006]. Pianist Sacha Perry performed two or three times each week. He was a devotee of Frank Hewitt, and he is an extraordinarily gifted composer who will gives fans of Sonny Clark and Bud Powell a reall thrill. I've been recording his book, the first disk of which is due out right now, it's called "Eretik" [Eretik/SRCD-0009]. The name is kind of an English play on words, similar to the English words "erratic", "erotic" and "heretic". Also out now is an album by the standout bassist Neal Caine [Backstabber's Ball/SRCD-0008], who plays bass like it's his native language. He's one of the American prodigies of the Suzuki Method who started at age three when it was first taught over here. He played for years with Elvin Jones, and he's got an authentic voice. I also have a number of especially nice live recordings of the Omer Avital Sextet from the time it first emerged. This band was electrifying and somewhat legendary in its time. The first band consisted of Omer with Mark Turner, Gregory Tardy, Myron Walden, Charles Owens, and Ali Jackson, none of whom were well-known at the time.

SJ: If you have any interesting stories about recordings, please tell me.

LK: People would probably say the hours we keep are strange! We're awake when everybody else is asleep. We can't stop. As Frank Hewitt said "anytime, anywhere". A lot of the recordings I made at Smalls started around two or three in the morning. Those were peak times for getting the music at its best, even in the studio. The music keeps you going. I remember after Frank Hewitt finished a recording session (his last on Not Afraid To Live/SRCD-0007) at Yoshiaki Masuo's place around two in the morning, Frank and I went up to Smalls where he was playing the late night, and he played one of the best sets I ever heard him play.

SJ: Please tell me about a legendary pianist Frank Hewitt. His album has been imported to Japan through Disc Union.

LK: For many years, a great master jazz pianist performed in our midst and almost nobody realized it. His name was Frank Hewitt. He performed two or three times a week at Smalls for nine years. He was a brilliant and poetic improvisor with a modern approach influenced by Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, especially by Elmo Hope, who Frank knew until Hope's death. He was raised in Harlem, his mother a church pianist at the famous Abyssinian Church. He played often as a sideman in NY with many notables, such as Cecil Payne, "C" Sharpe, Howard McGhee, John Coltrane, Dinah Washington, and Billie Holiday. In 1961, he also appeared in The Connection, a groundbreaking play well known to jazz fans.

The nightly topic of discussion among musicians in the back room at Smalls was on the subject of Frank Hewitt, asking: Why don't critics or record label executives pay attention to Frank? Can an artist be too good for his own good? Such questions hung heavy over many as they wondered about their own fates. I started Smalls Records because of Frank, and I took up Frank's cause because it can reveal a lot about what forces are arrayed against so many musicians, and in fact, against many of us. The answers are numerous, but a few things stand out. First the cabaret laws in NY from 1926 until 1988 artificially limited the number of jazz clubs, so many artists were forced underground. Once the laws were overturned, a number of older and notable musicians emerged who were unknown to the public. Unfortunately, the public mostly turned a deaf ear, apparently susceptible to the belief that if someone is older and not yet famous, then they must not be all that good. But they misjudged the tyranny of circumstances. It often requires repeated listenings even for experienced listeners to really understand Hewitt's music. Perhaps some people need to have something recommended to them before they can open themselves to receive it. In retrospect, Frank always needed someone to mediate between him and the listening public. It took a while at first for me to earn his trust, but he and I grew close in his last years, and the fact that he entrusted his musical legacy to me is one of the great honors of my life. I regret I could not have arrived sooner, so that he might have enjoyed recognition in his own lifetime.

SJ: What is the Smalls Records' future plan?

LK: I think some interesting things are coming up, especially now that Smalls is open again! In August or September I'll be paying homage to the room by putting out some of the best material that I recorded there. There will be a recording of the Frank Hewitt Quintet, the weekly Saturday 3am band, on a great night. It will be a fitting tribute to the late Jimmy Lovelace too. There will also be a recording of the Omer Avital Sextet that I think will get a lot of critics excited. Ari Hoenig is going to put down another disk with me, and that's a very cool thing as I really like his last one (The Painter/SRCD-0004). I'm also going after some new projects, one with pianist Harry Whitaker, one with altoist Zaid Nasser, one with Ari Roland, and hopefully, I'll get Vahagn Hayrapetian in for one to surprise everyone.