Jim West: Propelling Artists And Their Music
Montreal native Jim West is one of many behind-the-scenes figures who, unknown to most audience members, make it possible for them to access good music from both nostalgic and contemporary artists. His music label Justin Time Records is celebrating its 39th Anniversary, featuring a wide breadth of releases that range across the music spectrum from blues, gospel, and jazz to psychedelic rock, café folk, and world music varieties. Their common link is that each artist has an individual message for audiences. West, himself, has been acknowledged for his work in propelling artists and their music and is honored to be appointed a Member of the Order of Canada.
West’s foray into the music business started in the 1970s when the term garage band was first coined and became popular. The garage band that appealed to West then was Canada’s own Mahogany Rush.
West provides insight into that experience, “Mahogany Rush used to practice at a rehearsal hall right beside the High School in Montreal that I attended. I began working with them probably around 1972, mainly as a roadie, and only really took over the road management responsibility for a short period a few years later. You learn to be very efficient in this occupation, and it’s actually funny, as today I am thinking about one of my artists who will be the opening act for an important US tour in September. I’m trying to impart the knowledge and experience that I have acquired over the years.”
Moving into the 1980s, West extended on his newly acquired wisdom by forming his own music label in 1983. A decision, partly because of the music landscape in Montreal as he describes, “Montreal is a jazz city, and the Montreal Jazz Festival had started just a few years prior, all of this combined helped the scene to flourish. I did have some experience in the recording studio in the early 70s, so I thought this can’t be that hard to do. Ha Ha!”
He cites, “I started the label basically after seeing pianist Oliver Jones and his trio playing at Biddle’s Jazz Club in Montreal. A completely packed room with every demographic in attendance, and all were enjoying the show. I thought this should be documented. “
Canadian native Oliver Jones has several recordings in Justin Time Records collection, including his Live at Biddles Jazz & Ribs, released on September 3, 1983. The live recording showcases Jones’s prowess on the piano keys, from the jumping blues grooves of “Blue Monk” to the silky serenade of “Young and Foolish” and the swinging verses of “Take the A Train,” an iconic tune written by Billy Strayhorn.
Another release from Jones on the label is his swing-inspired interpretations of Christmas sing-alongs performed on his offering Yuletide Swing. He celebrates traditional swing with the bluesy swagger of his twinkling keys traipsing across “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and the upbeat strut in his stride along the bubbly “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.” The label offers Jones the means to document his music and share it with audiences. As the years progressed, Justin Time Records proved to be a reliable vehicle for more artists from around the globe.
West’s decision to name his label, Justin Time Records, is sentimental, as he shares, “The label is named after my son Justin, and the label has had numerous offices throughout the city. At first, it was run out of my home, then Old Montreal, and subsequently moving around to various locations. My basement was no longer big enough!”
The length of Justin Time Records’ catalog proves that the label has grown extensively over the years. West not only invested in contemporary artists like Oliver Jones but also in a vintage crop of artists like Sarah Vaughan, James Cotton, Maynard Ferguson, Dizzy Gillespie, John Lee Hooker, and Chet Baker. As a result, the roster of artists on the label reaches across several generations, and the litany of genres covered is equally extensive.
When speaking about the label’s diversity, West observes, “Music evolves, jazz is still jazz, but there are always up and coming young artists that push the envelope, which is great. Maybe not always for the purists, but there is room for everyone, and it’s exciting to see the new kids pulling from those that came before and even collaborating with them.”
One such collaboration that bridges modern swing with vintage jazz is Oliver Jones and piano legend Hank Jones’s recording Pleased To Meet You, released on the label in 2009, a year before Hank Jones passed away. Though the two pianists are born into different generations, their interplay compliments one another, showing that generations can learn from each other. Even work together harmoniously.
“The label has recorded a number of genres,” as well West notes, “that were not jazz, such as comedy, world music, gospel, singer-songwriter, etc., but the primary focus was always on jazz. It was important to like the people you are working with, apart from being drawn to their great talent. And the first three acts we signed were Oliver Jones, Ranee Lee, and Trevor W. Payne – founder and director of the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir – 3 people with whom I talk to every day or second day, still to this day. I just wanted to put great music out there.”
Great music is found in many styles, and West recognized that factor early in his profession. From the folkoric stylizing of Portugeuse vocalist Teresinha Landeiro to the modern bop creations of pianist Taurey Bulter and the café folk musings of singer-songwriter Thomas Hellman, whose music makes listeners feel like they are in a French bistro, the breadth of genres represented on West’s label captures the multitude of cultures and musical varieties across the globe.
Regarding West’s involvement with the artists’ music and public outreach, he admits, “Generally,” he gives, “no direction but definitely guidance. I might suggest particular tunes or request a few under 5 minutes for radio etc. In most cases, we have seen the act perform and determined if they can carry the room and establish a rapport with the audience.”
“Our criteria,” he discerns, “has not changed too much. We have to hear something that draws us to a particular artist, and their commitment and investment to their own career is paramount. They need to be involved! Today, it is also important for the artist to have not only great talent, but they need to be very savvy social media wise, engaging with their fans on Instagram and Tik Tok for example.”
“I think,” he proposes, “it is more difficult today to market a record then it was 30 or 40 years ago. There are a lot of blogs, but many with a small readership. Most of the major newspapers stopped writing reviews of new recordings and save the space for other things, or they just focus on extremely well-known artists. The DSP’s (digital service provider) do provide a service – 90 million songs under one roof and you can certainly discover great music this way, but trying to break an act at a DSP is a very difficult task – just like writing a new book and having it catalogued in the New York Public Library, filed away and that’s it. You need to promote the act non-stop in all media.”
One avenue that has proven very effective in promoting artists on Justin Time Records is the exposure that jazz festivals offer them. West points out, “We are very lucky in Canada to have a group of festivals that work together to try and bring acts from coast to coast whenever possible. All of the festivals have been great to deal with from Vancouver to Halifax and everything in between. A number of the festivals have been instrumental in helping to build some of our artists’ audiences. Both Montreal and Victoria just recently offered opening slots to a few of our acts, and I can tell you that this has helped in developing their careers without any doubt.”
He adds, “I always encourage them to do a meet and greet – preferably at the merch table after the show when the act can sign an item and have a short interaction with their fans.”
Encouraging West to continue along the path he has paved is his recent appointment as a Member of the Order of Canada. “I was appointed to the order of Canada, not the label,” he clarifies, “but I would have to say it was the label that helped me get appointed to the order. It is interesting to note that my first three acts, mentioned above, are all members of the Order of Canada. Nothing will change, I am deeply honored, and we will keep on producing great music for years to come.”
From jazz legends to aspiring luminaries, Jim West has found his own way across a diverse array of generations and uses his label as a vehicle to communicate the messages that artists have to bring to audiences. Celebrating its 39th Anniversary, Justin Time Records has served as a vehicle for West, enabling him to be appointed a Member of the Order of Canada. The label keeps West involved in an industry that is continually growing and continually remembering and honoring its pioneers. West does not look for trendy artists but for artists that will stand against the test of time. Justin Time Records owes its longevity to the longevity of the music from its artists. In that way, Justin Time Records will never go out of style with audiences.
About Susan Frances:
Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in eastern Long Island, I always enjoyed writing and made several contributions to my high school literary magazine, The Lion’s Pen. Influenced by writers of epic novels including Colleen McCullough and James Clavell, I gravitated to creative writing. After graduating from New York University with a BA in Liberal Arts, I tried my hand at conventional jobs but always returned to creative writing. Since 1998, I have been a freelance writer and have over three thousand articles to various e-zines including: Jazz Times, Blogcritics, Yahoo Voices, Goodreads.com, Authors and Books (books.wiseto.com), TheReadingRoom.com, Amazon.com, Epinions.com, Fictiondb.com, LibraryThing.com, BTS emag, BarnesandNoble.com, RomanticHistoricalReviews.com, AReCafe.com, Hybrid Magazine, and BookDepository.com. In 2013 and 2014, I was a judge in the Orange Rose Writing Competition sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the Romance Writers of America located in Brea, California.