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The past, present and future of Candid Records: A conversation with Mark Wexler

Candid Records
Covers of Candid Records albums

The Candid Records label has gone through a few phases over the course of more than six decades with periods of both prolificacy and dormancy. The label was originally founded by musician and bandleader Archie Bleyer as an offshoot of his Cadence Records label, which produced hits (and misses) with artists such as the Everly Brothers, Link Wray and Don Shirley. Creating Candid in 1960 to record jazz, Bleyer asked writer Nat Hentoff to produce the sessions. The result was a series of recordings featuring some of the greatest jazz and blues artists of that period, including Max Roach, Charles Mingus, Booker Ervin, Booker Little, Otis Spann and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

After only about five years, the label fell into economic malaise until it was bought and revived by Alan Bates, owner of the London-based Black Lion Records, which had its own distinguished history in jazz recordings. Bates relaunched Candid in the late ‘80s, not only reissuing those seminal catalog recordings, but also signing and producing contemporary artists such as Kenny Barron, Claudio Roditi, Donald Harrison, Lee Konitz, Paquito D’Rivera and a young British singer/pianist by the name of Jamie Cullum.

Bates’ ownership and stewardship of the label lasted until 2019 when he decided to sell it to Exceleration Music, owned by Glen Barros, who brought in fellow former Concord Records execs John Burk and Mark Wexler. This iteration of Candid has embarked on both a reissue campaign featuring several of those seminal recordings, as well as releases by contemporary artists such as Wayne Shorter, Terri Lyne Carrington and Eliane Elias.

Wexler spoke with me about Candid Records' long and storied history, the changing landscape for recordings and the label’s future plans.

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Lee Mergner: The label has a long history going back to the ‘50s and ‘60s. Tell us a little bit about that history and how it evolved into its current permutation.  

Mark Wexler: It was formed in the late ‘50s by a gentleman by the name of Archie Bleyer. As time went on, he shifted over and wanted to do jazz. He hooked up with Nat Hentoff, whom you know very well because he wrote forJazzTimes [the author was his principal editor for about 15 years] and did a lot of different things. Nat wanted to present jazz in a particular way, and it coincided when there was a lot of civil unrest in the country. Jazz musicians in particular were looking for ways to express themselves musically. When he set up shop in New York, back in the early ‘60s, he started running jazz musicians in and out, and they would record albums, kind of like a Motown-esque in the way that it was done, where a band would be there and then all of a sudden the stars would come in and come in and sit in or they would bring some of their players with them and obviously set up for the session.

Out of that era came some tremendously impactful records in the history of jazz music. One that really spoke to the times and still speaks to the times today was done by Max Roach. It was entitled We Insist and the whole premise behind this album was that Max was really frustrated with the way life was going at that point with all the civil injustices and really wanted to express himself. He did so with this album and brought in other artists, Abby Lincoln being one of them, and recorded it. It became a statement piece where it was expressing musically both in the titles of the songs and the way the songs were constructed. It became a piece that became historical because today when you talk about what happened in that period of time in the jazz world, that particular record comes up a lot because it was a statement piece.

Max Roach - Driva' Man (Official Audio)

A lot of the artists that came through there at that point, they weren't as vocal about it, but they certainly were as passionate about the times they were living in and how were they going to express themselves. That album kind of captured that. I really give him a lot of credit because you don't hear a lot about Nat Hentoff. But the fact is that he produced some really remarkable records and we were very fortunate in being able to get this gem of a catalog and really mine it. There's a lot of stuff in there that real hardcore jazz aficionados know right away, right? These artists, whether it's Mingus or Monk or Max Roach or Abby Lincoln or Cecil Taylor or Kenny Barron, people know them all over the world.

When Glen Barros and John Burk called me and said, “Listen, I'd like to get together with you and talk about this label that we just purchased. We want you to run it.” Now I had worked with them for 20 years, at Concord Records. I had moved down to Florida thinking—the sun, the beach, a quieter lifestyle. Well, it doesn't always work out that way. Because after working with these guys for those 20 years, I had a great deal of respect. And I said, “All right, I'll take it over.” So my life changed again. It's another chapter. I call it the second act, with Glenn and John. Here I am.

The label itself is just a great piece of work that went through a variety of different owners. With each ownership it kind of changed the tenor of the label and not making it better or worse, but just certainly the way in which albums were made and presented, it made for a nice mix of music and gave us a nice platform to work with. There are about 300 titles in the Candid Records Library. We officially launched in April 2022. We had to take down the old website, build a new website, make sure everything was accurate. We had to really prepare ourselves to tell the history and give the label the homage it deserved for being this little label that not a lot of people know about. But when you start mentioning the artists, there's no doubt they know about them. It's an exciting time for us and, knock on wood, it's been well received. We're really happy.

I think you did a great job with the website because it has a nice way of introducing the history of the label.  You say this is your second act, but in many ways it's your third because of that period working for GRP with Larry Rosen and Dave Grusin. GRP was one of the more important jazz labels of the ’80s and ‘90s. What lessons did you learn from that experience?

GRP was an amazing label. When I started there, there were three people there. There was a great run during a great time period. You and I know each other from that time period because the music or the genre of jazz was really exploding. It was an incredible run where the popularity of it also coincided with the launch of CDs. We were called the Digital Master Company.

What I took from that experience is that when you're dealing with music like jazz, you have to have an appetite for it and have to believe in it, which I do and did. And, two, when you're marketing and selling it and getting it out to the consuming public, you're not marketing and selling Bruce Springsteen or Taylor Swift, but you're reaching an audience where there are a lot of little pieces that get picked up based on their insight into what you're doing. The sum of the total is really what's important. That's how GRP really came to exist is because it wasn't about one particular artist that we focused on and their hit. It was about getting the music out to the masses, but with lots of different types of music for people to choose from, and that's really what happened. GRP gave me an insight into how to market and sell music and really hone in on your consumer and try to reach them and give them the music that you're offering, and see if they are interested. It became wildly successful during that time period. The ‘80s were a great period for jazz in general.

Then I went on to form my own label at Polygram [i.e. Music]. After that, I started with Concord back in 1999, and at that point they were up in Concord, California. Again, it was a very small label, a jazz label started by Carl Jefferson. I won't go through all the history, but the fact of the matter is that it grew and grew and it went through its machinations. There were some pretty dark times in that period because of the way the music business was starting to fail, and then all of a sudden, Napster came into play and then streaming came into play and everything changed. I was there for almost 19 years and it went from five people to almost 500 people.

Mark Wexler
Mark Wexler, head of Candid Records

The label acquired quite a bit of catalog over those years, including Fantasy, Milestone, Stax and many others.  

Their acquisitions have been incredible. The reality is that it now is considered the fifth largest music label in the world, which is pretty impressive for a small, independent label that started in Concord, California. During that time period, they moved the company down to Beverly Hills. I was the senior vice president of the company and then the executive vice president, then I became a chief operating officer of the company. All this time I was still a Jersey boy, so I was doing a lot of flying to keep up with things. What ended up happening is that I made a life change and moved to Florida. Once I made that change, the previous president of Concord and the president of the Concord Music Group left the company as well. They formed a company and decided they were going to start acquiring catalogs of music that they believed in for the music’s sake. That was always the mantra. Let's do things that we really believe in and have fun with it.

One of the first acquisitions was Candid Records. Right around the same time, they acquired Alligator Records. We have a great representation of blues from that label. We also have a great representation of jazz and blues through Candid. We're building that now. And to do that you feel like you have to take the historical aspect of what the label is and find out where the gems are and then get those out there in the way that you want to present them properly to that audience still believes in this music.

Of course, streaming gives a platform where anybody can get anything anytime, which is great. CDs are hanging on. They’re not yet gone, but it certainly looks like that's the way it's going to be. I hope not personally, but then there’s vinyl, which has come back. The amazing story in the music business is that here is something that everybody flipped the switch and said, “Oh no, we don't need vinyl anymore, let's go to CD.” I know that because I sat on the Compact Disc board.

Everything we do from the Candid catalog is being remastered by one of the greatest mastering engineers in the world, Bernie Grundman. He's done everything from Michael Jackson to Mary J. Blige. The body of work that this guy has done is just incredible, like none other. He's just got such a great ear. We went to Bernie, whom we all knew, and said, “Look, we want to launch this label, but we need to master these things so they come up to speed for what the sonic capabilities are in today's world.” Bernie accepted the challenge.

From that point forward, there were three major things we're doing on the vinyl side. Everything is remastered, whether it's streaming or the CD. On vinyl in particular, we're doing repressing it at 180 grams. The jackets we're making as tip-on jackets, which was actually the way jackets used to be made when records first came out. They adhere the cover to the cardboard and it gives the feel that you had back in the day. I remember holding those jackets, sitting down and listening to a piece of music and reading the jackets because we could see the print.

We decided to do those three things to really demonstrate that the way we were putting this music out was to really get the best out of it. The music was there. So that's going to happen all the way through the release of our Candid reissues.

We talked about your experience at GRP, a label that hung its hat on the CD, a new technology at that time. Now you're at the other end of that with CDs being phased out and streaming in. What is the business model?  How can it work for a label if you're not selling physical product?

It's very difficult because our consumer is in a transitional period. They're not all running out to stream everything because they have to hear the latest and greatest. They may use it as a tool to search something out, but there are still physical consumers out there that want to hold it, feel it, touch it, and stick it in their CD tray or put it on their platter for vinyl. There’s a balance of being cognizant of that and being aware that whoever is going to consume this product and how they're consuming it, you want to reach them. The jazz market is not a big market, but it's a loyal market. And once you're a jazzer, you're loyal to the music and you want to hear more. Or you want to hear what some of the greats did in the past, but bring it up to today's standards. And that's what we're trying to do.

How were the recordings? Were the tapes in good shape?

It’s sort of amazing to think that this material was recorded on tape 60 years ago. To answer your question, there are some tapes that were very well preserved, some tapes were not. You have to bake them and go through the whole process to get them up so that they're playable. That's another reason we had Bernie Grundman involved because he is meticulous in how he can take old master tapes and do the right thing. They were stored fairly well. But I'm not going to tell you it's a perfect world because it’s not. The first releases in that Hentoff era are coming from the original master tapes and we're being very transparent about it. If we don't have the master tape, it's coming from the master, but not the original master tape.

In this particular case, for the first 15 or 16 reissues, we're trying to get to as many that have the original master tapes available to us. We’re fortunate that a lot of them are still around and we know how to treat them to get them ready for the whole process, to go back through the whole thing and.Remaster it. Then make the lacquers, then make the stampers. The vinyl process is still a laborious process, which I totally understand from a business point of view, because when CDs became popular, everyone said, “Ugh, that's expensive to do, the machinery to press vinyl.” The ironic part about it is that there are more consumers than there are discs at this point. From the time that you say I want to put out a Max Roach record it takes almost six months from start to the time you can even start pressing the record because of all the stops you have to make and the period you have to wait because there are people in front.

I can remember that time when those pressing plants in New Jersey were going gangbusters. It was absolutely quite something to see.

It was. They were dinosaurs that were left to die. When vinyl came back, people were running to these places that stored old junk and they were finding these old pressing plants and they rebuilt some of them. But of course there are a lot of them that are gone. That's where the shortage comes into play, because like you said, back in the day when we were buying records at Corvette's every week or wherever we could, they were pressing them every day, all day long. If you had to turn it around, you turned it around. You had it a few days later.

One of the other changes since you started is the media, in which I had worked and still do. In the 80s and 90s, the major newspapers had a jazz writer and there were alt weeklies. That’s not the case now. There are still three major jazz magazines, though they’re not as thick as they used to be. With radio stations, you had ones that played jazz 24/7, but as time has gone on, a lot of those shows and stations have been replaced by news and talk. How do you adapt to these changes in the media environment where those platforms or outlets aren't available like they used to be?

Well, you adapt like anything else. If it's not there, it's not there. You go to the people that are there. We're thankful for people that have withstood the test of time. You work with a great group of people at WBGO that has withstood the test of time and certainly is a leader in what they do on the radio side. With the technology that exists today, WBGO has a much greater reach than it did when you and I were kids listening to it. So that's the good news. The bad news is there are not a lot of WBGO’s out there.

Throw It Away

When you go to the print side of things, you're right. First of all, a lot of the major newspapers don't even exist anymore. When you do go to the ones that still do exist, they're being very selective as to what they pick to write about on the entertainment side. The big hitters in the music business still get their fair share of press. When you're dealing with a delicacy like we are with jazz, it's really got to be something that confines itself to the music. Like the Terri Lyne Carrington record that we just did. It's all about the women's movement in jazz and the way that there aren't a lot of women that are accredited for writing jazz compositions when in fact there were a lot of women that wrote them. They just weren’t put in the original book [The Real Book]. So Terri went and made another book of jazz compositions all by women. The record that she just did was highlighting that. There was definitely this synergy that went on with what she was doing, not only for the music, but for the cause that stood behind the music. Because of that, she's gotten a lot of press in the major publications that still exist.

But you just have to take what you have out there. Social media is around now. It wasn't around then. It does allow you to have platforms to reach people, whether it's Facebook or Instagram or TikTok or whatever. The fact is that you get your message out there and you hope that by people seeing this message in all walks of life, it resonates enough for them again to go out and consume. We don't care how you consume it, whether you buy a compact disc or piece of vinyl or whether you go up and stream. We just want you to share what we have to offer and appreciate the music that we're really into.

Wayne Shorter - Drummers Song (Official Audio)

You're doing that balancing act that so many labels have done over the years of having a great historical catalog with reissues and along with new artists. There are so many artists, both notable and new, on their own out there, untethered to any kind of major label. How do you determine now who's going to fit for the label in terms of new artists?

There are a lot of phone calls and texting and links being sent now. We have chosen to be very selective in our new release program and we want to cover both established artists and heritage artists, like doing the Wayne Shorter album. We just took on the Chick Cora Elektric Band catalog, which we're going to be releasing next year. I spent a lot of time listening to that music over the last couple of weeks for a particular meeting that we were having. I was there [at GRP] when Chick did all that music and it was a masterful moment. But when I sat down and listened to all this product again, that I was part of when it was created, I was blown away at how relevant and how up to date it sounded today. And that was 35 years ago.

When it comes to the new releases like those from Terri Lyne Carrington, Eliane Elias, Count Basie and Stacey Kent, that’s not a lot of albums for a company to release in basically a two-year period. We're doing it carefully. We're spending the money that needs to be spent in order to market them properly and reach people. We believe in the artists that we signed. We want to make sure that it's not one of those things where when you put it out, if it doesn't sell a lot of records in the first 10 weeks, then you move on to the next thing. We don't do that. We are still working records that we put out a year ago, because the buyers that buy our product aren't waiting in line. They’re still appreciative of having the opportunity to get it. Based upon that we feel like, “Okay, we didn't catch them in the first two months that we had it out in the marketplace, but we might catch them in the sixth or seventh month or eighth month, or whatever the month is, and reach them.” They may appreciate it and go out and consume it again, whichever way they choose to do that. We see the so-called long tail, as we go forward.

It's always about quality. It's always about discovery. So we're still looking to do that and find new artists. It’s a much more difficult playing ground than it used to be because there aren't the number of outlets out there that there used to be in order to introduce new artists. But the future of any genre, and certainly jazz, Is finding youth that interpret jazz the way they hear it today. We are very keen on looking for those types of artists. We’re not ready to announce those yet, but we have found a couple that we're in the process of signing and putting their albums together.

That's a long haul project too. You have to be prepared to know that nobody knows who they are. When you're putting out a Count Basie record or a Wayne Shorter record, everybody knows who that is. It’s just a matter of making sure they're aware that those particular records are out. When it comes to new artists, you've got to not only make people aware, but you've got to educate them as to what the artist is about and that's a long process. But we're up for that and we really believe that is the future—to keep developing new artists.

I've been lucky that I've been around artists in this field that have been brand new and all of a sudden, they're big artists and household names like Esperanza Spalding. She’s one that I was very fortunate to be there in the beginning and sit there as she won a Grammy for the Best New Artist of the Year. There's a lot of pride that goes into it. Of course, you have to have somebody as great as she is musically to stand behind what's going on, and she is just one of those incredibly talented artists.

Covers of Candid Records albums
Covers of Candid Records albums

Is there a record coming out in 2023 that you're really excited about?

Well, I don't have a lot to announce today for new releases because if I went back in the history of the last two years, those new releases all came out in the fall. There's a reason for that. Because we're a new company we're sifting through everything and going through it and making our deals, that’s a timely process. There will be a few coming out in the fall. A couple of these new artists will be hopefully coming out in the summer. All along we're going to be peppering it with our catalog product, which is obviously the Candid releases. We have a Monk album coming out. We have another Mingus album coming out.

Also, the latter part of Candid dealt with more contemporary artists. We have Jamie Cullum’s Pointless Nostalgic, which was really the album that broke his career. We have another Stacey Kent record coming out. Kenny Barron too. We have a whole host of records being released that we feel have legs on them to reach the consuming public. We're going to go through the same process we did with the Nat Hentoff releases. We are still now the gatekeepers for the Ray Charles estate. We do all of the Ray Charles reissues. In fact, the first release that I was involved with for Candid was with Tangerine, which was Ray's label, a 90-track six-CD box set from one of the most influential artists in the world, called True Genius. Subsequent to that, we've been putting out single discs all the way through. Re-releasing Genius Loves Company, Ray Sings, Basie Swings and The Spirit of Christmas from Ray Charles.

So the plate is full. There's a lot going on. We're not just throwing it out in the market and seeing what it is going to do. We're really planning it properly so we can do justice to the artists, but also make a business out of it.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”