More popular recordings will be reissued this year from Contemporary Records, the Los Angeles-based jazz label which celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2021.
For three decades from the 1950s, Lester Koenig’s company released career-defining performances by Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Hampton Hawes, Art Pepper, Harold Land, Shelly Manne and Teddy Edwards. It was synonymous with West Coast jazz.
Craft Recordings, the back catalogue team for Concord, is releasing more of Contemporary’s tracks, including box sets, vinyl and digital compilations. Releases on download began before Christmas with compilations featuring Pepper, Hawes, Barney Kessel, André Previn and Manne. A sixth release, The Saxophonists, focuses on horn players, including Benny Carter, Coleman, Rollins, Ben Webster, and Benny Golson.
Koenig fell in love with jazz as an adolescent in New York, where he grew up, the son of a judge. Record-collecting led to a lifelong friendship with future music industry luminary John Hammond, who took the young Koenig along to recording sessions. But Koenig might not have devoted himself to music as a career had he not, years later, been targeted by McCarthyites.
Koenig was a full-fledged Hollywood screenwriter but never abandoned his passion for jazz. He produced sessions (his first) for Jazz Man Records, a record store that also produced recordings. Jazz Man was down the block from Paramount’s main gate on Hollywood’s Melrose Avenue and was a regular haunt. He befriended the owners, Marili Morden and her successive husbands, David Stuart and Nesuhi Ertegun, both of whom remained friends and eventually worked together for him at Contemporary. A New Orleans-style jazz revival was emerging in the Bay Area of San Francisco and Koenig helped document the growing movement by financing and producing records for the Jazz Man catalogue by Lu Watters, Bob Scobey, Turk Murphy and others.
Koenig’s life in movies was effectively ended by the so-called “Red Scare” of 1953, when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was flayed by the conservative Hollywood establishment for having left-wing sympathies, and blacklisted. He turned his attention to music full-time.
In 1951, Koenig was approached by former Stan Kenton bassist Howard Rumsey who operated the seminal West-Coast jazz venue, the Lighthouse, to undertake the release of the first Lighthouse All-Stars album. Koenig transformed Contemporary from a modern classical to modern jazz label. And after the blacklisting, he became a full-time jazz label owner.
After Koenig’s death and during his seven-year tenure as boss of Contemporary, his son John produced albums by Joe Henderson (with Chick Corea), Joe Farrell (with Freddie Hubbard), Bobby Hutcherson (with McCoy Tyner), Chico Freeman (with Wynton Marsalis and Hutcherson), George Cables (with Hutcherson and Hubbard), Peter Erskine (with Michael Brecker, Kenny Kirkland and Eddie Gomez) and others.
For more information on the Contemporary Records 70th anniversary series, follow @craftrecordings and go to craftrecordings.com/contemporaryrecords.