Story by Brett Koshkin
Neither John Coltrane nor Herbie Hancock ever recorded for the Bay Area-based Black Jazz label that flourished in the '70s West Coast jazz scene. Far from being a commercial powerhouse, the label concentrated on an epicurean selection of then-fresh faced soul-jazz musicians from keyboardist Doug Carn to bassist Cleveland Eaton. While none of their funk-infused records ever moved mountains of units, they all received accolades and acclaim from fans and artists alike. Your favorite musicians' favorite musicians recorded for Black Jazz.
The majority of the releases carried the same stoic artwork, a single black and white photo of the recording artist framed in a black rim. A streak of continuity, it allows one in the know to spot releases from across the room--something seldom accomplished in the record business.
While the label quietly disappeared into the ether in the late seventies with changing tides of popular music and the death of A&R man, Gene Russell, it turns out that wasn't the end of the story. The Black Jazz stable of artists, with their tightened drums and righteous message of social consciousness, would find new life decades later as high-caliber fodder for the sample cannon in the hip-hop age. From Ice Cube to A Tribe Called Quest, legions of music producers and rap aficionados recognized the quality of work that the label encompassed and breathed new life into their works, inspiring legions to track down original copies and shell out plenty in order to own them. The demand ignited an onslaught of countless shoddily-manufactured bootlegs over the years and all the legal headaches that could come along with such a thing."The person I bought the label from licensed the Black Jazz material to a record label in the United Kingdom after he had already sold it to me," said owner James Hardge Junior. After Dick Shory, the original owner of Black Jazz, sold the label off, the body of work changed hands more than one can count.
After years of reinvigoration, the label and its back catalogue are looking for a new home, and doing so in rather peculiar ways. Hardge has offered up everything for sale on Craigslist. For the handsome price of $285,000, you can become the owner of Black Jazz.
"I just bought a Rolls Royce on Craigslist and I thought, wait, if people are putting up Rolls and homes, why not the label?" said Hardge, who owns three restaurants in the Bay Area. "I'm getting out of the music business; I don't have the time, attention and dedication that Black Jazz deserves."
When asked, Hardge also mentioned there remains a bounty of unreleased outtakes from Cleveland Eaton, Doug and Jean Carn as well. Maybe that will encourage labels such as Stones Throw or Ubiquity to come calling.