Earlier in May, legendary jazz label Verve got a whale of a 60th birthday present from its parent, Universal Music Group: It was expanded into the Verve Label Group, which also comprises jazz imprint Impulse and all of UMG's U.S. classical holdings, including Deutsche Grammophon, Decca, Mercury Classics and distributed label ECM. The company will return to New York and be helmed by newly minted president/CEO Danny Bennett, who has learned a thing or two about nurturing legacies during the 37 years he has managed his father, Tony Bennett, and the RPM Records imprint through Columbia.
"Tony recently did a 36-date world tour with Lady Gaga," says Bennett, 62, who refers to his dad by his first name, "and I went out into the audience, and young kids were singing every line of those old standards. These labels are crown jewels in jazz and classical, and our mission is to sign core artists and new and emerging talent, and be the home for crossover acts like Andrea Bocelli and Diana Krall."
Bennett will report to UMG executive vp Michele Anthony, someone he has known since childhood -- her father, Dee, who later managed Peter Frampton, was Tony Bennett's road manager for many years -- and who was president/COO of Sony Music, to which the elder Bennett (whom Danny will continue to manage) is still signed. “We grew up together on the road, we hung out at the Fillmore East in the ‘60s, and later we spent a lot of time at Sony,” he says. “She’s like my sister.”
David Foster, Verve's CEO since 2012, will return to producing full time. Foster's stint at the label had success with one-off Christmas albums from Rod Stewart (999,000 units sold, according to Nielsen Music) and Mary J. Blige (362,000 units) as well as releases from Bocelli and Krall -- and an illustrious catalog that includes John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday -- but has not produced a breakthrough artist. It was third in jazz market share for 2015 with 10.6 percent.
The new label group's classical holdings comprised nearly 25 percent of the genre's 2015 market share. Tasked with overseeing that operation is Graham Parker, 46, who leaves his GM gig at New York classical station WQXR for the title of president of U.S. classical labels. In his seven-year stint as GM, he led WQXR into the public-radio realm after its sale, helping to raise millions of dollars, growing its membership to 41,000, fostering relationships within the classical community and bringing it into the digital realm. He will report to Bennett and Dickon Stainer, president/CEO of Global Classics for UMG.
While Verve is his first label job, he says, "I'm a classic case of people taking chances on me throughout my career," noting that WQXR was his first radio job. "At QXR I've spent a lot of time learning about the digital world," says Parker. "Classical has for so long shot itself in the foot by continually segregating itself into these pristine environments where everything has to be a certain way. This is not a universally elderly audience -- lots of young people listen to classical music. We need to contemporize and uncompartmentalize it."
It's a vision shared by Bennett, who proudly notes that The Velvet Underground was on Verve. "I don't make a distinction between them and [legendary jazz saxophonist] Ben Webster. Verve artists can represent an attitude more than a musical genre," he says. As for purists who might oppose such notions, Bennett counters, "I'm going to quote FDR: 'Bring it on!'"
A version of this article first appeared in the June 4 issue of Billboard.