Every artist has to be concerned with the business of making art. The two issues go hand in hand. In 1988, Kitty Margolis had suffered a back injury and was lying in bed one day wondering about the future and about what ultimately she would be known for if she didn’t make it through her impending surgery.
“I hadn’t made a record yet, and I knew I wanted to,” she says. “But in those years there wasn’t much jazz being recorded by the major companies, and almost none by women.” She also had heard how it is for artists with the big recording companies. Not a lot of respect. Very little artistic control. The artist does not own the master recordings and therefore can’t get to them if the record company does not want her to. Shoddy accounting practices. “I didn’t much care for all that, and so I was worried that I’d never be able to make a record.”
Kitty ponders the memory a moment.
“But the radio station KJAZ here in the Bay Area had recorded a gig I’d done at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco … live, direct to two-track tape.”
Kitty folds her hands before her, studying them. She seems to lose herself for a moment.
“You know, the live album is the truth,” she says. “And suddenly I realized that I did have a record, and it was already in the can. But even so, there was still the whole issue of the record industry and my dislike of it. I wasn’t sure what to do.”
Kitty lowers her head, a kind of dramatization of the quandary she felt she was in at the time.
“But there was Betty Carter,” she says.
Carter was a singer with a long and distinguished career, famous for her revolutionary musical inventiveness.
“I was very hip to her music then, and she had had her own indie record company for years. Bet-Car Records, before she got signed to Verve in her sixties. So when I got better, I called Madeline Eastman, who is such a fine singer and a close friend of mine. We’d had a small production company called Mad-Kat, and I told her that I wanted to found a record company, called Mad-Kat Records, and would that be okay with her? She said ‘yes’ right away, ‘and I want to record on the label, too,’ she said. And we did it. And that recording that KJAZ had made was my first LP.”
Kitty leans back and laughs, as though we’re talking about some sort of ancient history.
“Yes, an LP, thirty-three and a third revolutions per minute. Vinyl. It’s called Live at The Jazz Workshop in San Francisco.
Alfonso laughs as well. But he leans forward to speak, and there is an immediate fervor in what he says, an intensity that comes from his own intimate understanding of Kitty’s career.
“For Kitty,” he says, “creating her own record company was fundamentally about freedom. The freedom to make the music she likes, with people she likes, and not be beholden to anybody else's demands that she fit into some pre-established market niche, perform a certain type of song a certain way, use this or that musician, and so on.
“For instance, on her CD Straight Up with a Twist she recorded ‘In Crowd’ as a funky duet with the legendary blues singer Charles Brown and trumpeter Roy Hargrove blowing up a storm in the background. She also recorded ‘Fever’ as a somewhat demented ‘Fatal Attraction’-like odd-meter reggae. Kitty has a great sense of humor and loves that kind of thing. If she hears a song a certain way, she wants to record it that way, and she really doesn't want to have to worry about a record executive telling her she should record a music-to-drink-your-frappuccino-by ‘hit.’”
Anyone who has worked in the arts when they’re being affected or even controlled by money interests understands this concern of Alfonso’s. In my opinion, that pretty much includes everybody who works in the arts.
“For many years now,” he continues, “the trend for jazz, and particularly for vocal jazz, has been to go into a sophisticated background music format. Women vocalists in jazz are almost always directed to produce mellow, unthreatening, and definitely ‘safe’ music. While we both appreciate and actually like some of that work, it's just not what Kitty is about. She makes foreground music, not background music. Kitty's work is in the tradition of artists like Betty Carter, who are strong bandleaders, like to 'stretch out' and take a lot of improvisational risks.”
Making a record is one thing. Getting it distributed is quite another. After she and Madeline had founded Mad-Kat Records, Kitty had gotten a deal with a very small distribution company in the United States when she received a phone call one day from Tokyo.
“He was an executive at Tower International,” she says, “and he told me that the LP was selling like hotcakes in Japan as an import. He wanted to distribute my record there, but he needed it in the new CD format. I told him that basically I didn’t have any money left, and he said that he wanted to become a personal investor in me and that he would pay for the format change. Then he arranged a distribution deal for us with Bayside, which was owned by Tower and was a major distributor of Indie records. So we went with them, and they’ve been our distributor ever since.”
Alfonso nods agreement. “Having her own record company does not mean Kitty is desperately interested in the business part of music. In fact, she couldn't be less interested in it — that's not why she got into the music. She really just wanted to sing, and sing material she likes the way she likes. Mad-Kat Records gives her the freedom to do that."
Which brings us to 2007. Tower and Bayside recently went bankrupt, leaving many of the labels under their wing without "brick and mortar" distribution. But Kitty is not very worried.
“Oh, I had been approached by other record labels and managers in the nineties who had wanted to sign me. But now, with Mad-Kat a nineteen-year-old company, we have a working business infrastructure and a solid business plan. And unlike with record companies that are not run by the artists, we own our own masters, which is all-important. Besides, there’s a lot of panic and confusion now in the record industry. The influence of the Internet. Downloading and all that. Falling CD sales. So the longer we stay the way we are, the smarter our original decision looks. We own all of our own work. Distribution will come. In fact, we have worldwide digital distribution now, and we’re in negotiations just now with the best Indie distributor there is, and I think it’ll be quite a step up.”
The prospect of a major recording deal can be very compelling to artists who have been working for years and may not have achieved the level of success for which they had hoped.
“In my case,” Kitty concludes, “I’ve always thought it was more important to retain ownership and stay in control of my own body of work.”
“It keeps me from going nuts. I’ve been fortunate to be able to maintain the respect of my peers and of the industry, and that respect has been the single most important thing to me.”
So, does Kitty miss Keystone Korner?
“Sure,” she laughs. “But I’ve done so many other great gigs since then. I mean, I appeared before 65,000 people a few years ago at the Sydney International Jazz Festival. It was like a Central Park concert. Ten … twenty times bigger than the Monterey Jazz Festival, where I’ve also had eight appearances.”
And what was the best thing about the Sydney gig? Kitty laughs once more, acting as though she’s holding a large object in her arms.
“They brought me the biggest and best bouquet of flowers I’ve ever gotten.”
Did she ever meet Flora Purim?
“Oh yes, we were on the same bill at the Telluride Jazz Festival a few years ago, and I approached her and said something nice to her, that I’d first heard her many years ago and was always a fan, that she was a hero of mine. And she touched my arm and said, ‘Oh no, Kitty, we’re peers now.’ She totally knew my work, my recordings. It was so flattering.”
Flora’s not alone in her admiration of Kitty. The critic Stanley Crouch wrote, “Like all true artists, Kitty Margolis adds something good to the world that it did not possess before she came along. She is, as they say, ‘the real thing.’" An article in Downbeat said of her, “Celebrating innovation over affectation, Margolis sings with conviction, pleasure and creative edginess…breathtaking…a tour de force.” Grammy-winning writer Bob Blumenthal shares this enthusiasm: “Heart & Soul is the most overpowering jazz vocal album — and one of the most overpowering jazz albums of any kind — I have heard since the passing of the immortal Betty Carter.”
What’s in the future?
“A new recording, of course. And we’ll go out on the road again.”
And what ever became of the kid across the street who threw rocks at Kitty?
“I was doing an outdoor concert in Reno a few years ago, and this man came up to the stage. He was trying to give me something. It was a really high platform, and Alfonso was there onstage with me, keeping an eye on things. You know, you don’t just take things from people in the audience. But this fellow said, ‘No, Kitty, you don’t realize. I’m …’ He gave me his name, and I realized that it was the mean boy from across the street. Only now he was, you know, in his late thirties, a little overweight, losing his hair. Not scary in the least. I was this glamorous performer towering over him, and here he was, trying to give me a box of chocolates.”
And you talked with him about when you were children?
“I didn’t have much time, since I was finishing a festival show and the next act was coming on stage. But we did have a special moment. He knew what he had done all those years before. And he was there to apologize to me. It was clear that he wanted to heal the hurt he had caused.”
And what did you do?
“I forgave him, of course. It was very soulful. It was closure.”
One could wonder how much that fellow and the stones he threw had to do, somewhere deep inside Kitty Margolis’s heart, with the ultimate development of her very fine art.