Joel Dorn built 32 Records into one of jazz’s bestselling labels in the 1980s. And he did it with compilations.
by Marshall Bowden
As some readers will know, I have a special interest in compilation albums. A good compilation album can serve many purposes: it can be a marketing tool, a fundraiser, a throwaway, or a historical document. But a compilation that you will throw onto the turntable or CD player time and again because of the mix of music it contains is a wonderful thing.
I also have an interest in the career of producer Joel Dorn, who was a house producer at Atlantic Records during their heyday. By the mid-1970s Dorn had gone independent as a producer, winning Grammy awards for his work with artists like Roberta Flack and Bette Midler. In 1995 he started 32 Records, a label he built from reissuing tracks from the Muse and Landmark labels that he had recently purchased.
Dorn decided to release a compilation of tracks that were heavily requested by listeners during his tenure as a popular jazz radio DJ on Philadelphia’s WHAT-FM. In his liner notes Dorn gives us the concept behind Songs That Made the Phones Light Up: none of the tracks included were big hits across the country, but they were very popular and garnered many requests on WHAT, giving us some idea of what listeners to mid-seventies Philly jazz radio liked best. Dorn worked at WHAT from 1961-67, and a short time after he left the station changed its call letters to WWBD for owners William and Dolly Banks. In 1975 they dropped the station’s twenty-seven-year history as an all-jazz station to create the country’s first FM talk radio station.
Songs That Made the Phones Light Up is made up of thirteen tracks that all feature a vocalist of one kind or another. These are songs of inspiration (“Over the Rainbow,” “Look to the Rainbow”), songs of romantic heartache (“A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry,” “World of Trouble,” “Through a Long and Sleepless Night”), and more. There are romantic songs (“A Nightingale Sang in Barkley Square,” “Save Your Love For Me”), songs about how we’re feeling (“It Might As Well Be Spring”), and humor (“Gimmee That Wine,” “Baltimore Oriole”).
And then there’s Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Forty Acres and a Mule,” which is social commentary/poetry set to a jazz background. Those not familiar with Brown should check out one of his first couple of albums (Mr. Oscar Brown Jr. Goes to Washington is a good one). Brown uses not only language, but also his delivery, by turns comic, dramatic, and angry. Of course Brown was one element (along with others) that moved the needle towards the discovery of rap and hip hop less than a decade later. People who find his work too urbane or too well-spoken to communicate with the common folk often seem to miss the anger that he both instills and controls in his writing and vocals. It was only a couple of years after this that Gil Scott-Heron first appeared on the scene.
Dorn talks about the fact that it was the music fans who called in their requests who made up this compilation record, and he even thanks them for their help in putting together Songs That Made the Phones Light Up. The collection is a prime example of giving the audience what they want, and that was really the secret to the success of 32 Records. Besides Songs That Made the Phones Light Up, Dorn released single CD reissues of Landmark and Muse recordings at around $8.98 (1997). He also put together a series of twofers with two albums by one artist combined onto one CD. I have a copy of Rahsaan Roland Kirk Volunteered Slavery/Blacknuss that I wouldn’t part with for the world. “We want to get great music, package it attractively, and, more than anything, make it affordable,” he told Billboard in 1997.
In mid-1997, 32 Records collaborated with Elle magazine to produce a CD titled Music For a Rainy Afternoon that sold exclusively through an 800 number. Sales of the CD weren’t great, but there was a hunch that there was a market for such a CD if marketed correctly. The team at 32 Records, which included Dorn, his son Adam (who selected tracks for the series of ‘Jazz For’ releases that followed), and publicity guru Kevin Calabro, re-titled the disc Jazz for a Rainy Afternoon and created a sensual cover of a woman in evening dress with an umbrella walking in the rain. It’s like a fashion photograph, not outwardly sexy, but with an element of narrative that invites the viewer to construct a story of some kind. Add in a selection of straight-ahead jazz that’s relatively mellow, sometimes with strings, but other times merely a trio or quartet. There’s no fusion and no appeal to anything that’s hip and trendy (at least at the time). Dorn got a record chain in Portland to dedicate a ‘ listening station to the disc, and pretty soon it sold out. According to Dorn the CD’s leading demographic was women, aged 25-45.
Dorn was quick to note that the quality of the music was imperative, and that’s true. The label was definitely giving buyers their $8.98’s worth, as the disc features Charles Brown, Houston Person, Ron Carter, Wallace Roney, Sonny Criss, Woody Shaw, David ‘Fathead’ Newman, Red Garland, and Hank Jones. Anyone wanting to hear real jazz by a variety of artists could plunk down less than $10 and have a twenty-track primer in modern jazz. But the argument goes that the main buyers of these CDs were not hardcore jazz aficionados, but rather people who own little or no music and may be looking to fill a space in their lifestyles. Dorn would argue that the most important thing is to get music in front of potential buyers who might be interested in what you have if you market it the right way. There’s no shame in marketing something of high quality, and Jazz for a Rainy Day is high quality. Granted, you won’t hear any avant-garde work or anything that’s looking to be the latest innovation in jazz, but there’s nothing watered-down or smooth jazz about any of the tracks here.
Jazz for a Rainy Day was such a huge success that 32 Records became one of the biggest and bestselling jazz labels out there in the late 1990s. Jazz fans were snapping up the label’s reissues of albums by legendary jazz performers at bargain prices, while the Rainy Day compilation sold 250,000 copies in a market that deemed anything moving 10,000-20,000 copies a success. The label. was quick to follow up on that success by making ‘Jazz For’ a series that ended up including Jazz for Those Peaceful Moments, Jazz For The Quiet Times, Jazz For When You’re Alone, Jazz For When You’re Not Alone, Jazz For The Open Road, and Jazz For a Lazy Day.
There was a debate, which surfaces every so often, about whether compilations do much to increase jazz music sales, whether they cannibalize sales of complete back release albums, etc. Tenor saxophonist Houston Person has been quoted as saying that the sales of 32 Records compilations, on which he was frequently featured, have helped increase sales of his previous recordings and generate interest in his live performances. The bottom line is that Dorn and company hit on a way to move straight-ahead jazz recordings at a time when jazz appealed to an increasingly small niche audience. It’s probably safe to say that Jazz For a Rainy Day got more people interested in jazz than Ken Burns did.
All good things must come to an end, and so it was with 32 Records. Dorn left the label he had started in March of 2000, and the new owners, CDBeat, decided shortly thereafter to fold the label by 2001.
In an interview I conducted with Dorn in 2002, he explained what happened: “I walked away from 32 because I had partners (attorney Robert Miller) who wanted to go into the Internet business. I don’t give a flying rubber fuck about the Internet business. So when they did that I walked and the label folded within six months.” By that time Dorn had started and walked away from another label, Label M, because his co-owners, an investment group (who he referred to as ‘a colony of baboons’), wanted to take the business to the Internet once again. Dorn returned with Hyena Records, a label that released a lot of really great music that I still cherish, prior to Dorn’s death in 2007.