Notes From the Post-Dan Era
While writing this month’s cover story about Donald Fagen, I thought a lot about his history in Steely Dan, the pop band with a jazz jones that he and Walter Becker founded 40 years ago. And that somehow brought to mind GRP, the popular jazz label that recently turned 30 years old.
Heading a company that produced albums by Earl Klugh, Patti Austin and other then-contemporary jazz artists, Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen laid the foundation for GRP in the late ’70s, not long before Steely Dan began their nearly 20-year sabbatical from recording and performing — a period once referred to by Fagen and Becker as “the post-Dan era.” Then, in the early ’80s, while I was launching this magazine and trying to figure out how to bundle it with new CD technology, Grusin —a keyboardist, producer and arranger best-known for television- and movie-soundtrack work — and Rosen, a drummer-turned-shrewd-businessman, were turning their production company into a full-blown jazz label. Grusin and Rosen were the “G” and “R” in GRP. (The “P” stood for “Productions.”) Soon their pristine digital recordings dominated the jazz market. (Grusin’s Mountain Dance was one of the world’s first non-classical, all-digital albums.) In short order they helped popularize a mounting list of jazz musicians — including several contributors to Steely Dan albums — partially by exploiting the arrival of the game-changing compact disc.
Within GRP’s first few years of operations, the label signed Grusin’s longtime friend and collaborator Lee Ritenour, a guitarist already enjoying success with pop and fusion listeners. In 1985, Grusin and Ritenour released their Brazilian-themed album Harlequin, which earned them a Grammy (for “Best Instrumental Arrangement” on the song “Early A.M. Attitude”). Harlequin, a shining example of what would become GRP’s smooth and clean signature sound, unleashed a tidal wave of success for the label. During that period, Grusin continued to record and produce albums for both himself and other GRP artists, while Rosen and his marketing chief, Mark Wexler, cleverly sold and promoted product. Sometimes, for instance, they’d send a new CD player — and a bunch of GRP CDs — to a radio station that had yet to acquire one. In the short term, if that station wished to utilize the new technology, they had nothing to play on-air except GRP albums.
During the early years at JAZZIZ, I entered into working relationships with all the jazz labels, though with none more closely than GRP. We were both in our “start-up phase” then, and we both understood CD technology as a viable means to present jazz to a larger audience. For a while, GRP was the most prolific label in jazz, and we featured a lot of their artists in our pages.
MCA/Universal bought GRP for roughly $40 million in 1990. Grusin and Rosen departed, and the label has since merged into the Verve Music Group. As it turned out, GRP’s heyday lasted nearly as long as the “post-Dan era.” Today, Fagen and Steely Dan are still active. Grusin is composing, performing and collecting honorary doctorate degrees. Rosen produces the “Jazz Roots” concert series, and Wexler, after starting a label with Ritenour and me, is now running Heads Up International. All of these gentlemen have done fine work. Hopefully they’ll be doing fine work for many years to come and we’ll be here to cover it. —Michael Fagien