The American record industry is teeming with small, independent labels devoted to everything from African drum music to avant-garde rock ‘n’ roll. Yet all but a handful steer clear of free jazz. Unrestricted by key and relying more on group improvisation than other forms of jazz, it can sound noisy and abstract. Fans find it artistically exhilarating, while record companies consider it commercially ruinous. But Bruno Johnson’s local label, Okka Disk, is hoping to beat the odds by surviving almost exclusively on a diet of free jazz.

The 33-year-old Johnson first came to Chicago eight years ago after managing a record store in Madison. He put in time as a buyer for Rose Records and then spent several years working for various record distributors. He’d long contemplated starting a jazz label, but it wasn’t until meeting local tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson that he decided to cash in his life savings and go for it. Anderson, a leading figure among Chicago free players since the early 60s, had been virtually ignored by record companies. Johnson says, “My initial focus with the label was to get Fred Anderson documented. He’s a great, great musician with an extensive career behind him, and there’s hardly any record of it. I wanted to remedy that situation before it was too late.”

Okka Disk’s debut release this year was Vintage Duets, which Anderson recorded in 1980 with the late drummer Steve McCall for a European label that went bankrupt before it could be put out. Vintage Duets is a fascinating record, capturing two of Chicago’s finest musicians in vigorous form. Okka Disk plans to release more Anderson recordings in 1995, as well as work by such world-renowned musicians as pianist Marilyn Crispell, reed player Peter Brotzmann, and the pyrotechnic Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson.

Some of the company’s business practices are as unorthodox as its catalog. “I want this to be a truly artist-friendly label,” Johnson says. “So far, all my deals have consisted of a handshake and a verbal commitment rather than a legal contract. I don’t want artists to feel trapped. If they don’t like the way a project is going, they can back out at any stage of the process. Nobody should have to put out a piece of work that they’re not fully satisfied with.” Johnson’s policy of allowing artists to retain ownership of their recordings is even more unusual than his handshake contracts.

Johnson also pays close attention to packaging. Booklets accompanying his records feature eye-catching graphics, photos, and extensive liner notes. He says the attention to detail enhances the image of his products as works of art.

Good intentions often pave the road to bankruptcy court, but Johnson’s optimistic that he can make the label a success. He views his work experience as a major asset, having watched numerous labels come and go. He says, “I can avoid stepping in the same cow pies they did.” Though the market for free jazz may be small, its avid fans are currently served almost exclusively by expensive foreign labels. “There’s a niche for a label like this, and it’s being neglected,” Johnson says. “I’ve already recorded some of the same musicians the import labels sell here, and my records cost a lot less.” Okka Disk’s last release carried a retail price of $14.99, while a comparable CD from a foreign company might cost around $20. Johnson boasts, “If I can keep this project going, I can have the American marketplace mostly to myself.”

He’s taking a considered approach, keeping the size of his operation modest by releasing no more than nine or ten records a year with initial print runs of just 2,000. He says the sales were “fair” for his first two releases–the second was Caffeine by local musicians Jim Baker, Steve Hunt, and Ken Vandermark–but points out that he hasn’t yet advertised or established distribution links to Europe and Japan, where free jazz has devoted audiences. Initially focused on meeting his start-up costs, Johnson now wants to buy ads and he’s working on deals with overseas distributors.

Among the Okka Disk titles slated for release in 1995 are a duet with Peter Brotzmann and local percussionist Hamid Drake; a trio session with Marilyn Crispell, Fred Anderson, and Drake; a recording by Steel Wool (reed player Vandermark, bassist Kent Kessler, and Boston drummer Curt Newton); two Mats Gustafsson CDs (one with Vandermark, Kessler, and drummer Steve Hunt, the other consisting of duets with drummer Michael Zerang and trios with guitarist Jim O’Rourke and clarinetist Gene Coleman); a record by Dutch reed player Peter van Bergen; and a Fred Anderson trio project with players to be named later. Regarding future projects, Johnson says, “I have more interesting offers and opportunities than I can take advantage of. It seems like there are tremendous new projects at every turn of the road. But the main thing is to keep the label alive, so I really have to restrain myself.”

One day Johnson hopes to pursue his dream projects of recording the brilliant, eccentric pianist Cecil Taylor and releasing unissued works by John Coltrane and Albert Ayler. In the meantime, Okka Disk’s survival may be precarious and its material rewards sparse. But as Fred Anderson says, “The thing I like about Bruno Johnson is that he’s willing to try things that a lot of people are afraid to try. You know, if you really believe in something, then go do it. Bruno’s trying to make that happen.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.