In the fall of 1988, pianist Benny Green called me at my apartment in Rego Park, Queens to tell me that a Dutch record label guy was interested in hearing me play and possibly sign me to record for his label. That man, of course, was Gerry Teekens. The founder and president of Criss Cross Records.
A year later, after a lot of back and forth and international phone calls, I recorded my first and only recording as a leader on the tenor saxophone with Gerry’s label. The recording was appropriately titled Sam I Am, and featured a fantastic cast of musicians: Mulgrew Miller, Steve Nelson, James Genus, and Billy Drummond. What’s funny, is that I have not worked with some of them since. I was one a many younger musicians being signed to the label at the time: Javon Jackson, Don Braden, John Swana, Mike LeDonne, just to name a few.
Those who worked with Gerry back in the late eighties and early nineties knew that he liked two things: the recording to be swinging (preferably standards), and the practitioners of that swing to be name players, especially if the leader was an unknown like myself. At the time, I’m not sure I truly appreciated the opportunity to record on his label. I was 24 years old and full of myself—like many of my peers at the time. Also, during this time, major labels were signing a lot of young musicians, so of course, this was the ultimate fish I wanted to reel out of the sea. Eventually, it did happen, but almost a decade later. At the time I recorded Sam I Am, the leaders on his dates got $1,000.00 and the sidemen received $500.00. In hindsight, it wasn't a bad deal--especially compared to today's standards.
I’d always had aesthetical clashes with Gerry, but I did respect his commitment to what he liked and his willingness to record players solely because he liked the way they played--even if they were not cats getting a lot of hype or proven big sellers. He was also willing to take a chance on unknowns: black and white, young and old, male and female. If he liked the way you played, he’d record you. There’s certainly something admirable about this.
Gerry was different from many of the European label guys who either favored other European players or music that was more experimental. His taste back then was jazz more closely tied to black culture (hard bop, specifically), but he’d record anyone willing to create within these aesthetical, musical, and cultural realms. Over the years, he did begin to release things that fell outside of the "straight-ahead" label. So he was open to change but in small increments.
I used to jokingly call him Uncle Gerry, poking fun of how he used to stroll into town during the Christmas holiday with a sack full of record contracts in tow. I say this jokingly, but it wasn’t too far from the truth. In many instances, he’d come to New York, stay at the Seafarer & International House, a two-star hotel located in Union Square, book a studio for two weeks and commence to make a record per day, along with his partner in crime, recording engineer and drummer Max Bolleman.
Back then, all of his recordings were live to two-track. No overdubs, no mixing, no tweaking. It was what it was. So you'd best come prepared! One tends to have a love-hate relationship with this recording process. It's nerve-cringing having to live with all of one’s mistakes, but comforting to know that you're going to walk out of the studio with a finished product.
So Rest In Peace, Uncle Gerry, and thanks for giving so many musicians their first opportunity to record, myself included. You may have left us, but your catalog of meaningful work will live on.