This Vancouver jazz label is thriving during the pandemic

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Cellar Music Group begins its biggest year yet, says label owner and president Cory Weeds.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Cellar Music Group begins its biggest year yet, says label owner Cory Weeds

'To this day, I tell people I have been trying to put that record label out of business for 20 years and it just won't go away,' jokes Cellar Live's owner, Cory Weeds, on the jazz label's 20th anniversary. (Jesse Cahill)

"I was 26 and I convinced my dad to lend me a bunch of money to buy this jazz club," recalled saxophonist/entrepreneur Cory Weeds during a recent conversation with CBC Music. "I thought it would be the shortest, wildest ride of my life."

The year was 2001 and Weeds couldn't imagine his impulsive foray into operating Vancouver's Cellar Jazz Club, where patrons dined while enjoying live jazz, would last more than a year. "Being in the food service industry took years off my life," he reflected. "It's not a fun industry to be in even when you know what you're doing. But I didn't know what I was doing. When I look back, I wonder, 'How the heck did I do that?'"

The ride was indeed wild, but definitely not short: the record label that Weeds started in order to release performances recorded live off the floor of his club marks its 20th anniversary in 2021. With more than 200 albums in its catalogue, Cellar Music Group will have its biggest year yet in 2021 — the COVID-19 pandemic notwithstanding.

Celebrations get underway on Jan. 15 with the release of O sole mio!, a collection of nine Italian tunes that get the soul jazz treatment from a phenomenal band: Weeds himself plays alto saxophone alongside Eric Alexander (tenor saxophone), Mike LeDonne (B3 organ), Peter Bernstein (guitar) and Joe Farnsworth (drums.)

This quintet's soulful leanings are representative of the Cellar Live sound, a predilection Weeds attributes to his early years.

"My dad was a huge Wes Montgomery fan, so growing up, I was hearing Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery," he says. "I also ended up joining a band called People Playing Music that really opened my ears. That's how I discovered James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Maceo Parker and then some of the instrumental side of jazz that was funkier and I really got into that stuff. I think that's where my love of organ kind of started."

The organ's appeal drew Weeds to the catalogue of the legendary Criss Cross jazz label, where he discovered a number of artists who would eventually show up on Cellar Live's roster: tenor saxophonist Alexander, trombonist Steve Davis and B3 organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, to name a few.

Early in Cellar Live's existence, Weeds went to New York, a trip that would be transformative for his label.

"My first trip to New York was in 2002. I saved up some money, took a holiday and just started meeting people. The wonderful thing about jazz music is, word travels fast. People knew me because I had this club that not a lot of New Yorkers had been to yet."

These connections opened a sort of jazz wormhole between New York and Vancouver.

"Probably my proudest accomplishment is how I've been able to bring together Canadian and U.S. musicians, resulting in a lot of great things," he explained. "For example, the Tilden Webb trio with David Fathead Newman — I mean, that was a big accomplishment. Charles McPherson with Ross Taggart, Jodi Proznick and Blaine Wikjord; Dr. Lonnie Smith with my band, Crash, and all of these other records that introduced Vancouver musicians to New York musicians and vice versa."

Weeds' plans to celebrate Cellar Live's 20th anniversary will further strengthen this New York–Vancouver bond.

"I've always had a relationship with Spike Wilner at Smalls Jazz Club in New York, but we've started a partnership where we're going to be releasing some recordings that he commissions through his foundation, the Smalls Live Foundation. So, I'm excited about that. The first one is a record of his, the Spike Wilner Trio, that's called Aliens Wizards."

Upcoming Cellar Live releases featuring Canadian talent include The Promise from vocalist Dee Daniels (May 7), You Don't Know What Love Is from the trio of Calgary's Angela Wrigley (June 18), and What is There to Say featuring Weeds with a string orchestra and special guest Phil Dwyer (Sept. 3).

Weeds is quick to point out the indispensable support of FACTOR in Cellar Live's operations in general, and the 20th anniversary in particular.

"We're three years into the comprehensive music company program at FACTOR and that's life-changing," he said. "It's difficult to take a Canadian artist who lives in Vancouver, who is a really amazing artist, and put them out into the world and make money back on releasing a record of theirs. Touring opportunities are not there. It's difficult and it's sad, but it's just the reality of it. FACTOR allows me to do that. It's been a really great program."

Preparations for Cellar Live's 20th anniversary were affected not only by COVID-19 — the lack of travel and performance opportunities has been problematic, for example — but also the Black Lives Matter movement, as Weeds explains.

"When the George Floyd thing exploded in the media, there was this movement to black out our Instagram screens in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. It was a cool thing to do, but I felt like it was not enough, that I was in a position to do something more than just black out my Instagram screen and then return to normal life the next day."

Weeds reached out to New York trumpeter Jeremy Pelt to see how Cellar Live could do something meaningful. They decided that Pelt would produce a series of three albums led by Black artists, with Cellar Live making a contribution to a Black-led charity of the artists' choice.

"Once this COVID thing is lifted, there'll be some touring and educational opportunities, too," Weeds pointed out. "We've already recorded two of them: Bruce Harris, the great trumpet player who lives in Sugar Hill, Harlem, that's going to come out in early June; and then we recorded a phenomenal young singer-saxophonist by the name of Michael Stephenson, and this record is going to turn some heads when it comes out in September. And at the end of January, we have pianist Anthony Wonsey going into the studio to do the third release."

'Believe in yourself, have confidence in yourself and love yourself and everything will be cool.' — Cory Weeds' advice to his 26-year-old self (Jesse Cahill)

Weeds closed the Cellar Jazz Club in 2014 — "it got stressful to the point where I didn't enjoy the music anymore," he said — but the label is still going strong, primarily releasing highly polished studio recordings instead of the live-from-the-floor club dates of the label's early years.

He attributes his success in part to being true to his own musical tastes.

"My opinion on the music I like is well documented: I like straight-ahead jazz and straight-ahead jazz doesn't always get the love," Weeds explained. "Always looking for something new, you know, the new, modern, hip, experimental thing — that's just not who I am. My vision is straight-ahead jazz, music that makes me happy, music that swings. And for the most part, I've stayed right in that lane."

To help make his 20th anniversary plans happen, Weeds has set up a Cellar Live fundraising campaign, which has already reached close to 30 per cent of its $30,000 goal.

Tune in to CBC Music's Saturday Night Jazz with Laila Biali on Jan. 16 to hear highlights from Cory Weeds Quintet's O sole mio and all sorts of great jazz music.