Monday, June 23, 2014

Memory Lane: my stint as Publicity Manager for MusicMasters Records & working with some of jazz's biggest legends

I fell down a rabbit hole of sorts today. It began when I saw a post from Classical KING-FM promoting a performance by Stephen Hough. I remembered doing PR for a few of his albums when he recorded with MusicMasters and Musical Heritage Society back in the 80's. Seeing Stephen's albums got me looking for other recordings I had the honor and pleasure of helping promote. I couldn't find all of them - MM went out of business years ago - but the ones I did find have some great memories attached.

MusicMasters was run by a man named Jeffrey Nissim. His family owned Musical Heritage Society (a mail order classical and jazz company). Jeffrey was pretty hip and really enjoyed helping revive and nurture careers, from up-and-coming singers like Dawn Upshaw, to living legends like the incomparable Miss Peggy Lee. As Publicity Manager for MusicMasters, I GOT PAID for rubbing elbows with the likes of Miss Peggy, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Carter, Ruby Braff, Louie Bellson, as well as attend the 1988 Grammy Awards (Louie won a Grammy for Best Jazz Recording that year). I sat in between Dr. Ruth & members of Earth, Wind & Fire, and walked the red carpet from Radio City Music Hall to the afterparty at the Hilton, alongside a young Irish band called U2, before enjoying an amazing performance by percussion legend Tito Puente.

The biggest surprise, though, came when MusicMasters obtained the rights to previously unreleased recordings by Benny Goodman, uncovered in the Yale University Library. Not only did I get to travel to Yale with Jeffrey and others, he included my name in the full-page Billboard Magazine ad promoting the deal. I may still have that ad somewhere among my things. Daily chats with Miss Peggy Lee as she recorded "Peggy Sings the Blues," is also a tremendous highlight, along with being able to work with Jazz PR legend Phoebe Jacobs. What a trailblazer. I read she passed away in 2012 at the tender age of 93. She was incredible and never had a problem with working with a 24 year old "little girl" <- Dizzy Gillespie's nickname for me. 

Here are just a few of the albums I had the honor of helping promote:

Peggy Lee - Peggy Sings the Blues - I love this photo of her. We brainstormed a number of cover ideas for this album. I think this turned out classy and dreamy at the same time. Phoebe taught me how to "speak Peggy." For example: I called her at the studio to see how her recording session was going, when she sighed and said, "Those mean clouds are hiding the sun today, Suzie." I learned that the best reply for this comment was to send an arrangement of sunny yellow flowers to the studio, along with a kind note.  She'd call and feign surprise and gratitude for "such a thoughtful and sweet gesture." There was also "Peggy speak" to arrange a delivery of her favorite tea and sweets. This may sound or seem demanding, but it really wasn't. Miss Peggy was very sweet, always gracious, and that Voice. She had it to the end.

Benny Goodman - The Yale Archives - All I have to say about this CD is wow. Wow, wow, wow. What a find and what a coup for MusicMasters Records.

Dick Hyman & Ruby Braff - Manhattan Jazz - This is one of my favorite albums of all time. Two friends who know each other so well, their music weaves together naturally. This is just Dick and Ruby, doing their thing. Perfect music for a cocktail hour or a contemplative evening at home.

Benny Carter & Dizzy Gillespie - In the Mood for Swing - I love the cover photo of Benny Carter and Dizzy Gillespie for "In the Mood for Swing." If you look at their faces, you can catch a glimpse of what each man was like as a child. Dizzy still had that mischevious grin and twinkle in his eyes. Benny emanated an air of the "good boy" who got in trouble nonetheless, because of his buddy. That's exactly how they were whenever I saw them together. Dizzy's sense of humor preceded him like a force field. You had to pay attention to Benny, or his quiet humor would float over your head, sending Dizzy off into peals of laughter as you try to figure out what just happened.

I can't believe they're all gone now. Well, gone in body, but their spirits and souls live on through their music, as well as some wonderful memories.

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