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The jazz scene of the 1980s was transformative. The music biz was in a state of flux, with so many changes and moving parts that most industry insiders didn’t see the train coming down the track. It was just a couple of years since I had started writing about jazz for a few magazines and newspapers, and while hardly anyone had heard of the internet, I couldn’t help but notice that a certain kind of disruption was taking place in the jazz world.
Vinyl album sales were already on the decline as fan interest waned, prices of LPs went up and live performances were proving more satisfying than recordings. Big-box super stores steadily replaced mom-and-pop record shops, and the tastemakers who fueled the boutiques were replaced by minimum wage clerks at checkout counters. No longer could you count on in-store recommendations — you had to come into the store knowing what you wanted.
While the ’70s jazz scene will be remembered for fusion, funk and free jazz, when the ’80s arrived, acoustic jazz and the term “young lions” resurfaced — borrowed from the 1961 Wayne Shorter-dominated album of the same name — again calling attention to the jazz tradition that was now in transition. The visionary Bruce Lundvall, head of the newly launched and short-lived Elektra Musician label, saw what was happening and, amongst other landmark records, released The Young Lions(A Concert of Music Played by Seventeen Exceptional Young Musicians). One of those featured artists was Wynton Marsalis, who became the poster child of the young lion movement, while veteran artists such as Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock (who continued to dazzle with electronic music, as well) revisited their own acoustic leanings. In 1985, Lundvall left Elektra to relaunch Blue Note.
While the more traditional lions were roaring, smooth cats were on the rise, fueled by the commercial success of artists in the late ’70s like David Sanborn, George Benson, Michael Franks and Al Jarreau on Warner Bros., often thanks to the golden touch of the label’s in-house producer, Tommy LiPuma. Critic Stanley Crouch once said that Miles Davis’ fusion days opened the door for smooth jazz. Whether or not that’s true, there was a Zeitgeist where jazz artists were contributing to popular singer-songwriter albums (Kenny Loggins talks about this on a JAZZIZ Not What You Think podcast), which was furthered by the launch of GRP Records, a new label wholly dedicated to the silkier side of jazz. The “quiet storm” radio format and a whole host of jazz stations were re-energized, and festivals began filling their rosters with the lions and the cats.
Around 1980, I began hearing about a digital music technology on the horizon called the compact disc, and I believed the time was right to start a magazine that addressed music listening —at a time when jazz magazines typically catered to musicians — and all of the changes taking place. Naturally, in one of our earliest issues, our fifth, we featured Miles on the cover (shown here). Though already a legend, he was back on the road after a few-year hiatus and was actively recording a new kind of electric Miles album — including the live We Want Miles and The Man With the Horn, which showcased guitarist Mike Stern, saxophonist Bill Evans and bassist Marcus Miller; Star People, with Mino Cinelu and guitarists Stern and John Scofield; and Decoy, spotlighting keyboardist Robert Irving. After these albums, in 1985, Miles left Columbia, the label that he spent 30 years recording for, amid rumors of discontent with their new favorite horn player, Wynton, and their refusal to support his interest in recording an album of all pop covers. (Miles’ final album for Columbia, You’re Under Arrest, did feature two of them: Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.”) As fate would have it, Miles signed to Warner Bros. with the encouragement of LiPuma, who produced 1986’s Tutu with Marcus Miller.
In this issue, we highlight the late-career recordings of The Man With the Horn, and examine the careers of other jazz artists who played an important role in the 1980s. Whatever was in the air at the time had a major impact on the future of jazz and the launch of this magazine. - Michael Fagien