Bar owner, artist, festival curator, label owner, producer Bruno Johnson a fixture on the Chicago jazz and free jazz scene since 1988, though music had been his main preoccupation for years. Johnson worked at various record stores in Chicago, including legendary, now-defunct Jazz Record Mart. He began his foray into label ownership with a short-lived rock label, but changed direction as well as the name in 1995. Okkadisk's first releases were by Chicago tenor giant Fred Anderson and workhorse scene instigator Ken Vandermark. His catalogue is now up around 90 titles. By documenting the growing movement in Chicago-showcasing important artists already working here as well as bringing in outside musicians, okkadisk has helped solidify Chicago's leading position in the improvised world.
The following interview by jazz cornetist Josh Berman, with help from Orbit worker Ron Bierma, took place over tuna sandwiches at a local restaurant.
JB When you started working in Chicago record stores were you already involved with jazz and improvised music?
BJ I had been listening to Jazz for about ten years when I started working in Chicago. I started listening in college. I listened to a lot of new music working at Jazz Record Mart, because I couldn't play the screech stuff I normally listened to-- or at least not for very long. I got an appreciation for older jazz at the store.
JB When did you first hear free jazz?
BJ In college I was listening to a lot of rock & industrial music. A friend took me to see the Art Ensemble of Chicago in 1982. They made a horrific noise AND they could actually play their instruments. So, I started hunting down jazz records, because I realized beating on metal wasn't going to interest me for long. I found all the Chicagoans by looking at records and seeing who was playing on them-- that's how I ran into Nessa Records, Delmark Records and the same for the Europeans, Brotzmann and others.
JB Were you a collector?
BJ Yeah. of sorts.
JB Had you always thought about having you own label?
BJ I ran a rock label in the 80s. I put out five or six discs. They were local artists; Gods Acre, the first Freakwater 45...but I knew I wanted to start a jazz label at some point. So, I thought about it for a while and saved up some money working as a bartender. I ran into Fred (Anderson) because he was opening for Ken (Vandermark). Ken had been on a couple of the rock records I did.
JB Did you know Ken well?
BJ Not really...He was new in town. I had seen his Vandermark Quartet, but I didn't really know him. He was playing Lounge Ax one weekday night and Fred's quartet opened for him. I really liked what Fred was playing. I had heard his records- the Nessa and the Moers record, but this was my first time seeing him live. So, I went up to him after the show and told him I really liked what he was playing. I asked him if he was interested in doing a record because I was starting a label. He called me the next day-at 8:30 in the morning-and said he had a tape I may want to listen to. I went down to the Velvet (Fred's night club) and picked it up. It was the duet record with Steve McCall. I told him I would do it. I had to put something else out with it so I put the Caffeine CD out too. I really just stumbled into it. I wasn't planning to start it that day . . . but it got started.
JB Did you start the label with a clear idea of the kind of projects you wanted to put out?
BJ I guess I didn't really have an idea. My whole thing was that I thought the artist should decide what they wanted to do. It is just like the packaging-- if the artist has a real strong idea of how they think it should look I'm willing to work with them as long as it's feasible to do. It's the same thing with the music. I've suggested situations to artists. Like for Fred, I'll suggest a group for him to play with. The Fred DKV record, that was Ken's idea.
JB Your label seems to have a stable of regulars. Are you, by design, trying to build a catalog of these certain personalities?
BJ I am definitely interested in working with people on a regular basis. I think it is important for a label to have contact with the same artists, for both building contacts and sales. It helps you build a relationship with the artist, getting to the point where they trust you. Ken pretty much tells me what he is going to do and I say, "OK, fine" I trust him. It's the same way with Brotzmann. He has certain groups that he brings to me- like the octet. He wanted to work with a larger group and he suggested working with Chicagoans, because he already has such a great connection here. He had people he knew he wanted. He loves Mars William's playing, so he wanted to make sure that Mars was in the group. He wanted Hamid (Drake). He wanted Kent Kessler. But then to flesh it out he asked us who could augment that group. When we did it the second session for the tentet, we decided to add Mats (Gustafsson) and Joe McPhee, because they were regulars in town and they all had working relationships.
RB The back of your CDs say, in essence, "The artists retain the rights to the tapes". [c&p retained by the artists ] Could you explain what that means and why you have chosen to do it that way?
BJ To me it's very important-in any art form-that the artist is the one who is the most respected. Without the artist there would be no record company. It's unfair to say that somebody who individually creates something cannot control what they have created. Just because the label facilitates the recording shouldn't mean that the control over that oral art gets transferred to someone else. That's how the American record business works , and it's just wrong. It's easy for me in this kind of music because-- although maybe twenty, thirty years from now it will be seen as in the tradition and all this will be reissued, seeing how the late sixties Coltrane catalog was dealt with in the last thirty years I don't see that happening. But, I think that the artist should be involved in that decision making. It shouldn't be up to someone else to repackage it and make money off of it, when the artist has stopped making money on it. The back off my records say that the material is controlled by the artist because I think it is theirs. If they are dissatisfied with the way I present their music then they have every right to take it away from me and put it somewhere else. Unlike a lot of other art, like paintings-- I mean, you can reproduce posters of it-- but, if an artist makes a painting and then sells it to someone, they have sold that one piece of art. Recordings are a duplication of someone's art. Ultimately, that sound on that tape belongs to the people who created that sound.
RB Do you sign contracts with your artists?
BJ Almost all my agreements are oral.
RB Is there a question of how long the record stays in your control?
BJ My intention is to keep the records in print as long as it's economically feasible. Obviously, I'm a small label, so the money is very tight. Some things slide out of print and it takes me a while to get them back out. My deal is that once my initial fees are paid; manufacturing the CD, duplicating the artwork, buying the jewel boxes, then any profits are split evenly between the artists and myself. It's a very un-American practice. With most major labels and jazz labels there is a small royalty paid per unit sold. That arrangement is advantageous to the label. It generates a lot more income to put out more records, and I wish I did have that income sometimes. I dread the New Year coming each year, because I have to write checks to artists for records I sold the previous year. It usually wipes out any capital I have. I'm in the hole until the spring, when I start building up money again. I think this should be constant source of revenue for the artists. This kind of music doesn't generate a lot of money. Some artists like Brotzmann and Vandermark are very fortunate, they get to tour often, and make their money playing gigs, which is what they prefer doing. For a lot of artists these records are big part of their income.
RB Does that mean that everyone is considered a leader and collect the same amount of money?
BJ It has been my practice to pay everyone equally. I think it's a real democratic music, that's one of the best parts about contemporary jazz-the rhythm section isn't just the rhythm section anymore- it could be an integral part of creating the music, not just giving support to a horn player. So, I do pay equally to everyone-even the leader. I've never had anyone complain about it. If Brotzmann decided that he should be getting most of the money, then I would talk about doing that. But, he's a very democratic man who wants everyone to feel equally involved and he insures that everyone is involved. The tentet is a great group, he always brings in tunes whenever they get together, but everybody else does too. If you look at the two records they've done there are six different composers.
JB What do you consider a success with your label?
BJ First, if I release it and the artist is happy, and I'm happy, I see it as a success. At the bare minimum, I'd like to see it break even- that's a success...even better if it makes money. The market for this music is not big, and it's over-saturated...there are a lot of labels out there. There are some artists whose records sell consistently. Fred Anderson, Peter Brotzmann...Brotzmann is the biggest seller on my label. Having someone whose records always sell is the backbone of any record label. Any time I have the money and I can get a record out, I consider it a success. Modest goals. I enjoy the music and I love facilitating the process...helping people. I feel that this is music that needs to be listened to live, that's the best way to understand how it's progressing, but, records are fun. I always listened and collected, now I enjoy putting them out.
JB I think that's about it...How's your tuna?
BJ Excellent, thanks.
JB No...thank you.
Orbit is proud to be an exclusive distributor / retailer of this important label. We have all CD titles available (some are now out of print), and around 5 LP titles. Many are only available here! This was originally printed in Rhythm n News magazine. We've seen the label name printed so many different ways, so we asked...we found out that Bruno's preferred spelling of his label is okkadisk - no caps. one word.