Dave Love has every reason to celebrate. It's a big year for the founder of Heads Up Records, one of the country's biggest jazz labels. The Cleveland-based company is marking its 15th anniversary with a Grammy nod and sales that have climbed into the millions. Yet Love greets slaps on the back with the polite nonchalance of someone who's just been complimented on his shoelaces.
"To be quite candid with you -- and you can put this in print, I don't care -- we're using this 15th anniversary thing as a way to talk about our artists, not talk about us," says Love, a dapper man in his 40s sporting the natty attire of a casino boss. "Who cares about us? Yeah, it's great for your readers to know that we're based here in Cleveland, that we like being in Cleveland, that we're the largest record company between New York and L.A. . . . That's all beautiful, but that's not going to help me sell records."
Maybe not, but Heads Up's rise from a small, Seattle-based indie with a staff of four to one of the most successful labels ever rooted in these parts makes for a good story.
Launched in 1990 with an album that Love, a trumpeter since the fifth grade, recorded with soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman, the label has gone on to garner a pair of Grammy nominations, consistently top Billboard's Contemporary Jazz, Traditional Jazz, and World Music charts, and develop an artist-friendly rep.
"This is the best label relationship the group has ever had," says Mitch Goldstein, U.S. manager for the long-running South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
More important, Heads Up has helped establish the smooth-jazz format as the increasingly popular genre it is today. The label continues to grow into one of the most important players on the scene.
"I see Heads Up becoming the superpower of smooth jazz," says James Lloyd, keyboard player and co-founder of the R&B inflected jazz troupe Pieces of a Dream.
But Heads Up is more than just a jazz label, Love says over a salad at a homey Italian diner in Beachwood. "We're really an adult label that takes elements from everything, whether it's Latin, African, jazz, or whatever.
"Look at how diversified the roster is," he continues, pointing to a lineup that includes fusion pioneers the Yellowjackets, Hiroshima (a world-beat favorite), and South African jazz legend Hugh Masekela. "I have the kind of personality where I gotta be changing all the time or it's not fun."
Love's résumé attests to that. While attending North Texas State University in the early '80s on a music scholarship, the New York City-born trumpeter started booking acts in local clubs, landing everyone from Jaco Pastorius to Whitesnake. He managed artists, then opened his own studio, where the likes of Pantera subsequently recorded. Upon launching Heads Up, he made his name breaking acts outside the realm of traditional jazz, such as Venezuelan harp player Carlos Guedes.
"I found things that were unique, whether it was a female, African American saxophone player that the world had never seen before or a very beautiful jazz guitarist that could sing," Love says. "People used to joke, 'Well, if you're not blind or have legs, you can't be on Heads Up,' because I really looked for things out of the norm."
In 2000, he merged his label with Cleveland's Telarc and relocated to Beachwood, where the two share a large office suite complete with its own recording facilities and a glass case stuffed with gleaming Grammy Awards. (Heads Up is contending for another Grammy this year with Ladysmith Black Mambazo's Raise Your Spirit Higher.)
Along the way, Love had been able to broaden the field for jazz. One of the greatest weaknesses of the genre is that it has struggled to endear itself to new generations, and it has seen its audience gradually wither. Though Heads Up may piss off purists with its eclectic roster, by signing acts with rock, R&B, and Latin undertones, it has introduced new ears to the scene, which could ultimately help sustain it.
"I like diversification. It's how I listen to music. And I run my company the same way I run my life," Love concludes with a chuckle. "If I had to deal with just smooth jazz every day of every year, I may as well shoot myself."
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