HOME-GROWN HITS Jazz musician Ken Navarro has found Ellicott City a great place for rearing a family-- and a record company


L.A. flashback 1989: Guitarist Ken Navarro is happily jamming at a popular Friday afternoon concert series at the University of California. There is a moment during the gig when he looks at the other musicians and this thought twangs in his head:

These people aren't just good, they are very good. This is one untapped pool. WHAT AM I DOING? I should start a recording company. Sign these people up. Heck, I should be recording my own music. . . .

For a year the thought of launching his own recording label and recording his own music stirred in his head. There were moments of doubt.

I have a comfortable life here. Plenty of studio work.

But the dream tugged. So did concern for a saner life for his family.

My kids are going to have to take a bus five miles just to go to school. Is this what we want?

Then came this: We'll move home. Back to Maryland. There's family there. Support. A saner lifestyle. A better house. Kids in the neighborhood for ours to play with. With the right equipment and a phone, I could have a recording studio anywhere.

Anywhere. Even Ellicott City.

These days that's exactly where you'll find Ken Navarro. He's often hunkered down in the basement studio of his home on a quaint cul-de-sac out there where the outward march of Baltimore's suburbia bumps up against the cornfields.

It's there that Mr. Navarro has been at work since bolting the L.A. scene in 1990.

"When you think about it, from a business point of view we should have stayed in L.A. It would have made more sense. But it came down to asking what's going to be best for our children," he recalls.

The Bethesda-born jazz guitarist doesn't long for his L.A. days -- when he jammed routinely with many well-known jazz musicians, such as Dave Koz, "The Arsenio Hall Show's" hot saxophonist, and Doc Severinsen of "Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" fame. After all, he says, Ellicott City is not only saner, it's homier and, well, actually affordable.

"For the past three years I've worked 70-hour weeks and had no vacations," says Mr. Navarro. "I love what I'm doing.

And love for good reason. His five musical releases have enjoyed strong sales and artistic notice. Meanwhile, Positive Music, the recording label he founded, has signed artists who have captured their own measure of artistic and financial success.

There's also find a new public school right out back of the Navarro's Howard County homestead. "In L.A.," says Mr. Navarro, "that would have been a fantasy."

One thing is certain for this 40-year-old. He is not troubled by dreams --ed. His chief worry is how to balance his career as a successful musician while keeping his recording company's enviable track record on course and profitable.

Positive Music, which specializes in progressive and alternative jazz, already claims a bevy of chart toppers. They include "Summerhouse" by keyboardist Gregg Karukas, which reached the No. 1 spot during the first week of September on the Gavin contemporary jazz chart, and No. 3 on a Radio & Records chart. The 10-song compact disc rocketed into the contemporary adult Top 10 just 45 days after hitting the airwaves. Having artists land that high on two of the most-watched national radio play charts in the music industry is a feat few independent labels ever realize.

Meanwhile Mr. Navarro's own upbeat musical releases fly out of record stores across the nation. His May release, "I Can't Complain," jumped into the Top 10 for contemporary jazz in Gavin and Radio & Records. During the last week of July, it nailed the No. 3 spot on both charts.

In the picture at Positive Music for the near future are seven new releases, including the label's first release of Christmas-theme music, and Mr. Navarro's sixth CD, which he plans to title "Pride and Joy."

For the most part, Positive Music issues artists whose music falls into the category called contemporary jazz, a wide-open arena that includes jazz-based music influenced by and fused with pop, folk, rock, R & B and New Age sounds. Mr. Navarro has recorded only two artists specializing in the mainstream, or classical, jazz.

"The one thing I know and know well is contemporary jazz," he says. "Having played this type of music for so long, I've come to the point where if I hear a piece of music and like it, I feel confident others who enjoy contemporary jazz will like it as well."

Mr. Navarro's own music is a mixture of pop, folk and rhythm-and-blues influences set to lively jazz rhythms.

"I like playing music that makes people feel positive," says Mr. Navarro, an affable sort whose workday outfit usually includes a pair of jeans and athletic shoes. "I chose the name Positive Music for the company as a way of letting people know what type of music we offer. There's no deep meaning to the music other than feeling good."

Bob Linden, former program director at Washington radio station WJZE-FM, says, "Even though they are a smaller label, they release consistently appealing music, which you can't say for most record companies," The station was known as JAZZY.100 until it changed formats this past summer. WJZE played Positive Music label artists frequently because the music merited exposure and because listener response to the music was very strong, Mr. Linden says.

In Baltimore, the label's artists can be heard on Morgan State University's WEAA-FM (88.9) and Towson State University's WTMD-FM (89.7). In the Washington area, WLTT-FM (94.7) in Rockville plays contemporary jazz at night and on Sundays, while WJFK-AM/FM (1300/106.7) plays the genre evenings and weekends.

Mr. Navarro's focus on selecting artists who produce upbeat music has paid off. Positive Music has built a string of recordings that have captured the ear of the loyal audiences of jazz radio stations nationwide.

Of Positive Music's 20 releases since its founding in 1990, eight have landed in Gavin's new adult contemporary Top 10. Eleven others have climbed into the closely watched radio industry trade magazine's Top 30.

Few of the 26 independent labels producing adult contemporary music today enjoy such a successful track record, says Keith Zimmerman, the jazz/adult alternative music editor at Gavin, based in San Francisco.

"The music Ken is producing is very music- and lyric-intensive, not promotion-intensive. There's obviously a lot of sweat equity involved for the staff at his label to get airplay. They are competing not only with the other independents, but the majors, like Columbia, who take this genre very seriously."

The key to Positive Music's success, says Mr. Linden, is Mr. Navarro's acumen for selecting highly talented musicians whose creations appeal to a wide jazz audience.

"Anyone can have a record company today with the way recording technology is so accessible. There are literally dozens of companies competing in the same genre," Mr. Linden says. "But selecting really good artists and producing a high-quality product requires a lot of skill."

Mr. Navarro and his wife of 20 years, Kristin Leonhart, launched the record label with $100,000 from their savings and borrowed cash from family. That money enabled him to record and distribute his debut recording, "The River Flows," and sign his first artist. While he signed artists and penned music, Kristin scheduled road tours for his band and handled bookkeeping for the fledgling company.

Today, he frets more about his company's future and its financial position than he does about sources of inspiration for his own music.

"I'm not looking for any partners, but my biggest source of frustration right now is the lack of investment capital.

"We've broken even every year since we started. That's made me very conservative financially about what projects I'll take on. I'm at a point now that I say a project was wasted if the release plays well on the radio and is well-received artistically, but it only breaks even financially."

Positive Music used to have to sell about 4,000 tapes and CDs to break even on a release. As a result of a recording deal that Mr. Navarro devised to improve the company's finances, the number of tapes and CDs that now must be sold to begin turning a profit has dropped to 2,000. He calls it the "P, M & D contract," for promotion, manufacture and distribution.

"It's the most creative thing I've ever done," he says of the concept.

Under the deal, Positive Music requires the artist to take on the responsibility and costs of delivering a finished master recording by a specified date. Positive Music pays to have tapes and CDs manufactured, distributed and promoted nationwide. Both parties share in the royalties.

For a release to be considered a major financial success, 10,000 CDs must sell. So far, the company's had three 10,000-sellers. Four new releases are expected to hit that magic figure this year.

Mr. Navarro hopes his company has gross revenues of $400,000 to $500,000 this year, a milestone that would allow him to focus on broadening his label's recognition among music critics.

"One of my goals is to strengthen the label's visibility by advertising regularly in jazz music publications. Up to now, we really haven't had the money to advertise regularly. Unfortunately, to get the exposure from critics, you have to advertise consistently."

In this area, Mr. Navarro's chutzpah has served well the recording company -- and the artists on the label.

"They hustle, hustle, hustle," says Mr. Karukas, a Baltimore-born, L.A.-based keyboardist and composer who has played with Diane Schurr and Stevie Wonder, and who has been one of Positive Music's best-selling artists.

Among those doing the hustling for the young company is Dave Robinson, one of the company's two full-time employees (Kristin Leonhart is the other). The former Towson State University radio program director serves as the marketing manager for the company. His job entails ringing up 250 radio stations and 400 retail outlets nationwide each week to see if they've received by mail Positive Music's latest releases. He haggles. He pleads. He cajoles station managers and disc jockeys for air time.

"We don't have any real advertising budget, so our only hope of generating sales is to get air play," says Mr. Robinson.

Mr. Navarro says that for him striking business deals has become as exciting as playing before an appreciative live audience.

"I was always the kid who built the miniature golf course in the back yard and charged other kids bottle caps to play on it," he says.

He juggles a hectic schedule from a makeshift office in an upstairs bedroom, the Spartan recording studio, and a new van for shuttling equipment and band members around to gigs.

He spends his day moving between the basement, where he listens in on recording sessions, and the kitchen or office, where he haggles record distribution and recording deals amid a clutter of toys.

During the times he's in the family van shuttling his young children, Eric and Melissa, or running errands, he tries out some of the dozen demo tapes he receives weekly from aspiring musicians.

"I try to listen to all the demos because you really never know what gem will come in. Just last week I listened to a tape and was bowled over. I really think they'll be our next big artist. I've already signed the group to a contract."

Somehow in the crush of managing the business, Mr. Navarro finds time to write and record his own music. A man with a fastidious sense of time management, he usually sequesters himself in his studio alone for six to seven hours a day when laying down demo tracks for a new album. He'll emerge for an hour or two to attend to business matters.

"I don't wait around for inspiration. There's really no time for that. You can't sit around waiting to wake up and say, 'Hey, today I'm gonna write a hit song.' The really good artists, be they musicians or poets, are busy at work for hours. Out of that comes something good that will move other people. Sparks don't happen without a lot of rubbing of wood together."

Mr. Navarro's personal releases regularly leap to the Top 10 of the contemporary jazz charts in music industry journals. Radio & Records rated Mr. Navarro's albums in 1991 and 1992 among the top contemporary jazz releases of the year. And his band has no trouble packing in crowds on tour. They hit the road for about 60 live shows a year, most within a day's drive of home.

Then there's time carved in his schedule for family life with Kristin and the children.

"One of the most important things I have to pay attention to is pacing," he says. "That's why I tend to be conservative with what I'll do in terms of booking my own performances and what the company will sign on for releases. I could go full steam ahead on either one, but then I run the risk of the whole thing crashing in."

Looking back, Mr. Navarro says that building a career as a contemporary jazz musician was an easier dream to achieve than building a music recording company.

He doubts he would have been able to do either as successfully in Los Angeles as he has in Ellicott City.

"For one there would have been a lot of distractions if we'd stayed. I would have been getting calls to play with other musicians and I probably would have always been putting off doing what needed to be done to get the first album recorded and the company going," he says.

"Also, for me, I felt I needed a lot of psychological support to start the company; it was more important than financial support. That psychological support had to come from our families and this is where they are, not L.A."

But it was his time spent in California that provided the seeds to grow his own company.

"Most of the musicians I've signed so far I knew back in L.A. in the days when they were playing at weddings and bar mitzvahs," Mr. Navarro says. "I used to think to myself, 'What a gold mine of talent. If only I could produce these guys' music and make a living from it.'

"I finally got to a point where I said, 'It's time to stop dreaming and do it.' "

3' MARK GUIDERA is a Sun staff writer.


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