As America takes stock of itself in this complex time-cycle, it is important to understand that one person can still make a difference. That not everyone has to follow the tried-and-true traditional path—to get tried-and-true traditional results. Steve Backer opened a door for a generation of creative artists to connect to the greater culture (and planet). He is as much of an American pioneer as the creative artists he has championed. As for the idea of one person being able to change another person’s life, I can say this: Steve Backer’s decision to work with me would change my life on every level, and there are no words to properly thank him for that decision—except thank you sir.—Anthony Braxton
Among the many privileges involved with my brief but heady tenure in the jazz and world music division of BMG Classics—together with working alongside David Neidhart, Josh Sherman and the late, great Steven Gates—was the chance to get to know Steve Backer, one of a handful of record producers and industry executives I wouldn't hesitate to call visionary. The first time I spent any real quality time talking to Steve, I told him with breathless zeal that his name was surely on more albums in my personal collection than any other, artists included.
Countless significant albums exist now because of Steve's work, from Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington collections to classic LPs by Cecil Taylor, the Brecker Brothers and Roy Hargrove. More than anything, though, music lovers owe Steve a debt of bottomless gratitude for championing Anthony Braxton, whose work he documented most notably with a string of classic sets on the Arista label.
It seems fitting, then, that as Steve was taken from this world on April 10 after a brief fight with double pneumonia, just as Braxton's new Tri-Centric Festival was getting underway at Roulette in Brooklyn, the first word on the subject belongs to that masterly beneficiary of Steve's concerted efforts. I know that a part of me will always regret having been too busy to collaborate with Steve on an official memoir, a project we discussed in passing several times up until a few years ago, when we both realized we were just too contrarily busy to make it happen.
Thankfully, another writer, David Sokol, has been working on that very welcome project, and he is quoted at length in a press release circulated this morning by industry expert Kim Smith. The complete text follows the jump, if you'd like to know more about an unsung American master.
It is with a heavy heart that I announce the passing of my friend, mentor and champion of jazz and its’ musicians over several decades, Steve Backer. Gail Boyd, his longtime friend and a colleague he mentored, announced today that he passed on Thursday evening, April 10th, 2014 from double pneumonia at Englewood Hospital in New Jersey, following a short stay.
Writer David Sokol, who had been working with Steve to compile his treasured memoirs, to one day be published, gives this beautiful summation of his friends’ life’s work:
As one of the most revered and accomplished music executives in the jazz world from the early 1970s into the new millennium, Steve Backer nurtured artists and oversaw a body of work indelibly etched in the grooves of albums on ABC/Impulse, Arista, Windham Hill/Magenta, Savoy, and RCA. Hundreds of albums, by such legendary artists as Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, the Brecker Brothers and Anthony Braxton, Roy Hargrove and Chet Baker, Gato Barbieri and Cecil Taylor, bear Mr. Backer’s credit, often as executive producer or series director.
If one were to bump into Mr. Backer at the corner grocery store or while hailing a cab even in his later years, he’d be quick with a gentle smile, his lanky look reminiscent of a favorite uncle. Though he hid it well, here was someone who in his heyday was a high-powered jet-setter playing a huge role in the reinvigoration of jazz for nearly four decades.
A native New Yorker, Mr. Backer grew up in Brooklyn. Early on, he worked in radio promotion for MGM and Elektra Records. “Spill the Wine” by Eric Burdon and War was one of his early successes. Upon arriving at ABC/Impulse in 1972 as a music industry visionary keen on signing cutting-edge performers, Mr. Backer’s instinct in the early 1970s was to rekindle the spirit of the larger-than-life John Coltrane. “I wanted to record artists with the vision, that depth of spirituality. I chose people who I thought were in that category, either musically… or as people,” he recalled 40 years later.
With Arista Records and its Novus subsidiary, albums Mr. Backer lovingly shepherded through the process were regularly awarded four- or five-star reviews in the press, some going on to win prestigious honors: Cecil Taylor’s Silent Tongues won Downbeat magazine’s Jazz Album of the Year in 1975; Anthony Braxton’s Creative Orchestra Music 1976 took that distinction in 1977; and Air Lore, by Air (saxophonist Henry Threadgill and the rhythm section of Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall) won it in 1979. With Mr. Backer’s urging, Air Lore was something of an experiment. He suggested the progressive trio develop a conceptual approach for what would be its third Novus album, and the subsequent award-winner is a cohesive, unusual collection of older jazz tunes and standards, by the likes of Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton, with a contemporary neo-ragtime twist.
Beginning in the late 1980s with RCA Records and its Novus subsidiary, Mr. Backer was director for a rich series of recordings by a new generation of jazz powerhouses including Mulgrew Miller, John Pizzarelli, Danilo Perez, Marcus Roberts, Roy Hargrove and Steve Coleman. In the late 90’s Backer signed Jason Lindner, Omer Avital, Greg Tardy and produced the Live at Small’s album for GRP/Impulse!, among reissuing many of the titles he originally produced from Alice Coltrane, Sam Rivers and Marion Brown.
Not surprisingly, the work that Mr. Backer did back in the day—the artists he signed and promoted and the records they made—continues to be heralded by jazz-loving listeners. Flash forward some 40 years and Backer projects are still winning prizes and praise. In 2008, Braxton’s The Complete Arista Recordings of Anthony Braxton, an eight-CD set released on longtime Backer friend and collaborator Michael Cuscuna’s Mosaic Records, won Jazz Reissue of the Year in the prestigious Village Voice Critics Poll.
In a 2011 personal email, Randy Brecker, one half of the renowned Brecker Brothers, wrote, “I met Steve in 1974 after I had written some new music to feature myself with my brother Michael and David Sanborn as the horn section. I was just gearing up to record some ‘demos’ to take around to record companies when I got a call from Mr. Steve Backer. He had just signed a production deal with a new company: Arista Records headed by the famous record man Clive Davis. Steve said if I call the group the ‘Brecker Brothers,’ he would sign us immediately and I wouldn’t have to demo anything. He had heard about the music through the ‘grapevine.’ After some ‘mulling-over-the-offer days,’ I called Steve back and accepted his offer… He was the first person who thought of ‘The Brecker Brothers’! We hadn’t even called ourselves that... The name/band caught on, and the rest is history!”
The reflections of Ashley Kahn, renowned author (The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records) and music historian, are telling and poignant. “Steve is one of my heroes,” Kahn states emphatically. “He’s one of a very, very few who found a way to deal with everything from the corporate backrooms to the commercial and marketing forces that are always at work in the music business, and yet still remain true to his first love: Jazz. There’s a handful of what I would call these ‘best friends of jazz’ within the world of the music industry, who’ve managed to do this over the years and remain true to jazz. Steve is one of them.”
Steve is survived by his brother, Jeffrey and two children: a daughter, Lee, and son, Matthew.
Private services will be held on Monday, April 14th and a public memorial at St. Peter’s is in the works for late May to celebrate his life in music, with the help of the Jazz Foundation of America.