October 31, 2012

Mat Domber, Friend of Jazz

Mat Domber

The history of recorded jazz is, of course, the story of its players. But by the very nature of the business, producers, and record company owners also play a role. Invariably even the best of producers clashed with their artists over business matters or the aesthetics of the jazz being produced. Mat Domber (and his wife Rachel) were founders and owners of Arbors Records, and Mat was a man well-loved in the jazz business, and a highly respected producer. I have met and interviewed many Arbors artists and Mat always received the highest praise. He passed away on September 19, 2012, and he will be sorely missed by jazz musicians and their audience.
Mat started producing jazz recordings for the best of reasons. He simply loved the music. Mat was a self-described “Eddie Condonite” and, as a youth, heard live jazz at Nick’s in New York. He tried to emulate Pee Wee Russell on the clarinet for a brief time, and wisely decided to make his career in law and real estate. But jazz remained a passion for him, and years later he found himself in a position where he could help some under-recorded musicians become more known to the public. Arbors Records was founded in 1989 and since then has produced over 300 recordings.
Mat didn’t like to label music, although if you need to categorize the music on Arbors it is mostly in the traditional jazz mode. Here are his thoughts on the subject of labels, from our interview conducted on January 12, 2007 at the International Association of Jazz Educators:
MR:      You said some significant things [this morning] in that you don’t necessarily care for labels in marketing jazz or in jazz in general?
MD:      That’s right. We don’t. Because good music is good music. And if you label something as let’s say Dixieland for example, people think of Shakey’s Pizza Parlor and they think of sleeve garters and they think of striped shirts. And they forget the musical importance of that style of music and actually the difficulty of creating it. It’s a kind of music that’s so easy to play poorly and so difficult to play well.
MR:      That’s a great statement.
MD:      But that’s only one aspect of it. I mean jazz has become so broad that it’s even very difficult to define. What is jazz today? I mean Kenny G, is he jazz? Is polytonal New Orleans music jazz? I mean and everything in between. Music is music.
MR:      You said something this morning about a collection of sounds that is supposed to elicit some kind of emotional response.
MD:      Right. And that I think is one of the important things about music, music in general, whether it’s classical music, whether it’s jazz. It’s related to emotion. And one of the problems that I think has happened to the way in which even jazz has been moving is that it’s lost its soul. It’s lost that emotional impact. It’s become a technical exercise. It’s become something to display the virtuosity of the musician but it doesn’t expose his heart and soul. And earlier jazz did just that. It didn’t have quite the virtuosity but it had feeling, it had soul, it had something that you take away that’s memorable. Something that’s — even with the early musicians — as somebody commented, Wycliffe Gordon commented this morning — it has, you could recognize a musician by his tone, by his phrasing, as an individual.
A lot of that is lost.
Producers varied in the amounts of hands-on manipulation they felt was necessary to produce a sellable product. Part of Mat’s role seemed to be making people comfortable and dealing with egos, but he mainly left musical choices up to the artists themselves. When he was actually asked his opinion by his musical heroes, he was somewhat taken aback.
MR:      As a producer of these things, did you ever have to deal with personality conflicts between the musicians?
MD:      Sure.
MR:      They are people too, right?
MD:      Well when you’re dealing with musicians you’re dealing with artists. When you’re dealing with artists there are always personality issues, there’s always ego — this guy doesn’t like the other guy, this guy had a gig but he never invited me to play with him so I don’t want to play with him. You know you always have things of that kind that go on. Usually you can help smooth it over. Sometimes you just make sure that they stay separated.
MR:      When you make a new CD, are you the producer in the sense that do you direct the music that’s going to go on the —
MD:      I’m not a musician. I don’t know one chord from another if push came to shove. I decided that what I would do is leave the music to the musicians. So normally what I will do is choose somebody who I’d like to record or choose a group that I’d like to record. And I ask the leader to select the musicians that will help him to present his music the way he wants to present it, or, we record women as well as men. And I leave the choice of tunes to them, I leave the editing of the music to them, although occasionally I might have an opinion, but I don’t think that I know as much about music as Ruby Braff did or know as much as Kenny Davern or any of these people, so why should I try to tell them? But the strange thing that started to happen with the recordings that we did, that they would ask me for my opinion. And I was always very flattered when Kenny Davern would say “well which take did you prefer?” And I’d think to myself my God, you’re asking me? And sometimes I came up with an answer that he agreed with and sometimes I didn’t.
In addition to a steady output of recorded jazz, Arbors Records also sponsored an annual Florida jazz event called the March of Jazz, was co-founder of the group The Statesmen of Jazz, and more recently was involved in producing the Jazz Alive cruises.
Mat was well aware of the importance of jazz in twentieth century America, and the complicated issues involving the music and race. If you’ve ever delved into the jazz party circuit, you would have noticed that the musicians — and especially the audience — were predominantly white. Mat addressed this issue in our interview:
MD:      We’ve always had black musicians or at least we’ve tried to have black musicians at our parties. I felt that the music is color blind and gender blind. We have women who we think are good performers who fit in. The whole issue is fitting in. I mean you know, Milt Hinton was at our parties while he was alive of course, and came — we honored him on his birthday as one of our — we had Benny Waters and we had Benny’s, I think he was 95 at the time, and we presented a tribute to Benny as part of our March of Jazz. We’ve had Joe Wilder. But the problem has always been to find musicians that would fit in, who would be able to play with the group as a whole, would know the tunes and would be able to perform. And with our Statesmen of Jazz group we’ve been able to reach out to more and more musicians. I mean we have people like Norman Simmons who play regularly with us and we put Norman together with Warren Vache you know, and they play together beautifully. Rufus Reid playing bass in our group, Bobby Cranshaw playing bass, so that we try to do that. But it is a problem. And of course I have to say that you know if you bring up the subject of race I mean that raises other issues. There aren’t too many black people who come to our parties as audience. I can’t speak for why but there are very, very, very few. And in terms of jazz producers, building a bottom line, they’re looking at inviting musicians who they think will have a following, who they think will bring an audience to them, and that too is a factor in how many black musicians they want to invite. Now on the other side of the coin you have the group that puts on cruises where they have a lot of black musicians who are playing on the cruises, with white musicians I mean, and they get a large black audience. But it’s funny, when you go on those cruises you see that most of the black audience will go to those performances where the black musicians are playing, and not too many of them come in to where the white musicians are playing, which is a shame because in the early days of music, the early days of jazz, although the country was segregated, the music wasn’t. And very often in the recording studios you’d have white and black musicians who were recording together while they couldn’t appear together on stage. And they jammed together and they learned from each other, and that was very, very interesting. Plus the fact that so many of the black musicians had teachers who were white. Buster Bailey, for example, went to the same music teacher that Benny Goodman did in Chicago. And I’m sure that there are many, many, many more examples that you could quote. So it’s an unfortunate thing but I think that part of it too related to economics. I think that the black musicians, with justification, felt that they were, for a long, long time, excluded from the better paying jobs and the better hotel work, from the jobs that white bands were getting. And when the circle turned I think they felt that they wanted to do their thing and take advantage of their thing and why should they bring in other people to participate in what they felt was their chance to make a few bucks.
MR:      Yeah. It’s a really complicated issue for sure.
MD:      Yes it is. And it’s cultural as well as musical.
MR:      Were you saying that you can’t really separate American culture when you study jazz history? It’s all one and the same?
MD:      I think I made that comment. But others might have said the same thing. Yeah it’s true, it’s true. You can look at, I’ve always felt that our segregated society had a lot to do with the evolution of the music during those times. I think also the rise of the black power movement after World War II had a lot to do with the direction that music took at that time. And in that sense the music was really related to the culture and the cultural phenomena that were taking place at the time.
Arbors Records produced recordings from many of the great jazz artists — Warren Vache, Bucky Pizzarelli, Dick Hyman, Ralph Sutton, Kenny Davern and Bob Haggart — not bad for what Mat called a “Mom and Pop” operation. Mat and Rachel were especially important to those jazz artists in the “middle generation,” the players who were neither the new young stars nor the celebrated elder veterans. Mat was one of the good guys.

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