Lester Koenig, founder of Contemporary Records in LA in 1951, was a Hollywood screen writer and producer who’d been blacklisted by Joseph McCarthy and the HUAC (House of Un-American Activities). Koenig worked with William Wyler on such films as the 1953 romantic comedy Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. Like so many other writers, artists, and even architects (geniuses like Richard Neutra and Oscar Niemeyer), Koenig had been put out of studio work by the fervent, rabid, and idiotic McCarthyite zealots. So Koenig turned to music and founded a jazz record company. Contemporary Records originated as a forum for composers Koenig had worked with on Hollywood films, not to mention Koenig’s love of jazz, both traditional and very modern. I remember my parents’ Firehouse Five + 2 dixieland records; on the other side of the sonic spectrum, Ornette Coleman’s first two lp’s, Something Else, and Tomorrow is the Question released in 1957 and 1958. Contemporary was an interesting and eclectic label; even Nesuhi Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic Records, went to work at Contemporary at one point.
He put out records by local natives like Harold Land, Hampton Hawes, Phineas Newborn, Shelly Manne, Howard Rumsey and the Lighthouse All Stars, Art Pepper, Curtis Counce and others. And two pioneering records like Ornette Coleman’s, recorded shortly after Ornette’s arrival in LA from Texas. Ornette was working at Bullock’s Wilshire downtown as an elevator operator by day, playing at The Haig in Koreatown at night to both enthralled and repulsed crowds. Contemporary’s great engineer and audio genius, Roy DuNann, later said, when asked about Ornette’s two Contemporary sides he had engineered, said “I would have sent him home”. Contemporary also released avant garde pianist Cecil Taylor’s album Looking Ahead.
Contemporary Records was located on Melrose Place in Hollywood. There was no recording studio, just a shipping warehouse. Koenig was very particular about high fidelity and recorded sound, and the genius of Roy DuNann made this shipping room turn out the best recorded sound of all the labels. As the engineer for Contemporary, DuNann was able to produce the best recorded sound of any label at the time, even the big sound of Capitol Studios on Vine (where he once worked) or Columbia’s 30th St. studios in New York City. Audiophiles and purists love DuNann’s great sound, even though he is much less known than the secretive but redoubtable Rudy Van Gelder, who recorded infinitely more sides for Prestige, Blue Note, and Impulse records.
There is a nice article in the Stereophile magazine archives on Roy DuNann.
Go out and buy a copy of Sonny Rollins’ 1957 classic Way Out West. It’s worth getting just for the cover shot by William Claxton, but the sound is like the great saxophonist is right there in your living room. The audio quality is so pristine, the sound so palpable, that you can hardly believe that it’s a recording and not live. The sound is so good it’s almost scary. And this was in 1957 at the dawn of the stereo era. Better than 99% of records made today.
Here is a beautiful appreciation of Contemporary Records sent to me by Lester’s son John, who is a professional classical cellist, attorney, and Grammy -nominated record producer. The fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.