Exclusive Interview with Motéma Music Founder Jana Herzen

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Well before she founded Motéma Music, the acclaimed jazz and world music label based in Harlem, Jana Herzen was a Palo Alto resident. The daughter of two well-known Stanford University scientists, she delighted in exploring the beautiful terrain that’s now made way for lots and lots of tech.

“I hate to have to age myself this way, but I was there before Silicon Valley was Silicon Valley,” recalls the Gunn High graduate. “I remember getting on my bicycle and riding down to all the cherry and apricot orchards with my little dog tucked into my sack.”

Though she’s now mostly based in New York City, she says she’s still bi-coastal. Herzen admits that she misses the weather – the rolling fog in particular – and even recalls attending Summer Fest when it was still the San Jose Jazz Festival, saying “[there were] a lot of people out on the street and a lot of different venues. It was a good vibe.”

This time out, she will be adding plenty to Summer Fest’s vibrancy. As a 25th anniversary treat, Motéma Music is hosting a special showcase all day Sunday, August 10 at Cafe Stritch. We spoke with Herzen while she was in the south of France to see Summer Fest artist Monty Alexander open for Stevie Wonder, and she provided plenty of insight on what she enjoys most about being the head of a label. She also alluded to what attendees can expect should they choose to check out the Motéma roster.


For those who aren’t familiar with Motéma and your catalog, there are plenty of acts attendees can take in as part of our Summer Fest bill this year. Your label will be hosting a showcase Sunday, August 10 featuring you and Charnett Moffett, Pedrito Martinez Group and Marc Cary Focus Trio. Additionally, Monty Alexander will be on the Kaiser Permanente Main Stage. What can those listeners expect to hear if they happen upon the showcase or if they see Monty on the Main Stage?

They’re definitely in for a treat if they see Monty on the Main Stage. I think he’s one of the most entertaining and uplifting acts on the entire international jazz circuit, and I’ve seen a lot of the acts.

A lot of our vibe comes from us working with people from different countries or cultures who bringing that culture to jazz. That’s why it has a distinct flavor to it. In the case of Monty, he’s coming from Jamaica, bringing his reggae and mixing it with jazz. Marc Cary is really fascinated by indigenous rhythms and has always included a variety of world rhythms in his jazz. At the same time, he has a very driving, almost hip-hop sensibility to what he brings. He’s a real culture shifter.

Pedrito’s group has been one of the real highlights we’ve signed. I call them a “Cuban Fab Four.” There’s nobody like them on the planet mixing things up the way they’re playing Latin music. NPR said they were “writing a new chaper for Latin music” – It’s really true. They sat in a club called Quantanamera in New York City for five years. By the time I came around, they already had famous fans dropping by: Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, Derek Trucks.

A hallmark of Motéma artists is that there’s usually a pretty strong groove influence. I love music with a groove. I like to be able to dance to it. Jazz was dance music at one time, and it used to be very popular music. I think that when it got away from being something that you could really dance to, it slipped into more of an esoteric realm. A lot of our artists are gaining some very wide popularity: Rene Marie, Lakecia Benjamin. We’re reaching into more circles that are either singer-songwriter area or folk areas, which have a broader demographic. We’re really working to bring that in.

Was that the intent of the label at the start, to find cases where international music came into contact with jazz, or is that just where you found your sensibility taking you and next thing you know, that’s sort of a hallmark of the label?

This label started because I made my own record and was trying to get the record out. It was 1999 and nobody was signing artists. In the process of promoting my own work, I eventually decided “Let me start this label.”

Babatunde Lea, who was a Bay Area resident for a long time, started working with me, and it was our collaboration which started the label. I was playing more Afrobeat stuff and he was playing jazz with a heavy Afro element to it. It grew out of there, and that’s what attracted more and more projects. I’m fascinated by world rhythms. I’m also very fascinated by what it is that connects us all. What’s interesting to me is where the lines intersect. Of course, music is always a universal language, but you just have to get out, taste things and feel things to get it. It’s always amazing to me how similar we really are.

My parents are quite well known scientists at Stanford University. We lost my dad last year unfortunately, but they worked together and brought people from every culture to stay at our house when I was little. I really witnessed every culture coming into that guest room.

With your intimate involvement as part of the jazz ecosystem, where do you place the current state of the jazz scene? It seems like there’s a lot of real interesting stuff happening. Does it seem like the market is shifting? Does it seem like the artistry is really turning the corner?

It does seem like there’s an influx of youth interest in jazz. Certainly, the level that people are playing at is just astonishing to me.There will always be speed demons in any field, and there are some people who are able to play at these incredible speeds and really also be connected and bring in some fresh ideas. Jazz is general considered to be two or two-and-a-half percent of the marketplace, but I do feel you’re hearing more jazz licks in the areas of electronic dance music and pop. I just think more people are listening to it than ever before, but it’s hard to gauge these days.

The great thing about Spotify and different streaming opportunities is that, even if you couldn’t afford to buy all those records, you have the ability to listen and learn from all of it. That’s the best thing I can say about something like Spotify: people are trying things out because they can afford to. It’s kind of a problem, though, for us to figure out how to make a living with all of this free streaming going on. That’s’ the topic for all of these trade shows we go to, to try and figure out how we’re gonna keep vibrant.

One thing you cannot do is download a live performance. You can’t feel it the way you can at [Summer Fest]. I came into this as a musician, and truthfully I love recorded music. I listen to it and consume it, but nothing beats live performance.

What are your favorite – and least favorite – things about starting, and running, a label?

Have we got an hour? [Laughs]

My favorite thing is when you give somebody a budget, then they go into the studio and you get to hear [their work] first. It’s hot out of the oven, and you’re just amazed because there was nothing there before. I just love to see the creative process blossom. I also love to see the artists watch their careers grow. I like the nurturing aspects, where you provide space for somebody and they really do great things with their opportunities.

I take everything in stride. Whatever work you’re going to do, there’s always going to be some work you enjoy and some you don’t.There’s a tremendous amount of detail work involved in royalty reporting, all the tracking of the sales, all of the details of the contract . . . There’s a lot of details [involved in] running a record label.

I was very naïve about business when I started the label, so I had quite a few wake-up calls along the way about having employees and working in groups. It’s still a work in progress, but I’m actually very proud of the team we have. I think we get a lot done and have a lot of fun.

It was a big year for us because we got voted in the third position by the DownBeat critics [for Best Jazz Label].

Any chance you’ll be scouting the South Bay scene while you’re in town?

I’ll be at Summer Fest checking out all the artists. We find a lot of people through festivals, because festival bookers are often right on the front line for local talent. They know who’s great in the area and put them on their festival [bill]. That gives me a shot to see things sometimes.

Did you ever think Motéma would reach its current level of success when you started?

I used to call myself the reluctant CEO, because I was really not sure I wanted to be running a company. I wanted to make my music and I wasn’t sure about the responsibility of carrying the label. I kind of dabbled in it at first, but I was very clear that we were going to be an art-first, genre-less label. If it’s really brilliant and we feel that we can actually market it, then I might take it on .We’ve put out on classical record so far. We’ve put out some pretty far-reaching world records, and I’m leaning into some singer-songwriter stuff now.

I didn’t set out to have a record label exactly; I set out to put some music out that I cared about. It was clear to me that it was challenging to make money in jazz, but I had a certain innate faith that if we really paid attention to quality and really put our hearts in it that we would do good things for these artists. That was the main intention. As a result, we wound up with a label that’s actually very well respected.

Jana Herzen appears with Charnett Moffett at 12pm and 3pm Sunday, August 10 on the Cafe Stritch Stage. Motéma Music’s showcase will also feature performances by Marc Cary Focus Trio (1:30pm & 4:15pm) and Pedrito Martinez Group (5:30pm). For more information on Motéma Music or to sign up for their monthly mailing list, please visit motema.com.