Canadian Labels is a new series on NMC Amplify created by music journalist Karen Bliss. Check back monthly for new profiles on some of Canada’s most influential indie labels.
In 2023, Montreal jazz, blues, and gospel label Justin Time Records will celebrate 40 years, an incredible achievement in the music business, let alone in Canada and for musical styles that, with the exception of some crossover artists, don’t get embraced at radio and by the buying public the way pop music does.
Started by Jim West, the company’s catalogue of some 700 releases includes marquee names such as Oscar Peterson, Dizzie Gillespie, John Lee Hooker, Chet Baker, David Clayton-Thomas, Chris de Burgh, and Diana Krall—whom he is credited with “discovering.” His first three signings—Oliver Jones, Ranee Lee, and the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir—are still with the label today.
Along the way, the label expanded into other genres, from the global sounds of Mazacote to the rock guitar of Frank Marino, but primarily remains true to its original vision. In 2004, West was inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame, part of Canadian Music Week’s annual industry awards.
More recently, the Montreal International Jazz Festival presented West with the 2016 Bruce Lundvall Award, named after the late American Blue Note executive and presented to a person from the media or music industry who has made a significant contribution to the development of jazz. In 2018, he received the Builder Award from the Canadian Independent Music Association’s CIMA Awards.
In a March 2022 interview, journalist Karen Bliss spoke with West about Justin Time Records, from its early days to its 40th year.
What made you start a jazz label almost 40 years ago?
Seeing Oliver Jones play live at Biddle’s in Montreal. [Justin Time’s first release was Oliver Jones’ Live At Biddles Jazz & Ribs].
What was the music industry like for jazz in the ’80s?
There was only one other jazz label in the country, that I knew of, and that was Sackville Records in Toronto. The recognition for Montreal jazz was incredible worldwide actually. That was partially because of this new festival that started in 1980, the Montreal Jazz Fest and, also, because of the history of all the clubs and the entertainers that came here over the years.
Did you have any experience at a label?
Experience running a label? None, absolutely zero, but I had been in the studio in the early ’70s doing a number of recordings with different groups [notably Mahogany Rush] so I knew what a record companies did and how they participated with the artist.
What was the first year like? Did you get an office or work from home?
It was an offshoot because I had started a distribution company [Fusion III] at one point and about six months later I said, ‘This record thing would be great.’ The first recording [Live at Biddle’s Jazz & Ribs] worked out extremely well. And did I have an office at the beginning? I worked out of my basement of my house.
Your first three signings are still with you—Oliver Jones, Ranee Lee, and the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir.
Oliver Jones was the key at that point, and then he recommended Ranee Lee. And then both Ranee and Oliver said, ‘Oh, you haven’t heard the Choir yet. You’ve gotta come see them.’ I spoke to Oliver Jones yesterday; I spoke to Trevor Payne, who founded and directed the Choir today, and I also spoke to Ranee Lee today. It’s the strangest thing in the world, almost 40 years later. Oliver has retired and he’s not out playing anymore. Trevor Payne just recently disbanded the Choir and can no longer do it after over 40 years with the Choir. Everyone’s getting a little older.
What were the big hurdles in the Canadian music industry for building a successful jazz and blues label?
There weren’t too many hurdles. In the ’80s, we were fortunate enough to have a wonderful grant system in Canada, and still do, that allowed us to take opportunities that may have been more difficult to make a decision on had we not had that. But otherwise, we had radio, from CBC Radio to FM 91 in Toronto and so on; the media was great. We had articles published every week in all the major papers across Canada. That part of it was great.
Was there something big that happened that made you realize Justin Time was going to be your career?
The big one was obviously recording Diana Krall [her 1993 debut studio album, Stepping Out]. That certainly changed a lot of things for us. And then getting into some of the foreign acts was a good thing for various distribution people in other countries, and so on. When you have an act or two that sell large quantities of recordings, it’s often easier to secure large placements for another act that is not quite as well known.
How have you weathered the changes from cassette and vinyl to CDs to digital, and now the addition again of vinyl?
We’re still weathering it [laughs]. Oddly enough, in jazz, it’s always been a more physical medium—not more physical than years ago, but certainly in recent years—jazz sales are still fairly important in the CD world. I don’t know what it’s like now after a couple years of a pandemic and not everybody having been on the road for the last few years, but that was an important ingredient. Still, [sales in] the digital world, we’re increasing slowly, but in the jazz world, it hasn’t taken off quite like other genres. Physical goods are still fairly important, particularly vinyl.
You had the publishing company from day one. When did you start expanding, adding a management arm and other labels? [Justin Time expanded to include Justin A Minute, a rock label, and Justin A Memory, a label for reissues and previously unreleased titles].
They were all basic imprints of Justin Time, except for the management company. We started Wild West Artist Management 13 years ago. That was because I spent a lot of my day doing things a manager would do for the various artists and I just said, ‘We should set this up properly and formally.’ We’ve done over 650-700 records, something like that over the years. I couldn’t function unless I had solid partners with me today. I have Nettwerk Productions/Nettwerk Label Group.
When did you bring Nettwerk onboard?
Seven years ago. I had to because bottom line is, today, in order to get correct information and data out of your computer systems. I couldn’t. I couldn’t do a royalty statement properly if I didn’t have their backup. It’s basically systems that plug in and spit out the data, which we all need. I can’t do a royalty statement for an artist with 10,000 pages of one stream here, one stream there. I couldn’t pick that up on a manual basis. So I needed somebody who had the infrastructure and leave us to the A&R work and so on and have all the backend done. And they’ve been incredible. They have a huge team. I never realized how big these folks were, worldwide, it’s an incredible operation.
How do you get younger people interested in jazz when they’re bombarded with “the hip cool music” like EDM and hip hop and pop?
Well, the schools have done it and they’ve done it so well. If you look in the States, the summer camps for jazz, there’s pages and pages in any of the jazz magazines, like Downbeat and Jazz Times. Every summer, there’s thousands upon thousands of jazz camps for kids. Who would’ve thunk it [laughs]. It’s amazing. And schools have turned out phenomenal quality musicians. Look at Humber College in Toronto, as an example, the [jazz] program’s been great. Multiply that all over the U.S. and Europe. Look at the jazz societies everywhere. We have jazzahead!, this huge conference in Bremen, Germany, every year and there are thousands of people that attend that on a business level. And chill jazz is very cool and youth oriented.
If someone came to you for advice on starting a jazz label, are you still optimistic about its future as an industry?
I’m certainly optimistic, as I can see other labels that do very well in different genres of music. But I don’t know many people starting jazz labels. It’s not an easy thing to do. You have to really understand the business from all perspectives, and find your niche and go for it. It’s strange, the internet has done many positive things and many negative things. It’s how you look at it.
Any big plans for the 40th anniversary next year?
I have to start thinking about that.
RECORD LABEL FACTS
Label: Justin Time Records Inc.
Headquarters: Montreal, Quebec
Year founded: 1983
Founder: Jim West
Current owners/partners: Jim West and Nettwerk Music Group
Notable artists: Oliver Jones, Ranee Lee, Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir, David Murray, Billy Bang, World Saxophone Quartet, Paul Bley, Bryan Lee, Oscar Peterson, Diana Krall, and Chris de Burgh.
Associated companies: Wild West Artist Management, Janijam Music Reg’d, Justin Time Publishing, Just a Minute Records, and Just a Memory Records.