Russ Gershon Talks About The DIY Ethos Of Small Punk And Jazz Labels, Touring With A Large Band, His Adventures In Ethiopia, And The Lessons Of Being Nominated For A Grammy
Russ Gershon has been a Boston fixture since the early-‘80s, when he was a member of the Sex Execs, a band the Boston Globe described as “sleek, stylish, and tight” (they also called them, “new wave dilettantes,” but whatever). He founded his big band, the Either/Orchestra, in 1985, and self-released his first album, Dial “E” for Either/Orchestra, in 1987. A year later, he took the 11-piece ensemble on the road. He landed a distribution deal, released albums, toured, and—drawing inspiration from DIY punk and experimental jazz—morphed those connections and know-how into Accurate Records, an independent label he still runs. He was also nominated for a Grammy for Best Arrangement on an Instrumental for his composition, “Bennie Moten’s Weird Nightmare,” in 1992 (although the award went to Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass for “Strike Up the Band”).
Accurate Records was a big part of Gershon’s life throughout the ‘90s and into the early 2000s. The label put out about 120 titles and was hands-on during the early, formative stages of artists like Morphine and Medeski Martin & Wood.
“Mark Sandman, from Morphine, was living in my attic when he was working on their first record,” Gershon says. “I put that out, and by the end of the year, they were picked up by Rykodisc. We made a separate imprint, Accurate Distortion, but they were a jazzy rock band and we were an eclectic jazz label, so it was a good fit. I tried getting Medeski Martin & Wood to put their record out with me in the beginning. They put it out themselves—Billy did, Billy wanted to do it—but it didn’t have any distribution. When they started to take off a year or two later, I reissued it for them on Accurate, and that one really took off.”
I spoke with Gershon about taking an unknown 11-piece ensemble on tour, launching Accurate Records, his experiences with Ethiopian master musicians, and the hundreds of dollars of sushi he ate at the 35th Annual Grammy Awards.
When did you start playing sax?
I started playing saxophone when I was about 17. I got the jazz bug when I was 15—that was in 1975—I stumbled into a concert at Carnegie Hall, which was a tribute to this guy, ‘Coltrane,’ who I sort of heard of. It was a triple bill of Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Two-and-a-half hours later, I left and my brain had been completely rearranged. I got the jazz bug big time. New York was a great place to be listening to jazz in the mid-‘70s, because everybody was still alive and playing. You could see the old swing dudes, the post-boppers like Woody Shaw, and there was this whole avant-garde jazz loft scene happening. It was all there and people were all still alive. I just missed Duke Ellington and Louie Armstrong, but I heard other people of that generation.
When I was a senior in high school, I started playing sax. I was lucky enough to have some friends who were really good musicians, and who had been playing for a few years. They let me play with them, and I got up to some kind of speed fairly quickly. One of the guys in that group was John Mulkerin, a trumpet player, who wound up playing in the band Defunkt. He has been in Defunkt on and off since the early ‘80s. The other guys also had careers in New York in the ‘80s, although I don’t think any of them are still at it. It was a really serious bunch of young jazzers. Then I moved up to Boston. I moved to Cambridge to go to Harvard in 1977. During college, me and some friends formed a rock band—and we were complete hackers—but we got good after a while. We worked hard on it. We actually started writing songs. This was around ’79, ’80. Punk and new wave were hitting big time at that point, and there was a lot of that influence in that band. When I got out of that, I got into another rock band around Boston that became a pretty big local deal for a while.
Who was that?
It was called the Sex Execs. We were one of the biggest bands in Boston for a couple of years, around ’83/’84, and then that band broke up [the Sex Execs were finalists in the 1983 WBCN Rock ’n’ Roll Rumble, losing out to ’Til Tuesday]. I went to Berklee for a few semesters because I needed to learn some stuff. I never really studied much music. I was self taught, so a year at Berklee helped me figure things out.
When did you start the Either/Orchestra?
After I was at Berklee, I started a Monday night rehearsal band. I was writing charts. After a couple of months, we did a gig and it was well-attended. That was the Either/Orchestra. Six months later, I said, “What the hell, let’s record something.” We recorded and I figured I’d put it out. The rock bands I had been in had always put out their own singles. I also was looking at Sun Ra, or Max Roach and Charles Mingus, who created Debut Records back in the ‘50s. There was a long history on both the punk rock side and the jazz side of self-releasing your material to control what it was, but also because it was hard to get somebody else to do it. We put out the first Either/Orchestra record, Dial “E” for Either/Orchestra, in early ’87.
How did you promote it?
Somebody stole from somewhere—I don’t know where they got it—a list of jazz-oriented radio stations and journalists. I sent out hundreds of copies all over the country with self-addressed stamped response cards. That was a new idea at that time, at least in music. I got a lot of information back. It got played a lot on the radio, which was cool, including in New York, WBGO [Jazz Radio, 88.3 FM based in Newark, New Jersey], and of course in Boston. I also got this database of information about radio stations and where we were being played. One of the guys in the band—Tom Halter, who’s the only original member still with me—said, “Let’s go on tour.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s a good idea.”
You took an 11-piece band on the road?
Why not? Sure [laughs]. A few of the guys were from the midwest. I said, “When you’re home for Christmas, do some research. Find out where people play in your town and bring me back the information.” This was before the internet, so research was a little tricky. They brought back this information, and I started to assemble a list of clubs. I figured in those towns we might be able to get some people out, because we had local people in the band. I had my pile of radio cards. I called up the radio station first, and said, “Hi, this is Russ from the Either/Orchestra, I see you are playing our record.” I called the person who sent me the card, so they knew who I was. I’d say, “We’re thinking of doing a tour in your area. If were we to do that, would you sponsor the gig?” Of course, their first question was always, “Does that mean money?” I’d say, “No, just help promote it and talk it up.” They’d say, “Sure.” Then I called the local club that my bandmate researched. I said, “Phil over at WFUK says that if we play at your club, they’ll sponsor the gig and help publicize it.” They’d say, “Sounds good, how much money do you want?”—and I gave a modest fee. We had saved up some money from playing weddings.
That’s how you funded the tour?
Yes. We funded the tour with wedding money. We got accidentally covered in the Boston Globe Magazine. We were written up as a good wedding band. When that happened, I said to the guys, “Let’s save half the money and we can go on tour with it.” That fell into place and I didn’t have to ask for much money to bring an 11-piece band from Boston. We did it totally seat-of-the-pants. Stayed in Motel 6s. The guys were getting paid, but not that much. Over the next three or four years, we built up our touring—all over the Midwest, and made it out to the west coast and the south. It was coming from the rock world. People were doing that kind of thing, but nobody really thought about doing that in the jazz world. There were a few bands, but younger musicians like us in the jazz world weren’t thinking about that. I took the rock world concept and transposed that onto jazz.
Did people show up to those shows?
People showed up. We really developed an audience out there. People liked putting us on. We were able to get more and more money. We eventually started getting booked into art series at colleges that were funded and made real money. We always played clubs in between because we drove, and that was our ace in the hole. Somehow, I got these people to be willing to drive around the US in two vans for five weeks at a time. We developed a circuit that we could play. I knew that if we were going to tour, we could already get half of the bookings on repeats. It was great for the band. It was exactly what I hoped it would be. In the ‘80s, that was the beginning of the young lions, and that whole neoclassical approach to jazz. I was listening to the way that younger musicians were approaching it, and I felt a lot of them were a little too clean about the whole thing. It just seemed academic. I figured that if you want to sound like one of the old time road bands, you had to be on the road. I thought that touring would take our sound—individually and together—up to another level, and it really did. Those tours made the band what it became.
Were you selling records at those gigs as well?
We sold records. The first one came out it 1987. Our next one, Radium, came out right around the time of our first tour in late-’88. I got distribution right away too, which was lucky.
How did you manage that?
Through Rounder Distribution. Rounder Records, which was in town, and I knew a lot of people who worked there, including a very good friend who made sure they picked me up. I was able to get my products into stores across the country immediately. People started saying to me, “I’ve got this tape. I really want to make a record. Can you show me how to do it?” I said, “Sure.” But after a couple of times, I was like, “Wait a second, why don’t I put them out? I’ve got distribution. I’ve got a label.” I worked with my peers around town to help them to create their product, get distribution, and publicize it. Before I knew it, I had a record label going.
Did the artists pay for the recording?
In most cases, yes, it was a co-op label. One thing led to another, there are 10 or 11 Either/Orchestra records, and probably 120 titles total. But by the early 2000s, the record business started circling the drain—as I am sure you have heard from everybody in the record business—but the ‘90s were booming. We weren’t selling millions of records, but we were pulling in enough revenue to make it worth my while, and to give the artists encouragement to go and do it again.
Your 1992 album, The Calculus of Pleasure, was nominated for a Grammy.
One of the tracks on it was nominated for a Grammy, for Best Arrangement of an Instrumental Composition. It was for a tune of mine called, “Bennie Moten’s Weird Nightmare,” which was a bizarro take on “Moten Swing.” It featured Douglas Yates on bass clarinet, who was with us from ’88 though ’92. He’s a great bass clarinet player and great alto player and later went on to be the lead alto player in the Mingus Big Band in New York. I was really surprised to get the nomination.
How does that work? How do they tell you?
Bob Blumenthal, who was writing jazz for the Globe, called me up to tell me. This was ’92, so there wasn’t internet really, it was through the wire services. Bob works at the Globe and the Grammy nominations came out. He must have read through the list, saw me there, and called me up. There are two levels—I think it was done the same way then—there’s something called submissions, where any NARAS member [National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences] or record label can submit submissions to be considered. They print those up into a very long list. As you can imagine, there are hundreds of submissions for each category. That list gets circulated around to NARAS members who then vote to create the nominees, the short list, which is a list of five or seven. Somebody submitted me.
You didn’t submit yourself?
No. That was a product of all of our touring. We were all over the country and had a big audience base, a big journalist base, and that included a lot of people who were involved with things like NARAS. We were really getting out there.
Did they invite you to the awards show?
You get two free tickets. The after party was lavish food. I mean, I think I ate $400 worth of sushi, which covered the plane tickets, I guess. I was married so I took the wife with me. I have a relative who lives in Beverley Hills. He’s a big time TV producer. He was away in New York at the time, so we had this whole Beverley Hills TV producer house, and we were going to the Grammys. It was like living somebody else’s life for two minutes. It was totally happening. What it did make me aware of was that living in Boston, being a jazz person, and being an indie tourer, you’re always scrapping for little bits of money. But being around the Grammys and that award thing, you realize, “Somebody is making some money here. There is money in this business, somewhere.”
It also gave you a healthy take on the Grammys.
People get all bent out of shape. “I can’t believe they didn’t nominate this person.” “This music is better than that.” Somewhere along the line I realized that these aren’t music awards, these are music business awards. They are industry awards. If an album sells 10 million copies, there are a lot of people who are really happy about that. There are a lot of people in NARAS—both musicians and members—and in every category, people make money off that. Of course they’re going to vote for it. It’s their friends. It’s a business award, there just happens to be music attached to it, but it could be an award for best appliances or whatever. Sometimes there are things of great musical value that actually do really well and sell a lot. And in the more obscure categories, like jazz on down, there is more musical value than in the bigger money categories, because there is less money to be made. But even in those categories, the same handful of jazz artists always wind up being nominated. It’s not just because they are really great, but because they’re the ones who have record contracts—whether it’s a major label or a strong indie—so their record labels are working on their behalf to get them nominated, too. That’s how it works.
How did you get involved with Ethiopian music?
I heard my first Ethiopian music thanks to my friends at Rounder. They were distributing Mahmoud Ahmed’s album, Ere Mela Mela, which was the first nicely done LP collection of Ethiopian music released in the west. My friend Louisa Hufstader gave it to me and I thought it was pretty cool. I had already listened to a lot of Fela and West African music, but I hadn’t heard any East African music. A couple of years later, my friend Mark Sandman, from the band, Morphine, came back from a European tour. His distributor in France was also distributing an album called Ethiopian Groove, the Golden Seventies, which was a collection of tracks from ’68 through ’74—they had a big revolution in 1974 that changed everything there—I fell in love with that record. I listened to it for a few years before it occurred to me that I could arrange it for the Either/Orchestra. We took most of ’97 off, and at the end of ’97, I reassembled the band with a lot of new people. One of the first things the new group played was my arrangements of several Ethiopian tunes. We were playing all over the United States on tours, and then I got an email from this guy, Francis Falceto. He heard we were playing this music and he was interested in hearing what we were doing. I sent it to him. It turned out that Francis Falceto was the guy who got the Mahmoud Ahmed album released, and he was the one who put together Ethiopian Groove, the Golden Seventies. By this point, he had moved on to this series called, Éthiopiques, which is a great series of reissues of classic Ethiopian music from the ‘60s and ‘70s—it even expands beyond that—but that was the golden age of Ethiopian music.
Francis became very interested in what we were doing, and we got in touch. I went to France and visited him. He had been going to Ethiopia for almost two decades at that point, and had been digging out all this interesting material. He had been touring some Ethiopians in Europe, and his mission was to connect Ethiopian music and musicians to the rest of the world, and vice versa. I took the bait. Francis was an artistic advisor to a festival in Ethiopia and he got us invited to go there in 2004. We played in the Third Annual Ethiopian Music Festival, and it was an amazing experience for the band. We met some of the old time masters. We played with them. Mulatu Astatke, who is the so-called inventor of Ethiopian jazz. Getatchew Mekurya, who is one of the great Ethiopian-style saxophone players. We did this big concert, the culturati of Addis Ababa were there, the American ambassador was there, and it created quite a sensation. Fortunately, we brought over our recordist with us and he recorded it. Francis heard the tape, thought it was great, and put it out. It’s Éthiopiques 20: Live in Addis. It’s a big double CD with lots of music on it. After that we were known in Ethiopia and known—I would say—as arguably the most advanced interpreters of Ethiopian music outside of Ethiopia.
You’ve also been playing the music of Nerses Nalbandian.
We went back to Ethiopia in 2011 to play the music of Nerses Nalbandian. He was an Armenian refugee, who wound up in Ethiopia in 1938 to teach band instruments because Haile Selassie, the emperor, wanted to have marching bands in order to be a modern-style emperor. Nerses because Haile Selassie’s favorite musician. He became the director of music at the Haile Selassie National Theatre, and he helped revolutionize Ethiopian music. He left the country in ’74, when they had the revolution, and died in Canada in ’77.
When we were in Ethiopia in 2004, his children, who were in their 50s then—they’re in their 60s now—heard the Either/Orchestra play and were like, “Aha! Somebody can play dad’s music.” They invited us over to dinner at the old house and plied us with Ethiopian and Armenian food, and lots of booze, and then brought out boxes of old scores. They said, “You have to play this music. This is our father’s music.” It took a while to get the funding and everything, but we went back seven years later and played a whole concert of Nalbandian’s music. We performed at the old Haile Selassie National Theatre. It was like a bizarro East African version of Buena Vista Social Club. We had some old guests and new guest—old timers from the old days, and some younger musicians who were singing this music the first time. One famous pop singer said, “This is my grandmother's music”—that was really cool. Old people crying, young people mystified—they’d been hearing about this. That was recorded and it’s supposed come out as Éthiopiques32 or 33 on the Éthiopiques series. It will be called, Nalbandian the Ethiopian.
In the older videos I saw of the Either/Orchestra, you didn’t have charts. It looked like everyone knew their parts by heart.
When we were touring a lot, during long tours, I’d say, “Let’s put them away and see what we can do.” It’s pretty complicated music to be playing from memory, but sometimes we had as many as 40 pieces that we could play from memory. It was spectacular. We could meander from song to song. I didn’t have to make set lists. It was like a rock band, which was cool. In that scene, with those bands at that time, we were always regarded as the scruffy punks of the original jazz big band scene in Boston. We were the punks.