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Mark Elf with Integrity

New York has many fine guitar players. Mark Elf is one of the finest bop players on the scene today. His resume reads like a who’s who of jazz including work with Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Wynton Marsalis, Jimmy Heath and others. Mark Elf’s string of six consecutive #1 recordings since 1997, have established him as a major player and composer. He is currently completing his eighth album as a leader on Jen Bay Records, a label he founded in 1995. I talked with him recently about his own music and the jazz music industry.

JazzReview: Could we get some advance information on your upcoming release?

Mark Elf: "Yeah, it’s going to be Lewis Nash on drums and Neal Miner on bass. I’ve got eight original compositions for the record and the rest you’ll have to find out when it’s released. The recording should be released in late March."

JazzReview: I’m looking forward to it. You’ve always played with top-notch musicians on your recordings. For example, I really enjoyed Aaron Goldberg’s playing on your previous release, "Swingin."

Mark Elf: "I heard Aaron playing down in New Orleans. I said, "Man, this cat is serious!" I helped hook him up with J Curve where he got his first record deal. So when I called him, he said, "sure" and he did some tracks. I had worked with drummer Winard Harper in Jimmy Heath’s band and we played together very well, so I pulled him in on the date. Robert Hurst, the bassist, came highly recommended through a friend."

JazzReview: How have the World Trade Center bombings affected the jazz clubs in New York?

Mark Elf: "I don’t play in New York that much, honestly. I’ve been touring throughout the U.S. and I haven’t been into New York since it happened, but certainly the clubs down there have been affected. Some gigs have been cancelled and some people are afraid to go out. It’s affected everyone."

JazzReview: I heard you play live recently. There was a really favorable response when you played "America the Beautiful." Was that a tribute?

Mark Elf: "I’ve been doing that lately. I’ve been feeling very patriotic and I’ve been doing things that are. It affected me just like it affected everyone, and I started playing that and "God Bless America" and some other patriotic songs. They’re beautiful melodies."

JazzReview: You’ve touring the U.S. extensively. Have you been playing in Europe? I know you’ve toured there several times previously.

Mark Elf: "When I was there I was playing with Clark Terry or Billy Mitchell or Dizzy, but not on my own. I don’t have any plans to go right now because I’ve been so busy in the U.S. I was sending stuff over there for a while, but I had to curtail it because I couldn’t follow it up. When you don’t follow things up, they fall through the cracks."

JazzReview: You have such an original voice on your instrument. Within a few bars, I know it’s you.

Mark Elf: "Thanks! Clark said that to me one time. He called me and said "Mark, I just heard you on the radio over here in the car. I didn’t hear the announcer say who it was, but I said I know who that is that’s Mark!" To have somebody say that, who has such a unique style and that I respect very highly, was the nicest complement. It made me feel really good."

JazzReview: The music on each of your prior releases is top quality jazz. You are one of the few musicians I can truthfully say has never made a bad record.

Mark Elf: "I try to make every tune on every record like it’s the only tune on the record. That, for me, is very important. If you’re not saying something with each tune, then why play it? I don’t have throwaway tunes on my records. I can’t afford to."

JazzReview: Did the need for that kind of artistic integrity lead you to start Jen Bay Records?

Mark Elf: "Absolutely. That’s the beautiful part about having my own label. I don’t have anybody telling me what I have to play, when to release, when I can record, how it’s going to get packaged or how it’s going to be promoted. I’m in control of the whole process. It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s worth it."

JazzReview: I love it. I used to do a joke segment on my jazz radio program of famous artists who had done some terrible stuff. Tasteless producers who thought it would sell records probably forced it on them. My favorite was a Lionel Hampton record with big band arrangements of songs from "Saturday Night Fever."

Mark Elf: "That’s one of the things unfortunately, that often has happened. Record companies can sometimes give suggestions to artists that actually help them to sell records. However, sometimes they just end up producing bad music or really ruining the artist’s integrity. Then the audience that they did have as a jazz artist will no longer buy that artists records because they’re afraid it’s just another one of those projects. So, they can actually hurt themselves by doing that."

"Of course, with the jazz market being what it is, if you care about record sales and you care about your visibility, then doing a commercial project is feasible. As long as you understand that when you go on the gig, that’s what you’re going to have to play. It’s an individual decision that artists have to make. Some artists don’t feel that doing a commercial record compromises their integrity. It’s just another project that they’re going to do and it doesn’t define them as an artist. It’s just something they’re doing so they can survive."

JazzReview: That reminds me of George Benson. Some of his records are great straight-ahead jazz, others are Pop & R&B.

Mark Elf: "Right. He’s a great artist and he’s sold hundreds of thousands of records, and he’s a millionaire. So, tell me someone who argues with that? I’m not going to argue with it. If you try to survive out here as a jazz artist, and that’s all you play, then you know what it is."

JazzReview: A lot of jazz labels are really struggling with sales. Do you think they’re going to follow many of the classical labels and just fold up shop?

Mark Elf: "The reality is that jazz records are about 1.8-2% of the market share. For artists to break free of those numbers, artists have to go outside of the jazz market and appeal to wider audiences. In order to do that, the record companies do what they do trying to manipulate artists into making records that will sell. The sales are not there in jazz records and it’s very difficult for independent artists and labels to survive just doing that alone. So from my perspective, I don’t blame artists for making commercial records or veering away from the pure art form to try to appeal to wider audiences."

"There are other artists who don’t want to do it, and won’t do it, and don’t care how many records they sell. They don’t care if 20 people come to the show or 200 people come. Their life is about the music and about nothing else. If you can afford to do that, or have a benefactor, or if you’re working enough and are happy just having enough to pay the rent, then that’s fine. Each artist has to make that decision for him or herself. Yes, record sales are bad and it’s very difficult to make a living as a jazz musician. That’s certainly not new news."

JazzReview: I know you’re very familiar with the challenge of promoting your own records. One of your releases "Over the Airways," you dedicated to some of the DJ’s and stations who have promoted your music.

Mark Elf: "When I first started sending out my records to radio, I just went head first into doing it myself and found out that a lot of these radio people liked my music and my records started to chart. I got to know a lot of them on a first name basis. It’s kind of a mutual admiration society. They’re happy I’m sending them my records because they like them, and I’m happy they like my records because they play them. I felt very blessed and very grateful they liked my music so much and that they played it so much."

"When the promotional period was over and I was in the studio, I was thinking about these people. I started naming tunes after them and eventually a whole record, because they’re struggling too. Most of them are non-commercial stations or public broadcast stations. They’re pretty much in the same position that the jazz musicians are very small market share. Many stations may run 3-4 different formats and play jazz just like 25 hours a week. They may have to answer to program directors who want to know why the jazz programming isn’t holding it’s own. They’re under a lot of pressure depending upon the station. I felt a debt of gratitude and I wanted to give something back to radio. I still pen tunes after particular individuals. In fact, on my new record, I’ll have two or three stations and individuals that I’ve written tunes about. That’s my way of thanking them."

JazzReview: As if you don’t have enough on your plate, I know you teach and have published some books as well.

Mark Elf: "I have three songbooks of tunes from my recordings. Some of my students have also transcribed some of my solos and put them into two books. All my CD’s and books are available on my website. I’m also offering on-line lessons."

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Mark Elf
  • Subtitle: The Interview
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