In my article on Barry Harris published yesterday, I mention Dexter Gordon’s Homecoming, and contrast it with another 1976 album by Gordon, Bitin’ the Apple.
Bill Kirchner responded by sending along this fascinating and surprisingly long article by Peter Keepnews, who worked Jazz PR for CBS for a few years. The success of Homecoming is contextualized in a way I hadn’t seen before:
It didn’t take me long to discover that Lundvall’s signing of Dexter Gordon had been barely tolerated by many key people in the company, and that his subsequent jazz signings were provoking a definite backlash. The reason was simple: There was a deep-seated belief that, with very rare exception, jazz records, no matter how ostensibly “commercial,” could not sell.
To an extent, that belief amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy—if you don’t work a jazz album, it definitely won’t sell. And while no amount of high-pressure salesmanship is ever likely to get Dexter Gordon a gold album—at least not until there is a much more fundamental change in the fiber of our culture than the record industry alone could ever bring about—a well-planned marketing campaign that precisely targeted Gordon’s audience and found the most effective ways of reaching them could conceivably jack up his album sales from their current level (roughly 35,000 per album, not bad for bebop) to as high as 80-or 90,000. The trouble is that in the record business, even in these recessionary times, an album that sells 90,000 copies is not considered a success in corporate terms even if it turns a comfortable profit. And the amount of money, not to mention time and thought, that would be required to get results like that would make the small amount of profit from a 90,000-seller look even less desirable—and even conceivably wipe out the profit margin entirely. Therefore, the reasoning goes, why knock yourself out pushing Dexter Gordon?
But, some readers might be asking, didn’t Columbia in fact give Dexter Gordon a major push? The answer is yes and no. It certainly looked like a major push, especially in New York, where there were not only big advertisements but lengthy articles throughout the daily and alternative press at the time of his first Columbia LP, Homecoming. Personally, I interviewed Gordon for the New York Post, and I remember being impressed by the elaborate press kit I received from CBS when Homecoming was released. As a matter of fact, that was one of the factors that persuaded me to leave the Post when CBS offered me the publicity job: I took it to be a sign that the company really was putting its money where its mouth was as far as Dexter Gordon (and, presumably, the rest of its jazz roster) was concerned.
But what did this push really amount to? The advertising campaign and the press kit cost a lot of money, but required no follow-through. The press blitz was partly the result of diligent work by one CBS publicist and by Gordon’s manager, but I think it was primarily the spontaneous result of a lot of jazz writers wanting to write about Dexter Gordon, who after all was not only a great musician and a colorful personality but, as an expatriate returning home in triumph, very good copy. I know that I went out of my way to persuade my editor at the Post to let me interview Gordon because I wanted to, not because Columbia Records was hyping him—in fact, at the time I interviewed him he hadn’t yet signed with CBS.
There was a push on Dexter Gordon’s behalf in that Lundvall let it be known to his staff that he took a personal interest in the success of Homecoming. As a result the sales people leaned a little more heavily than they otherwise might have on their accounts to buy it in decent quantities, and the radio people gave it an extra effort in spite of the fact that music on Homecoming was not compatible with most formats of commercial radio. The album attained a much higher sales level than anything Gordon had ever recorded previously; for that matter, it was probably the best-selling bebop album of all time.
But its success was not due to a commitment on the part of CBS Records to jazz, and it was not due to a sales strategy based on the nature and quality of the music and its potential market. It was due to executive arm-twisting, and it must surely have left a bad taste in the mouth of the people in the field (and some of their superiors in the home office) to know that time that might have been spent working “big” records was diverted to Dexter Gordon because of what could easily be construed as Bruce Lundvall’s whim.