Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels

It’s raining lightly in Harlem, but the day’s business is taking place indoors, in a funky, Afrocentric boutique known simply as “The Brownstone.” Tony Haywood, the founder of HiPNOTIC records, is up from Washington D.C. to supervise a photo shoot for guitarist Jeff Ray‘s The Walkup, the next CD slated for release on the label. (Full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes for The Walkup.)

The Brownstone’s lightswitch covers are delicately hand-painted; its fully functional hair salon looks and feels more like a living room. A tall, slender African-American woman carefully irons the shirts that Ray will soon pose in. Meanwhile, Ray relaxes in a T-shirt and sweats, listening to his own record on a boombox cranked to high volume. The drummer on the album, Victor Wise, sips a Heineken as he browses the nearest available magazine, Manhattan Bride. Haywood is positioned, smiling and stock-still, on the impressive wooden staircase, standing in as a model while the crew adjusts its lights and equipment. The photographer is Haywood’s cousin. It doesn’t get much more “indie” than this.

HiPNOTIC is the ultimate labor of love and still in its formative stages, with only five releases as of this writing (including The Walkup). There’s a good reason for Haywood’s relatively slow pace: “day gig” doesn’t begin to describe his work as minority counsel for the House Committee on Government Reform.

Yes, Haywood is a Washington insider, but with a bohemian heart. He is on the staff of Representative Henry Waxman of California, the committee’s ranking Democrat. “Reform is kind of a misnomer,” says Haywood, spelling out the committee’s mandate. “We don’t in fact have much legislative authority, but we can put officials under the hot lights and make them squirm.”

In addition to conducting investigations and holding hearings, the committee oversees government reorganization. “We had a major role in putting together the Homeland Security Department,” Haywood explains. “Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time on a subcommittee dealing with criminal justice, drug policy, and human resources—everything from prevention and treatment to law enforcement, domestic and international. I’ve also done work on the full committee level, on issues ranging from the Waco investigation to racial disparities in health care, or cloning and stem cell research, or West Nile virus.” The committee was a site of intense controversy during the Clinton years, when Waxman clashed often and angrily with chairman Dan Burton, Republican of Indiana, over Travelgate and other related scandals. It was Burton who famously called the former president a “scumbag” on the floor of the House.

It’s rather hard to imagine Haywood smack in the middle of a political firestorm. He is pleasant, subdued, and rather stiff in conversation, weighing his words with the utmost care. He looks young for his age (36), particularly when dressed for Harlem rather than the House of Reps. Stepping away from the photo shoot in search of a quieter place to confer, we stroll up to 128th Street, to Haywood’s black, sparkling-clean BMW. (If you’re making regular trips up and down the northeast corridor, you might as well ride comfortably.) Before our interview starts, Haywood cues up what he calls his “song of the moment”: “Mr. Clean” from Freddie Hubbard‘s 1970 CTI release Straight Life. We sit for three minutes or so, letting the music fill our senses.

Haywood was raised in Los Angeles. His father, a cardiologist, witnessed his share of legendary jazz performances while living in New York in the early ’50s. For a time, Haywood considered following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a physician. But his first job upon graduating from Amherst College in 1989 was on Capitol Hill, working for the late congressman Julian Dixon of L.A. In 1992 Haywood moved to New York to attend Columbia Law School, where his grandfather, Myles A. Paige, Jr., had been the third African-American to graduate. (Later, Paige would become the first appointed black judge since Reconstruction. See Dan Gilgoff, “Congressional Hearing: Tony Haywood Divides His Time Between the Man and the Music,” Washington City Paper, Feb. 2-8, 2001.) Soon after earning his law degree in 1995, Haywood moved back to DC to work as legislative counsel for congressman Steny Hoyer of Maryland. He transitioned to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct (or “ethics committee,” as it is popularly known), then to his current post on Waxman’s staff.

All the while, Haywood nurtured more than a passing interest in jazz. At Amherst he befriended clarinetist Darryl Harper and guitarist Freddie Bryant, and heard both perform with the likes of Dr. Lonnie Smith, Don Braden, Ira Coleman, and Billy Drummond. Haywood also deepened his jazz connections while in law school in New York, reconnecting with Bryant and meeting the musicians who frequented Augie’s, on the site of what is now Smoke.

Several years later, after Darryl Harper finished his Masters at Rutgers, he formed a band called The Onus. Haywood, working in D.C. by this point, offered to write promotional copy for the group. Before long he became The Onus’s de facto manager, booking gigs in and around Washington. As much as he enjoyed furthering Harper’s career, he yearned for a more personal stake in the music. He also felt that a “third-party entity” would bestow more legitimacy on the band. So he formed HiPNOTIC Records.

The label did not yet exist when The Onus released its eponymous debut in 1996. But when Haywood released the follow-up, Reoccuring Dream, in 2000, he made the first album available through HiPNOTIC’s online distribution channels. Haywood’s new label thereby entered the jazz marketplace as the purveyor of a rare and interesting sound: a clarinet-fronted modern jazz ensemble.

Many still think of the clarinet as a swing-era or neo-traditionalist instrument, despite what players like Jimmy Giuffre, Don Byron, Marty Ehrlich, and Peter Brötzmann have done to update its aesthetic profile. Harper, too, has effectively staked his claim as a clarinet modernist, albeit one with firm roots in the post-bop mainstream. The Onus’s front line is completed not by a second horn, but by Jeff Ray on guitar, whose influences range from Kenny Burrell to rock and R&B. Bassist Matthew Parrish and drummer Harry “Butch” Reed comprise the rhythm section. Both Kyle Koehler and Jason Shattil, fellow alumni of New Jersey’s William Paterson University, have held the piano chair.

Along with original music by almost every band member, The Onus’s albums have included covers of Stevie Wonder‘s “Too High” and Joe Henderson‘s “Inner Urge“—bold choices for a clarinetist—along with readings of music by Charles Mingus, Cole Porter, and, lo and behold, Tony Haywood. (Haywood is not a performer, but he does play a bit of trumpet and piano and writes his own music as well.)

Each HiPNOTIC project that followed sent Haywood on connect-the-dots trips from Washington to New York. Darryl Harper had been based in Philadelphia before moving to Baltimore in 1997. He introduced Haywood to a high-school friend, pianist Orrin Evans, a fellow Philadelphian looking to place a side project called “Seed.” (Evans, then a Criss Cross recording artist, has since signed with Palmetto. Harper is godfather to his son Matthew.) Seed’s self-titled CD was recorded in 2000 by Evans’s own IMANI imprint, and manufactured and distributed by HiPNOTIC the same year. In addition to Evans, his wife Dawn Warren on vocals, Mike Boone on bass, and Rodney Green on drums, the album featured Gary Bartz and Branford Marsalis (among others) as guest artists. With names like these, needless to say, HiPNOTIC stood to raise its profile substantially.

The next HiPNOTIC release showcased Matthew Parrish, bassist for The Onus, in his debut as a leader. Co-produced by Haywood and Parrish, Circles was without a doubt one of the most significant debuts of 2001. It featured mainly original music, played by a top-tier quartet with Joel Frahm on tenor sax, Vincent Bourgeyx on piano, and Steve Hass on drums. Parrish, a classmate of Harper’s at Rutgers, had also settled in Philadelphia and toured for three years with the late trombone legend Al Grey. His most noteworthy association at this writing is with the renowned young vibraphonist Stefon Harris and his Grand Unification Theory project. Dedicated to Al Grey’s memory, Circles was a big step forward for Parrish, and it presented him in a most flattering light. This was HiPNOTIC’s first Digipack, with crisp, darkly hued photography (Haywood’s cousin, again) and a sleek design courtesy of Kathy Ridl, who also worked on the Seed CD. (Ridl is the wife of Pat Martino‘s pianist, Jim Ridl.)

Next in line is The Onus’s guitarist, Jeff Ray. The Walkup, nearing completion at press time, represents a departure for HiPNOTIC—away from acoustic jazz and toward an engaging hybrid of funk, R&B, and groove-based music. Raised in Toledo, Ohio, Ray attended college on a football scholarship but emerged with a music degree. He went on to study with Kenny Barron and the late Ted Dunbar at Rutgers, where he earned his Masters in music. From there it was on to Harlem, where he now resides, working the funk and R&B circuit in earnest, a white guitarist in a predominantly African-American social milieu. Ray has deep roots in what industry people call the “urban” sound, but he is eager to reach the jam-band audience as well.

HiPNOTIC hasn’t given the world music in great quantity, but it has revealed much about the drive and determination of one lone government employee who happens to love jazz. Tony Haywood still has hurdles to clear, but his ultimate goals—to provide an alternative to “depressing” pop music, to help bring the black audience back to jazz—speak to a long-term commitment. “There’s a public service aspect to this,” he insists. “It’s a way to personalize a crusade, if you will, to bring real music into people’s lives.”

From Declaration of Independents: A HyperHistory of Independent Jazz Labels
by David R. Adler
© 2003 NewMusicBox