Motéma Music Turns 15: Jazz, Soul, World Music & More

Alexander, Motéma Music
Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Global Citizen

Jazz pianist Alexander performed at a Global Citizen concert at New York’s Riverside Church last September. 

On West 127th Street, inside the Harlem brownstone where she runs Motéma Music, label founder Jana Herzen, 58, sits in a high-ceilinged office with a stack of CDs in front of her. In recent years, an array of jazz, soul and world music artists have knocked on Herzen’s door and auditioned for her.

They’ve come for good reason. Motéma, which is marking its 15th anniversary, “supports artists who have an uplifting spirit, a great work ethic and who are creating something new,” says Herzen.

“I like to build and design things,” she adds. “I even worked as a carpenter for that reason. I want to create music that has a positive impact on the world. Almost every artist in the Motéma world has taken a step up the ladder. That’s what I’m hoping for in the future.”

Motéma has launched the careers of jazz-soul singer Gregory Porter, child-prodigy pianist Joey Alexander and Latin-funk bandleader Pedrito Martinez, among many others. It also has given refuge to veteran artists from major-label upheavals, including National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master pianist Randy Weston, pianist Monty Alexander, vocalist René Marie and the late pianist Geri Allen. In 2014, the label also released Why?, the first album in 13 years from former Cream drummer Ginger Baker.

Motéma’s artists have been nominated 20 times for Grammy Awards and have captured four wins (two in 2016 for the Ted Nash Big Band’s Presidential Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom and two for the Arturo O’Farrill Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, in 2014 for The Offense of the Drum and in 2015 for Cuba: The Conversation Continues).

Joseph Boggess
Motéma Music founder Herzen released the 14-year-old artist’s first album when he was 11. “It has been fun watching Joey grow,” she says.

The label’s name means “heart” in both the Congolese language of Lingala and in German, reflecting the geographic and cultural scope of Motéma’s releases.

Herzen, who is single with no children (except for her artists, she quips), was born in Washington, D.C., but spent her youth in the San Francisco Bay Area, where her parents worked at Stanford University in immunology, genetics and cell-sorting technology. She attended New York University as a drama major and was active for 15 years in the off-Broadway theater scene after graduating.

She started Motéma as a DIY project in 2003 in San Francisco to release her own African-infused singer-songwriter album, Soup’s On Fire. In 2005, she moved back to New York and eventually settled in Harlem, down the block from the former residence of the great poet and social activist Langston Hughes.

“The first five years was figuring it out,” says Herzen of Motéma’s start. “The next five, Motéma 2.0, was starting to make an impact. The last five years, Motéma 3.0, has been about making us an efficient machine for launching albums.”

On a recent winter day, Herzen reflected on her accomplishments so far and what she’d likely call Motéma 4.0 -- the path ahead.

How did you transition from theater to being a singer-songwriter?

I left the theater to pursue my muse as a musician. I traveled around the world and eventually recorded an album [Soup’s On Fire] produced by a French African [Shaka Ra Mutela]. That was in 1999. When I was promoting it, I got the idea of starting my own label. I got a couple of bites to sign, but I decided to do the DIY thing that led me to make it grow by promoting other people.

You went from artist to entrepreneur?

I had this huge learning curve, and [former Narada label executive] David Neidhardt helped me figure out how to run a label. We got noticed at the center of the jazz scene at the time. People like Todd Barkan at Jazz at Lincoln Center helped me to meet the right people musically, like [pianist] Randy Weston. I came from way outside of the jazz world, so I knew I could bring a new flavor in my approach to it.

How did you finance the label in the beginning?

I came into a little bit of money. My parents were arts supporters. Through their scientific work, significant patent money emerged. They told me at one point, “If there’s anything you want to do, talk to us, and maybe we can support you.”

How did you define Motéma’s focus?

I never intended to make Motéma a jazz label -- just a place where high-quality music could span genres. But we started establishing a relationship with the jazz community, and we found ourselves loving it. I liked what people were bringing: their intelligence, musicianship, artistry. We were getting radio play and good feedback from the press. At the beginning, we were like an artist management program while also releasing albums.

When did you know Motéma was going to make it as a significant label?

It has to be signing Marc Cary, who had been [iconic jazz vocalist] Abbey Lincoln’s pianist for several years. That came in 2006, when I was teetering on the brink to give up. I went to the Healdsburg [Calif.] Jazz Festival, where Marc was playing. I remember thinking, “He’s going to have to blow my mind away for me to sign him.” Well, he did, and we ended up recording his album Focus, which is still one of my favorite releases.

What did the signing of Gregory Porter in 2009 do for Motéma?

He really put us on the map. My publicist, Cary Goldberg, had a friend, Paul Ewing, who was Gregory’s manager. He brought him to this office. Hearing him sing, I knew he was a man with a soul that was super deep. We recorded Water in 2010, which earned our first Grammy nomination in 2011. Then his next album, Be Good, was also nominated for a Grammy. He has actually won two Grammy Awards, but that came after he went to Blue Note. And with the Grammy nominations, artists started to come to us.

Isa Foltin/Getty Images for GQ
Jazz-soul singer Porter “put us on the map,” says Herzen, and earned Motéma its first Grammy nominations.

What about piano prodigy Joey Alexander from Indonesia?

We met him when he was 10. He was 11 when his first album came out in 2011 and 12 for his second -- both Grammy-nominated -- and last year with his third, Joey.Monk.Live!, he was 14. His debut was the first jazz album to be written about on the front page of The New York Times. Joey will be putting out his fourth album on May 2 with six new compositions. It has been fun watching Joey grow.

What’s distinctive about Motéma?

Two things that are not very evident about Motéma is that most of what we release is groove-based with a jazz underpinning and that we focus on people who are writing new music. We are mostly jazz, but we’re evolutionary-minded, such as the Gil Scott-Heron tribute album by a bunch of hip-hop artists. [Offering: The Music of Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson, released in 2015, featured Charenée Wade, Marcus Miller, Christian McBride, Malcolm Jamal-Warner, Lakecia Benjamin and others.]

How did you sign Ginger Baker?

Ina Dittke, who was the agent for the band The Cookers that we recorded, was managing Ginger. Ina dealt mostly with the recording. But I did go to a show after it came out and Ginger chewed me out, which I felt was like a rite of passage. He made a fairly random complaint to me, something about what we had done with the marketing. Ginger is famous for chewing people out. So I got a pack of cigarettes for him, and then he liked me after that.

What’s coming from Motéma in this anniversary year?

We may have a celebration and special showcases but nothing’s set yet. And we’ve got the new releases, including Donny McCaslin’s new alt-rock album, David Murray’s third album for us, a new Joey Alexander studio recording and Stefon Harris’ first album in seven years that connects his role as jazz director at the Manhattan School of Music with the Harlem neighborhood. Plus we’re introducing indie soul singer Deva Mahal, Taj Mahal’s daughter, who truly has a voice of her generation. The album’s not jazz, but it has every other aspect that I would consider Motéma -- an electrifying performance, an amazing writer, a really good heart and a deep soul.

The big signing for us this year is the Playing for Change project that involves more than 210 people, with 20 name stars shot on video from all around the world playing songs like “Listen to the Music,” “All Along the Watchtower,” “Skin Deep.” We’ll release a multitracked video each month, which will be a tribute to our strategic digital marketing. This is the 10th anniversary of Playing for Change as a nonprofit [promoting music education worldwide]. It’s not a jazz album, but it’s the ultimate project of inclusiveness of all cultures.

Bobby Bank/Getty Images
Motéma is releasing the debut album Run Deep from singer Mahal, the daughter of Taj Mahal.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of Billboard.