Tuesday, May 27, 2008

An Interview with Lew Prince

As I started this blog I didn’t know that I would be so thematically tight. It started with a memoriam to Oscar Peterson, how Oscar Peterson was somehow able to bring a sheet of notes and chords to life, a piece of paper from dead into big giant life, rain forest life, super hero life, big and powerful life that would blow your soul clean out of your body for a split second. And then we explored what might be inside of Oscar that would allow him to do this—was he showing us something that all of us had within us, an igniter—that little squeaky thing that sparks a blow torch—could we all find that part inside of us that illuminates a room, another person, a family, or in Oscar’s case, the world. When Oscar died, much of jazz died the same day, musicians being like bees without their queen, or in Oscar, their King. All that was left was scattered musicians with no sense of center—of even their own center, buried under more and more music theory, folks willingly burying their own musical soul. That’s how this started.

Then I interviewed Carol Sloane, who spoke from the perspective of being within a sensitive and beautiful band looking at the members of that wonderful band. This was followed by an interview with Paul Bollenback, a member of that band, who spoke of life as a musician, from the perspective of a musician looking at the audience.

And now we have an interview with Lew Prince—a member of that audience looking at the band, looking at jazz itself. Lew is more than a man on the street, although he started as a man on the street—opening Vintage Vinyl, the street being the Delmar Loop in St. Louis. When he began, the street itself was in decay, the patrons of some of the businesses being the few students brave enough to step off of the nearby college campus—the insulated and protected college campus. Most of the stores had no business, the landlords of the buildings allowing them to stay because as bad as things were, a ghost town was worse. Lew, Tom, and Joe Edwards (owner of Blueberry Hill) understood that their businesses would only survive if the street, once vital, returned to life. It is now one of the ten most exciting streets in the US, according to many national magazines. Lew has experience in bringing things back from the dead.

I remember, so take out your salt grains, a time when Lew needed to expand and the landlord was only too happy to accommodate this need. Next to Vintage Vinyl there was a dusty shoe repair store, old, with cracked linoleum tile and a little old man of a proprietor who stood on the street all day and watched the few people walking past. In the summer he would wear short sleeved shirts, and the tattooed number on his arm was a neon sign to everyone. Lew’s logical expansion would be through this little man’s store. Lew did not take this route. So the expansion was a store one over, that is, you go in the first store, and if you wanted to see more of Vintage Vinyl you had to go outside, past the shoe repair, and into the next building. The little old man could stay as long as he wanted, this was Lew’s precondition—even though the man had no customers, but piles of old shoes. Lew saw that this man had business, and that this man was doing his business of repair—but that it didn’t require customers.

In modern culture experts have a sound, they speak in a certain way, and it usually involves saying nothing but saying it with elegance. Lew defies the language of experts, and it is my hope that we change our expectations of experts—from sounding good and saying nothing, all the way to saying something important any damn way it comes out. So, here is my interview with Lew Prince, done through, again, Google Chat.

me: First of all, aside from the record and cd collectors, you may not be world renown. However, among this group, you are indeed well known, and you might just know more about the public's taste in music than anyone out there. Don't be modest, just say this is a true statement.
Lew: Yeah...I'm a regular fuckin' god. In fact in India there's a statue of me with 8 arms each holding a different music delivery system...the best is the Edison cylinder in my 3rd left. It looks kinda phallic.
me: Well doesn't this lead to the next question, the appeal of your store or stores. How many do you have now?
Lew: Just one...I decided to give up the other store when I gave up polygamy.
me: Seriously,how many did you have at the highest point?
Lew: Never more than two...The thing to realize is that the mothership is a 7,500 square foot store that is devoted almost entirely to music. We generally stock 40-50,000 titles. In comparison your average mall store stocks 2,500 -5,000. Big boxes--like a really well stocked Best Buy might have 10,000; Walmart or Target have less than a mall store. Keeping more than one store really well stocked actually is harder than keeping several wives in diamonds and furs.
me: Let's talk about the history of the store, because I remember back before you opened. On the same street there was a least one used record store--this was before CDs, and one new record store, and both were predicting your imminent demise. What happened--take the story from there.
Lew: We started the business in a stand at the local farmer's market in Sept of 1979. It turned out that by Thanksgiving, even if we danced constantly to an endless loop of James Brown's Popcord we couldn't stay warm outdoors. So we rented a store front between the big local chain store--Streetside Records and one of the half dozen or so used record stores in town: Wuxtry. Wuxtry was part of a Chicago chain run by the idiot and coke addled son of the guys who ran owned Rose Records, the big local chain in Chicago. Neither took us very seriously. In fact, Tom ( my partner Tom Ray) and I had offered the All Used And Cut Out Record store idea to the owner of Streetside in exchange for guaranteed jobs running the store and they literally laughed at us.
me: And by the end of the first year...
Lew: We were swimmin' in cash. The first store was 400 square feet. So we only stocked records we liked; music we could defend in each genre. It turned into a meeting place for the musically literate or those that wanted to be musically literate. God, we thought we were the shit...The best part though was it became our jobs to listen to everything we could and have some idea of who that piece of music might make happy.
me: That certainly began my growth as a musician and jazz lover, leading directly to this blog. But what happened to the other stores?
Lew: Both chains decided they'd rather have lots of crappy stores instead of a couple of good ones. Mostly, in business the job of the highest level of management (in the case of Vintage Vinyl that would be me) is to predict the future and prepare your people and business to meet the future head on with a plan and a set of options in case the plan doesn't work. Both those chains expanded like crazy --Streetside at one point had 21 stores—when a combination of the arrival of CDs and the burgeoning of Punk/New Wave/ Alternative Rock came along and sales went crazy. We were offered lots of deals to do the same by bankers and venture capitalists. We talked about it and looked into it, but in the end, declined.
me: I remember you were asked by the other stores, used stores to buy them out--they went out of business, right? And what happened to Steetside?
Lew: Actually, Tom and I loved to show up at a dying store with cash, a step or two ahead of the their creditors and cream their inventory before the big record companies asked for their stuff back. We had a great time visiting the late, great Peaches chain. I helped the local Wuxtry partner, who was being screwed by his Chicago partners, extract his money and I ended up with their inventory. In Streetside's case they went through a bankruptcy, were sold a couple of times before their last 3 stores ended up as the property of the largest chain in America. Trans-world Distributing. Trans-world owns mall stores like FYE and Sam Goody's. They closed the store down the street from me, when the lease come up for renewal last December. At several points in the decline of Streetside they'd offer me the furniture in their stores for free, if I'd just pick it up before the landlord sued them to get it out. I don't think we've paid for a record/CD bin or piece of display furniture here since the late '80's. We went from 1,000 square feet in 1984 to 7,500 today without buying any fixtures. One of the secrets to our success is lots of high quality black paint, so we can make our dead competitors' furniture look like it belongs here.
me: That's where I was going with this. Allow this metaphor to go on for a moment--when the Orioles were a great dynasty they had a knack for picking up pitchers thought to be mediocre to poor and turning them into 20 game winners. Eventually, the rest of baseball had to adapt--because when the Orioles looked at a pitcher they saw something different than the other teams. And their success proved their point. So how is your approach to music and listeners different from the other stores?
Lew: The difference is we're all music lovers here. The other stores thought they were selling ‘product’. We’re selling music. Our job is to find the best stuff and match up customers to sounds they might not even know exist, that , based on their taste or sophistication level, we think they're gonna love.
me: You know the history of jazz, what do you see happening as record sales dropped, as there became a great disconnect between the music being produced to the public's perception and reception of the music?
Lew: Jazz started crapping out commercially when it graduated from entertainment to "Art". By the mid 1930's jazz was America's popular music. It was the music of youth, of ideas, of vitality. The range of the music was vast--from Louis Armstrong and the hot music of New Orleans to big dance bands like Benny Goodman. In this era Jazz musicians viewed themselves as being in the entertainment business. Jazz at this time performed the basic function of all popular music in all cultures. From the chants of Uruba tribesman to the music of Jennifer Lopez--it is music for mating rituals that begin with dancing.
me: Are you also saying that the 'art' that many musicians create isn't all that artistic?
Lew: No. It's not entertaining to most people and it's lost the element that made it entertaining. Look...most music works on one of three levels: physical, emotional or cerebral. Think: head , heart, genitals. The best pop music rarely works on more than one of those levels--usually it makes you dance or makes you cry. The best music works on all three. The magical quality of jazz is that it, more than any other form has the ability to work on all three simultaneously. That's amazing and it's what attracted me to the music. Then the second generation of be-boppers took a lot of the "hips on down" part of the music out for reasons that derived from their search for dignity as artists. That left
the cerebral and the emotional. By the '60's the Coltrane generation (decided that they weren't gonna reflect or connect with their audiences’ feelings or thoughts, but instead communicate their own...like I'm supposed to care what Archie Shepp thinks about the political situation in Alabama in 1964. ---that's what I mean by it became capital ‘A’, Art.
me: Is this trend continuing, and do you think the music will become extinct, or do you see hope for a revival, and if so, how should this come about?
Lew: Look this is a very complicated question and I'm gonna sound like an idiot, the way I'm simplifying it, but...Post bop music, where the band plays a head and then everybody solo's as if they were the only guy in the room, which is the vast majority of recorded jazz since 1970 or so HAS been dead for decades. What has saved jazz, insofar as it's been saved is great ensemble music; which is how jazz started out and which has always been the jazz that had traction with the general public. Wynton Marsallis understands this idea and it is the foundation of his success. The most vital jazz in America is played everyday in New Orleans where it is a living part of a local popular culture in the form of their local brass and mardi-gras bands. You can go to any kind of function from a wedding to a funeral and hear a hot local brass band made up of everyone from geezers to their grandkids and see people of the same age spread dancing to it. NO ENSEMBLE IN AMERICA PLAYS A BETTER COMBINATION FOR HEAD, HEART AND HIPS THAN THE DIRTY DOZEN BRASS BAND and that is the future of jazz...a future that is reflected in pop music in bands like Galactic, in the pop/jamband field to the re-emergence and discovery of forms like Klezmer, in the "folk" or "world music" genres. Lots of people who think of themselves as jazz musicians keep food on their tables playing in these kinds of bands. Most of the public has no idea ...hell most so called jazz lovers have no idea that these bands ARE the great jazz bands of our era.
me: Last question, so if you're a kid that somehow hears--anything recorded by Rudy Van Gelder, loves it, joins the jazz band at school, gets some praise, where is the next step to avoid going over the cliff? And where is the ledge of that cliff?
Lew: Get some friends together who like the same music and listen to it--find like minded players an play what feels good. Play what makes you wanna dance or cry or curl up in a fetal position. Play some girl's clothes off. Play until birds or coyotes start gathering at your door. Listen to the great ensembles—Armstrong’s hot 5'sand 7's, the Basie and Ellington bands, Sun Ra, the Ornette Coleman's bands, Miles’ and Monks’ bands, the great Coltrane quartet. Don't forget to dig into the pop music that moves you--hip hop culture is a fountain of rhythmic and lyrical innovation--and remember it's all branches of the same tree; the AMERICAN musical tree and there are no rules or boundaries for a musician who wants to connect with people.
me: my screen says that you are still typing, yes?
Lew: The ledge--you want to see the ledge--hmmm--Phil Woods once said that if music schools were for real they would ditch the classes and just hand everyone a band uniform, put them on a bus with no windows and drive them around campus for eight hours then have them set up their instuments on a band stand, sit there for a couple of minutes, then get back on the bus change into their street clothes and do it all again for about a couple of months...cause that's what being a PROFESSIONAL JAZZ MUSICIAN boils down to for a lot of people. If you can stay creative in that atmosphere or love it so much you are happy with your three hours between bus rides, then go for it. Otherwise feel lucky when you have people to play with and a place to play and get your satisfaction by getting off on your fellow musicians in whatever setting or context you get to do it.
me: Well thank you very much. It turns out there is a theme running through these interviews, from within the band, to the musician looking at the crowds, and now, the crowd itself. It's been enlightening to say the least, especially the connection, whether you intended to emphasize this, on growing your business and the feelings of your customers, to playing music and being cognizant of the feelings of the audience. Lots of wisdom there. Build the statue.
Lew: Build it out of cottage cheese...bye...love ya
me: Back atcha.

1 comment:

Alan said...
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