When 32 Records, the New York label responsible for the hot-selling compilation series "Jazz For ...," hired 54-year-old Todd Barkan as their new creative director, they signed on with one of the more colorful figures in the industry.
"The jazz world has a responsibility to be producing exciting new cutting-edge music, and that's what I'm going to try to do," Barkan says of his new job. "I will certainly continue in the spirit of what Joel Dorn [the previous head of 32 Records] did a great job in setting up. So we will continue with compilations, but will also release original records as well."
Barkan's deal with 32 Records allows him to produce albums for outside labels as well, and right now he's working on several for Fantasy/Milestone, which has been his primary gig for the past decade.
Known first in the biz as a lover of the music and those who play it, and second as a businessman, Barkan's name will forever be associated with the legendary San Francisco jazz club Keystone Korner, which he ran from 1972 until its closing in 1983.
The place was legendary for its adventurous bookings and its bohemian ambience.
"We had to deal with about as much pot smoke as cigarettes," Barkan said. "We would have saxophone legend Dexter Gordon, vibist Bobby Hutcherson and drummer Max Roach all in one week."
Pianist and Bay Area native Michelle Rosewoman used to hang out at the club as a teenager and returned to perform there as a leader in 1977.
"When I was 17 and 18, I used to stand by the door and put my ear close so I could hear the music," Rosewoman says. "Todd would always see me. After a while, I was invited in just about every night. There was a magical, warm feeling in the room.
"One night Rahsaan Roland Kirk played there after his stroke. There he was, about 80 pounds and one arm hanging down, still playing three horns, this huge sound just pouring through him. I will always remember that night. The club's vibe made for those types of moments to occur."
Barkan says running the club was a labor of love: "It never made any money, and was just something that was so artistically driven. It was quite a feat to keep it open for 11 years. In my mind, it was the greatest jazz club in the world."
Manager, Producer, Club Man
After the Keystone Korner closed, Barkan left for New York to manage the Boys Choir of Harlem for five years, then returned West to book the Oakland, Calif., jazz club Yoshi's, to which he brought the Keystone brand.
"Keystone Korner Tokyo was there for three years," Barkan says. "In the same process, I was contacted by Yoshi's, who were having great trouble financially. The idea was to have artists play both in Tokyo and Yoshi's. It resurrected Yoshi's, and also made it strong enough to get millions of dollars from Oakland, and has, as a result, moved to a new location and opened what may be the best room in the country."
Since 1993, when Barkan and Yoshi's had an unfriendly split, he has been a record producer for Fantasy/Milestone, Columbia, Sunnyside, Concord and for the Japanese imprints Alfa, Venus, Videoarts Music, Meldac and Teichiku. Barkan conceived and produced All My Tomorrows by saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., taking the smooth jazz player back into the straight-ahead fold in 1994. That set has sold almost 150,000 copies. It contains the tune "I'm Glad There Is You" (RealAudio excerpt).
Lately Barkan has been busy helping resurrect the career of Cuban pianist and conductor Chico O'Farrill. The musician's 1995 Pure Emotion (Fantasy/Milestone) was nominated for a Grammy, alongside another Barkan-produced record on the same label, Jerry Gonzalez & the Fort Apache Band's Pensativo. Pure Emotion features the tune "Igor's Dream."
Barkan has also helped to put vocalist Jimmy Scott back on the map, producing the superb Mood Indigo (Fantasy/ Milestone), released in June.
"Todd has been a joy to work with," Scott says. "He brings the right vibe to the session, which is so important to an artist. To feel like you are working with someone who loves and understands what your goal is."
Looking toward the future of his label, and jazz in general, Barkan comments on the need for music to cross genres.
"In order to maintain its vitality, jazz has to cross-genre itself. The era of bebop is over. I've listened to some attempts at cross-genre producing, which I think are awful. I'm still a customer, but there is nothing great to buy."
At 32 Records, Barkan is working at genre synthesis. "I'm putting out a salsa jazz record by Alberto Shiroma, and saxophonist Eric Alexander and pianist Arturo O'Farrill solo on it," Barkan says. Shiroma's just-released Like a Goddess She Walks features the half-Peruvian half-Japanese singer fronting a small, percussion heavy ensemble.
And yes, there is a new compilation out. Jazz for When You're in Love brings artists such as saxophonist Sonny Stitt and singer Morgana King into your living room, and hopefully the bedroom as well.
"I'm just going to try to continue the tradition of great compilations and reissues," Barkan says, "adding in elements of new cutting-edge jazz and Latin contemporary recordings."