The Worst Day in Jazz History

The 'Great Columbia Jazz Purge' of 1973 was a sad moment in American music history—and looks even worse almost a half-century later

It’s now been two months since I launched The Honest Broker. This move represents quite a change for me—I’ve focused mostly on writing books, not articles or essays, over the years. A freeform digital platform such as Substack completely alters the rules; but in a way that’s clearly liberating and energizing for both writers and readers. So I’m sending out my thanks to all who have joined me at this early stage on a new, unproven project.

That said, with each passing week it is less unproven. We are now getting more views than major periodicals on many posts, and the clicks hardly measure the quality of the community. I know firsthand how many of you are discerning and knowledgeable advocates for music and the arts. I hope over time this project evolves into a more participatory, interactive experience—we would all benefit from that—but it’s already giving me more direct contact with readers than I’ve had in any other setting.

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Happy Listening!

The Worst Day in Jazz History

by Ted Gioia

Jazz fans nowadays might have a hard time believing that Columbia Records was once the most influential power broker in the genre. In 2021, that label (currently owned by Sony) has virtually no impact on the jazz scene. In the most recent Downbeat poll, Columbia didn’t even show up among the top ten in the voting for best jazz record label—and the few votes it did receive were almost certainly due to its reissues of older music. Frankly I can’t think of a single major jazz career Columbia has launched in this century.

But when I was a youngster, Columbia was home to the greatest stars in the music: Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, and so many others. And when I started digging into the early history of jazz, learning about the masterworks of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and other revered artists, more often than not I found their best work on the Columbia label.

How did a label with such an extraordinary reputation and lineage fall so low? Usually these kinds of shifts take place gradually, and it’s hard to pinpoint the tipping point when a successful leader loses the way. But in the case of Columbia, the legend tells of the collapse happening on a single day. If you run into jazz old-timers, you might even hear them talk about the “Great Columbia Jazz Purge”—that ominous moment when the most powerful record label in jazz decided that it didn’t really like jazz all that much.

I need to stress that the specific details of the jazz purge have never been made public. By some accounts, the move transpired over a longer period, perhaps a few weeks or months. Not surprisingly, the people who made the decision to decimate the jazz roster aren’t very talkative about the subject. Can you blame them?

That’s because the Columbia jazz purge looked bad back then, but looks even worse today. The artists they abandoned were merely jazz stars back then, but they are now jazz legends—and still have huge followings for their music. From a purely economic standpoint, abandoning musicians with such long-lived reputations is a foolish move; from an artistic point of view, it’s a tragic and dispiriting one—a sign that the very organizations serving as custodians for our music culture can’t be entrusted with such an important responsibility.

The changes afoot at Columbia impacted both recording artists and behind-the-scenes decision-makers. For example, John Hammond, the greatest talent scout in the history of jazz, had long played a key role in ensuring that Columbia was at the forefront of the genre. (And not just for jazz—he also was responsible for signing Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and Bruce Springsteen.) But he was now in his final years at the label, with less influence and, even worse at that juncture in music history, perceived as part of its past, not its future. He may have helped launch the careers of Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and other larger-than-life innovators. But that didn’t count for much in the 1970s, at least among the new guard in the music business.

In an attempt to keep up with the times, Columbia had recently shifted its jazz activities to the new fusion sound—most notably with the launch of Miles Davis’s pathbreaking Bitches Brew album, released in March 1970. The next year, Columbia would aggressively market the debut studio albums of Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, ensembles that would remain at the forefront of the fusion movement for more than a decade. Columbia also found success with the more funk-oriented crossover sound of Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters album and the energetic quasi-rock approach of Tony Williams’s Lifetime band. The label was targeting these albums at younger listeners, especially newcomers to jazz who would never buy a Thelonious Monk or Duke Ellington album. Pleasing teenagers worked for rock and pop—so why not jazz?

I was in 10th grade back then, and Columbia Records even came to my working class high school—donating a stack of albums to the student body government, with the stipulation that they auction off the records for fundraisers, and thus build an audience for the label’s youth-oriented recordings. I was 15 years old when the Great Jazz Purge took place, and never again would I be so courted by a major label—one that seemed intensely concerned about me and my buddies, and our raw, unformed musical tastes.

But a problem remained. At the dawn of the 1970s, Columbia had to decide what to do about those other jazz fans—older and discriminating in their tastes, but not part of this crossover audience. Fortunately the label had made some very smart moves, and signed some of the greatest living artists in the genre, notably Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Keith Jarrett, and Bill Evans. These musicians would never be rock stars—no one at Hawthorne High would bid on an Ornette Coleman album at a school fundraiser—but who could deny their greatness?

“I was 15 years old when the Great Jazz Purge took place, and never again would I be so courted by a major label—one that seemed intensely concerned about me and my buddies, and our raw, unformed musical tastes.”

A half-century has elapsed and those four names have lost none of their luster in the jazz world. Only Jarrett is still alive, and even he has stopped performing. But their reputations are, if anything, far greater nowadays than back in the prime of their careers. It’s a safe bet that their recordings will still inspire listeners fifty years from now—just as the great Columbia jazz albums from the 1950s and 1960s retain their devoted fans in the 21st century.

Yet these were the same four artists allegedly dropped from the label on the same day in 1973, in the debacle now known as the “Great Columbia Jazz Purge.” Music critic James Isaacs later compared the situation to "the 1961 New York Yankees suddenly placing Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, and Mickey Mantle on waivers." That may sound like hyperbole, but it really isn’t.

Just consider what these artists achieved after leaving Columbia. Keith Jarrett pursued a historic career with the ECM label, and not long after getting the boot from Columbia released the biggest-selling solo piano album in history. Ornette Coleman not only entered into an intensely creative new phase of his career, but eventually won the Pulitzer Prize in Music—almost unheard of for a jazz artist. Charles Mingus’s post-Columbia career only lasted a few years, but he ended it on a high note, releasing exceptional albums on the Atlantic label, getting lauded at the White House, and spurring a historic project by Joni Mitchell that turned Mingus into a household name among rock and pop fans. Bill Evans would also live just a few more years, but he is now widely recognized as one of the most influential pianists, in any genre, of the 20th century.

The brutal truth is that Columbia didn’t really know how to handle these artists even when they were under contract. Sure, they had released Mingus’s seminal Mingus Ah Um album in 1959, but jazz fans only later learned how much excellent music from the bassist the label kept unreleased at the time. Mingus was better served in the 1960s by Atlantic and Impulse, and when he returned to Columbia in the early 1970s, he was there for only the briefest interval before getting dropped. And how ironic that his 1972 Columbia album Let My Children Hear Music featured the composition “The Chill of Death,” an unsettling work that the same label had recorded back in the 1940s, and never released. It was almost as if Mingus were pranking the label that had left so much of his choicest work on the shelf—forcing them to record it all over again decades later.

And the same was true with the other victims of the purge. Columbia paired Bill Evans with George Russell on the Living Time album, a strange and splintered eight-movement work that was arguably the least commercial project the pianist recorded in his entire career. Evans could clearly deliver recordings with better sales prospects for his new label, but they didn’t give him the chance—he was cut from Columbia just a few months after Living Time was released. Ornette Coleman’s early 1970s albums for Columbia, Science Fiction and Skies of America, were important projects, but they were already out of print just a few years later, and Coleman’s big breakthrough with Dancing in Your Head, one of the freshest takes on jazz fusion from the mid-1970s (or any other era) was sponsored by A&M’s Horizon label instead. Keith Jarrett, for his part, only released one album for Columbia, the 1972 project Expectations, featuring the pianist’s so-called American quartet with orchestral support. By any measure, this would be one of the most significant jazz ensembles of the decade, but what expectations Columbia had for Expectations must not have been fulfilled, because Jarrett too was dismissed as part of the purge.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s hard to get the chronology clear on these events. By one account only Jarrett, Mingus and Evans were dismissed on the same day, and Coleman received his termination notice on a different occasion around the same time. I’ll leave it to others to work out a more detailed timeline, if that’s possible. But I do want to focus on a matter for which there can be no debate—namely what Columbia did after ditching these legendary artists.

Here are some Columbia releases from the immediate period after the purge:

  • E. Power Biggs: E. Power Biggs Plays Scott Joplin

  • Ray Conniff: Love Will Keep Us Together

  • Andre Kostelanetz: Andre Kostelanetz Plays Michel Legrand's Greatest Hits

  • Mountain: Avalanche

  • Percy Faith: Chinatown

  • Ted Nugent: Free for All

  • Andy Williams: You Lay Easy on My Mind

  • Blue Oyster Cult: Secret Treaties

I’m not going to judge each of those albums here. I really don’t need to. With the passage of almost fifty years since the Great Jazz Purge, history has already delivered an unambiguous verdict. Mingus surpasses Nugent, and always will.

Columbia continued to stumble along in jazz for another couple decades, but made as many bad decisions as good ones. The label gets credit for signing Wynton Marsalis, but did they really need to let Woody Shaw go around the same time?  Stan Getz recorded some remarkable music for Columbia in the late 1970s (especially on The Peacocks), but in the 1980s he had moved over to Concord, flourishing in an environment where execs weren’t so conflicted in their commitments to acoustic jazz. In the aftermath of Wynton’s ascendancy, Columbia offered contracts to a number of other New Orleans jazz musicians, but few of them were still with the label a short while later.

But perhaps the most striking comparison is between Columbia and the ECM label, which entered the jazz field almost at the same moment that America’s major record companies were abandoning it. ECM not only maintained the highest artistic standards, but sold albums in huge quantities—launching successful careers of US musicians (Jarrett, Metheny, etc.), who now found a German label more dedicated to jazz than any of the majors in the music’s land of origin.

The bottom line is that Columbia could have had its cake and eaten it too. With the right leadership, the label might have held on to a roster of the greatest musicians in jazz, with all the bragging rights that entails, and made money from their recordings for decades to come. The sad fact is: Columbia could still do this, if it understood jazz the way Manfred Eicher and a few other visionaries do.

Jazz is booming again. The scene is vibrant in Los Angeles and London, Shanghai and Sydney, Paris and New York. An old legacy label such as Columbia can’t rectify the mistakes of the past—the time for that has come and gone—but still possesses a genuine opportunity to chart the music’s future. It’s unlikely, but I’ll dream of it anyway. Perhaps this major record label could rise again from minor league status in the jazz standings. Maybe they could even sign four great jazz stars all on a single day. I know some folks who could give them a few leads, if they’re interested.