Jon Griffiths has been at the heart of jazz in Britain from working at the legendary Mole Jazz, the record shop co-founded by his father Grahm in 1978. Working in the shop undoubtably ignited Jon’s passion for vinyl and buying records.
His love of music has taken him from Mole Jazz to DJing since 1996, and to establishing his role as label manager for Proper Music Distribution.
Always harbouring a desire to run his own label and having a good knowledge of the inner workings of the music industry, in 2015 Jon founded My Only Desire Records with the specific aim of presenting previously unreleased British jazz of the 1960s and 1970s.
With an ambitious and growing catalogue, and with the second 7” single in the imprints Brit Jazz 45s series just having been released, it was an ideal time to talk to Jon about the label and future plans.
My Only Desire Records has released archival recordings of some key British jazz musicians of the 60s and 70s. Perhaps a good place to begin is why you decided to start a record label and the musical ethos of the label?
I had wanted to start a label for some time, but I kept putting it off. It wasn’t until I was attending a conference in 2015 held by AIM (Association of Independent Music) and they told us about a new deal they had just struck up with the BBC – that allowed AIM members to license music from the BBC archive using a simple deal with set (and very affordable) rates – that I had finally took the plunge. I knew the British library had a large selection of BBC recordings there, so booked a day off work and spent it digging through a huge stack of CD-Rs from my favourite British jazz artists. I’d been caning Joy Unlimited by the great trumpeter Harry Beckett around that time and knew I had to try and release the BBC session he recorded around that time the moment I heard it, the version of “Bracelets of Sound” was something else.
The original idea of the label was simple: previously unreleased archival British jazz from the 60s and 70s. There’s lots of excellent reissue labels about, so I thought I would focus on the unreleased side of things, with an emphasis on celebrating forgotten/underappreciated artists, with all releases on vinyl and digital. With a high standard of production, sound and design.
What is about the British jazz of that period of time that interested you so much and convinced you to make this music available once more?
I just love the melting pot of influences of British jazz from the late 60s into the mid-late 70s – everything from soul, funk, rock, blues, Caribbean and African music, all genre/styles that I’m a huge fan of.
Interestingly, from the outset with your very first release, the decision was made to release the music on vinyl. What influenced you to do so, and why do you think the interest in the medium is gaining in popularity?
I’ve been collecting vinyl since I was 15, I love the sound, the artwork and all my favourite genres are all heavily represented on vinyl – jazz, soul, funk, disco, reggae, house, garage etc. So I was always going to start a vinyl label. The number one rule for any label, should always be, “would you buy this yourself?”
Sadly, for those wishing to purchase, physical copies on LP and CD of Still Happy are sold out although it is still available digitally. Do you intend to keep physical copies as an initial limited edition run and is it a viable option to look at reprinting more?
I think reissuing the titles is unlikely, as it will mean tying up money that could go towards future releases. But never say never.
You have been in the music industry for a long time and seen it from different perspectives from the retail side with your father’s shop, the legendary Mole Jazz, from a distribution and marketing side with Proper music and from the point of running your own label. How do you feel that the music industry has changed over the years, and how we listen to music?
The biggest changes were illegal filesharing – downloads – streaming. The way people consume music has changed massively. When I started working in distribution in 2005 people would read a review in the paper and they would have to buy the CD or LP, if they wanted to hear it. Now you can bring it up on your phone in 10 seconds and play the full album whilst you sit there reading it. The accessibility is both wonderful (for discovering music) and overwhelming (too much choice can mean so much music being missed).
You have also released albums from two British composers and bandleader’s Graham Collier and Mike Westbrook. Again, physical copies of Mike’s albums are sold out (but available digitally). Can you tell us about these albums and how you were able to source and licence the music for release?
I look after Mike’s label Westbrook Records at Proper Music Distribution. Mike sent me the audio for the original recording of his classic LP Citadel/Room 315, which was made in Sweden during the album’s premiere. He was commissioned to compose a jazz suite by Sveriges Radio (the Swedish BBC) and what resulted was some of the finest British jazz writing you’ll ever hear, with John Surman as the lead soloist. As much as I love the RCA LP, which was recorded back in London some months later. The rawness of the live recording can’t be beaten in my opinion. I licensed it from Sveriges and then discovered there was an unreleased recording by bassist/composer Graham Collier of another commission from Sveriges Radio. It’s a stunning five-part suite inspired by the British weather called British Conversations that featured his bandmates Harry Beckett and guitarist Ed Speight. Both albums were recorded with the Swedish Radio Jazz Group led by saxophonist Arne Domnérus and Argentinian trumpeter Americo Bellotto. The group comprised the finest players on the Swedish scene of the 70s.
There must be so much more music from this period in British jazz waiting to be reissued. Do you have plans for some more full length albums in the near future, and can you give a hint as to what we might expect from My Only Desire?
Yes, there’s still a vast amount of unreleased music out there, and there’s a lot more labels exploring it since I started the label in 2015, so it’s great seeing what is turning up. I have a few in mind to issue myself, which I’m currently working on, but they won’t necessarily all be British jazz.
While some are still coming around to the idea of releasing music on 12” LPs you have already successfully released, and sold out, of some of the most vital jazz in Britain. You are now taking this one stage further with the re-introduction of the 7” single played at 45rpm. Interestingly you are not using the medium for re-issues in the traditional sense but releasing classic tracks by British composers and recorded by contemporary jazz acts in new versions. Under the banner of Brit Jazz 45s, this promises to be a fascinating concept with the first single by saxophonist Kevin Figes being released last summer, and the second single has just been released. Featuring the legendary group Soft Machine playing Harry Beckett’s ‘The Dew at Dawn’ on Side A and a cover of the groups own ‘(Slightly) Slightly All The Time’ composed by Mike Ratledge. How did you come up with this concept, and how can we expect the series to develop?
It’s an idea I had a while ago, I wanted to record some contemporary takes of this rich period of British jazz history. But it wasn’t until I heard a clip of saxophonist Kevin Figes on Instagram, performing Elton Dean’s “Seven for Lee” that I thought this would be the perfect release to kick off the series and went for it. There was so much energy and passion in their performance, and Kevin was an ex-student of Elton’s so there was this lineage but also an updating of the sound that I thought worked well. Kevin’s band You Are Here are Bristol-based and was formed to play the music of Keith Tippett, who is such a towering figure in British jazz (and a West country legend) that it was a natural choice for the B side (Tippett’s “Green and Orange Night Park”). Producing 7” singles, keeps the costs down (compared to rehearing, recording and producing an entire album) and can be fitted in between artists own albums, so they have been easier to produce. I work with a lot of jazz musicians through Proper, so it’s just a natural place to start the series with artists I know and am a fan of.
“The Dew at Dawn” is one of my favourite Harry Beckett compositions and I immediately thought of John Etheridge in the Ray Russell role. I was delighted when he and Theo Travis agreed to take part. Soft Machine bassist Fred Thelonious Baker was an ex-band mate of Harry’s and was a real driving force in making the recording happen. He captures the 70s electric bass sound perfectly and his love for Harry really shines through. The arrangement of the track by John and Theo is very fresh and works well on a 7”. The guys wanted to record a Soft Machine track on the B side and chose an arrangement of a classic track from Third that they had played live but not recorded. I love Theo’s flute playing on “‘(Slightly) Slightly All The Time”, which ramps up the 70s Brit jazz vibes.
Finally, there have been a lot of change in the way we buy and listen to music in recent years. Streaming services have taken a lot of revenue away from physical media and there was a huge dip in demand and sales. The resurgence in vinyl appears to have seen an upturn in the demand for a product as opposed to a service, and incredibly CD sales are on the up too. How do you see the future as the owner of a record label and also from a retail point of view working on the distribution side of the business?
There’s definitely been a drop in physical sales in recent years due to a number of factors – the cost-of-living crisis, rising costs pushing retail prices up, saturation of the market and the growth of streaming. But there’s a still a passionate number of music fans who are prepared support independent artists and labels, both by buying and helping to promote jazz releases in this country. Websites like Jazz Views have filled the space left by national newspapers reducing or scrapping their jazz coverage, for example. There’s been a backlash to streaming and people realising that convenience comes at a price. People are moving back to wanting to own a “piece” of their favourite artists, through buying the CD or LP, and enjoying the full package – sleeve notes, photos, artwork, as well as the music. Streaming can offer labels and artists a financial boost and some much-needed exposure, so it’s not all bad. You need to get every detail right in order for a release to be a success, and work hard for every sale these days!