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A Guitarist's Guitarist Is Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place
by Mike Zwerin
International Herald Tribune - January 2, 2002

The new year finds Mike Stern trapped between a mega media merger and an economic meltdown. His record company, Atlantic, a historic label (John Coltrane, Ray Charles, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Ornette Coleman) merged with Warner Brothers several years ago. That eventually became Time Warner, and now the guitarist-bandleader has been put on hold by the newly formed media giant AOL Time Warner, where downsizing is the order of the day.

After making 10 CDs in 15 years for Atlantic, he is in danger of being dropped. He could find a smaller, independent record company (there have been offers), but such a change would make it difficult, if not impossible, for him to get his current release, "Voices", marketed and heard.

In the more immediate future, Stern is, or was, scheduled to begin a South American tour in Santiago, Chile, on Jan. 9 - followed by Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Panama.

He is popular in South America; he toured Colombia last year. However, between looting, devaluation and a falling government, Argentina has become a whirlpool to be avoided, and the dates there are also on hold. Stern is calling agents and impresarios to try to fill the possible gaps. (Either way, he is booked for three nights in Tokyo at the end of January followed by a week, Feb. 5 to 10, in the important New York club Iridium.)

It is ironic that a musician well known in the trade for just wanting to play has to navigate such a geopolitical Scylla and Charybdis.

That Stern still seems to enjoy making music after 25 years is a big part of his personality and professionalism. He still loves to spend hours practicing Coltrane improvisations at home.

But in the real world, to play he must also cast a band and sell it, help set up the tours, co-produce and at times co-finance his own recordings and keep nagging his multinational record company to set up promotional tours like the one that recently brought him through Paris.

Along with Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman and very few others, the 55-year-old Stern [MFL: Mike's age is 49. In NYC, he plays in 55 Bar] remains both a respected and financially viable jazz act. That he plays electric guitar helps him continue to find a young audience around the world. As do his credits.

For two years he was a sideman with Miles Davis and is on the trumpeter's albums "Man With the Horn" and "We Want Miles". He has worked with high-profile fusion names like Blood, Sweat and Tears, Jaco Pastorius, David Sanborn and Steps Ahead.

Explaining why most of his gigs are abroad, he said: "There seems to be more interest in the arts in general in Japan and Europe. It's called culture. In America, the closest thing we have to it is agriculture". This was accompanied by a boyish smile, a shrug and an unspoken apology for such silliness.

His rock-flavored records sell modestly but "enough so that the record company and I get our money back and make a little profit and I can tour behind them". Modest goals. Unlike pop records, quality jazz continues to sell, year after year, in small quantities that eventually add up. All 10 of his albums remain in Atlantic's active catalogue, a rare availability. This would probably change should Atlantic terminate him. The distributor has to be willing to service the stores, and to convince them that Stern is worth their shelf space.

Stern has gotten to know sales clerks and the office people who arrange interviews and radio play and send out review copies in the Time Warner offices around the world.

Meanwhile, preoccupied with synergy, AOL Time Warner is considering consolidating several of its labels into a new division. It is possible that the name Atlantic will just disappear - presumably along with the jobs of many of those office people around the world he has taken such trouble to stroke. Unlike many, he considers interviews and networking as part of the job.

For Stern, it's not about making lots of money, but earning it, no matter how little, with music. Stern still goes out of his way to play, for peanuts, one or two nights a week in a tiny club called the 55 on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village. Guitarists often make up half the audience at 55, as in similar clubs in Europe.

"Sometimes the bread isn't so great, and the clubs can be kind of funky", he said. "But it's essential to continue to play for people. Miles used to say that he was always trying to 'catch somebody'. Put your heart and soul into your music and maybe you'll catch one person out front. Catching one person will always be enough for me."


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