Jean-Philippe Allard, jazz producer and musicians' advocate, dies at 67

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Jean-Philippe Allard, jazz producer and musicians' advocate, dies at 67
Tokyo Live is a live jazz album released by The Free Spirits. The album was produced by John McLaughlin; the executive producer was Jean-Philippe Allard.

by Giovanni Russonello

NEW YORK, NY.- Jean-Philippe Allard, a French record executive and producer who helped revive the careers of jazz greats who had been all but forgotten in the United States, and who earned a reputation for uncommonly fierce advocacy on behalf of musicians, died May 17 in Paris. He was 67.

Music producer Brian Bacchus, a close friend and frequent collaborator, said Allard died in a hospital from cancer, which had returned after a long remission.

Artists ranging from Abbey Lincoln to Juliette Gréco to Kenny Barron said they had never worked with a more musician-friendly producer.

“Regarding my work, I would always consider it as co-producing with the artist,” Allard told music journalist Willard Jenkins in an interview in March. “Some producers are musicians or arrangers, like Teo Maceo or Larry Klein; others are engineers; some are professional listeners. I would fall in this last category: listening to the artist before the session, listening to the music during the session and listening to the mixing engineer.”

He tended to develop lifelong relationships with the artists he worked with. “His ear was always open to the artist, and he was always concerned about what was best for the artist,” vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater said in an interview. “He saw me. He embraced me. He wasn’t afraid of me. He encouraged my independence. He encouraged me speaking out.”

When Allard, then a record-industry newbie, was invited to start a jazz division at PolyGram France in 1987, the assignment was simple: Promote and distribute the roster of jazz talent already signed to PolyGram, a multinational, and its subsidiaries Verve, Mercury and EmArcy. But his passion for the music was stronger than his patience for taking directions — and when he found out that some of his American jazz heroes were having trouble getting signed back home, he started cutting deals himself.

Partnering with producers at different labels in the United States and Japan allowed him to construct bigger budgets and sign some of the top jazz talent in the world.

A $250,000 multi-album deal among Allard, Japanese producer Kiyoshi Koyama and saxophonist Stan Getz turned heads — it was an outlandish sum for any jazz instrumentalist in the 1980s not named Miles Davis — especially because it paid off. From there, Allard had room to run and undertook ambitious projects with Lincoln, pianist Randy Weston, bassist Charlie Haden and others.

And he persuaded Gitanes, a French cigarette company (whose product he personally favored), to sponsor a line of albums for Verve, generating otherwise unthinkable budgets for sessions by Lincoln and Shirley Horn that are now seen as classics.

Lincoln had been a prominent singer and actress but had fallen out of the spotlight by the end of the ’80s, when Allard signed her to Verve. Lincoln, who died in 2010, credited him with not only reviving her career but giving her the platform to embrace her identity as a composer. Today, she might be remembered as a songwriter as much as a singer.

“He has no tolerance for cliche — he likes original,” she once told Carol Friedman, who is working on a documentary about Lincoln. “He came to get all the great original musicians here — J.J. Johnson, Randy Weston, Hank Jones, Ornette Coleman and me! He picked us all off the sidewalk.”

Allard received a lifetime achievement award at the 2012 Victoires du Jazz, a prestigious French awards ceremony. In 2014, he was given the Bruce Lundvall Prize at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. Perhaps more meaningful to him was the song that Coleman wrote in his honor, “Monsieur Allard,” for the 1996 album “Sound Museum: Three Women.”

Jean-Philippe Armand Allard was born April 8, 1957, in Saint-Mandé, France, just outside Paris, and grew up in the city’s northern suburbs. His father, Jean, was a sales manager; his mother, Marie-Thérèse (Prats) Allard, was a high school principal.

From the start, his interests veered far from the professional middle-class ideal. In his teens, he read Arthur Rimbaud’s verse and famous jazz hipster Mezz Mezzrow’s memoir. He listened to Bessie Smith, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin; dressed in North African shawls; and once famously exclaimed at the family dinner table, head in hands, “I’ll never work!”

Though fiercely intelligent, he was booted from one high school and dropped out of another, then started picking up part-time jobs. (During a stint as an ambulance driver at Charles de Gaulle Airport, he pushed the wheelchairs of Jean-Paul Sartre and Charles Mingus.) When not working, he played bass in rock bands and joined with friends to start a discotheque and restaurant, which they kept open for two years. He and another of its founders, Christine Corbet, would eventually marry.

She survives him, as do their daughter, Céline Allard, and his brother, Jean-Marc. Allard’s son, Pablo, died before him.

After taking a job in the classical music department at Fnac, a French records and electronics chain, he was hired at PolyGram France in its classical division. When the company’s executives decided to start a jazz department, he reminded them that he didn’t know much about classical music but was wild about jazz. They put him in charge of starting the department.

In 2007, with PolyGram now owned by Universal Music Group, Allard was promoted to run all of Universal Music France’s record and publishing divisions. He relaunched Impulse! Records, a once-mighty jazz label that had gone dormant at Universal, in 2014, and released albums by the Henry Butler-Steven Bernstein Hot 9, pianists Sullivan Fortner and Rodney Kendrick (Lincoln’s onetime accompanist), Haden and others.

He left Universal in 2017 to start his own artist management company, Le Bureau des Artistes, working primarily with French pop and hip-hop musicians. And in late 2022, he began an independent label, Artwork Records.

Allard’s first call was to an artist he had been working with for more than 30 years: pianist Kenny Barron. Last year, Artwork released Barron’s first solo piano album in decades, which was nominated for a Grammy, and it went on to release albums by rising pianists Fortner (his enthusiastically received double-album, “Solo/Game”) and Micah Thomas, as well as young French artists Oan Kim and Edouard Pennes’ Generation Django.

“It’s wonderful to see someone who’s committed to trying to understand your truth,” Kendrick told DownBeat recently. “I watched Jean-Philippe function as a producer around strong, socially involved people like Abbey, Randy Weston and Charlie Haden, and not only get along with them, but be accepted as part of the family.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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