Agency Intel: Arrival Artists’ Karl Morse On The Four Letter Word: Jazz

Photo courtesy of Karl Morse  | Arrival Artists

Arrival Artists’ Karl Morse is a widely respected agent with a killer roster full of jazz and “jazz adjacent” artists, including Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia, The Bad Plus, GoGo Penguin, José James, Julian Lage, Pino Palladino + Blake Mills, KNOWER and Louis Cole among others. Pollstar caught up with Morse to discuss the state of today’s jazz live market, his indie agency and why jazz, metaphorically, isn’t a “four letter word.”

Pollstar: So you were at Windish, Paradigm and now you’re at the indie start-up Arrival Artists, which launched close to two years ago during the pandemic – how’s it going there?    

Karl Morse: It’s going better than I could have ever imagined. I can’t speak highly enough of the team, my partners. I’m really proud of the team we built, both of former Paradigm colleagues and people who’ve never worked in the industry getting their start and are really hungry to grow. In a time of insane turmoil, we’ve really been blessed to come out on top and have a functioning agency that our clients fully support. We wouldn’t have been able to do any of this if everyone wasn’t ready to take that leap with us. 

Who are some of your jazz clients? 

I have quite a bit, I call them “jazz adjacent,” because jazz can be a four-letter word and people have a lot of preconceived notions. I do GoGo Penguin, all of Shabaka Hutchings’ projects – The Comet is Coming, Sons of Kemet, The Ancestors – José James, Julian Lage, Louis Cole, KNOWER, Nubya Garcia. I’m doing the Pino Palladino and Blake Mills project, The Bad Plus.

With Robert Glasper and all the hip-hop and R&B stars he plays with, Thundercat opening for the Chili Peppers in stadiums, Nubya Garcia’s out with Khruangbin, the Kendrick records, Shabakah killing it at Bonnaroo, do you think jazz is bigger now than ever, especially in the ways it’s touching the mainstream? 

Yes, and it’s super exciting. I think one avenue it’s taken to get there is streaming and the ease of discovery for the audience. For more experimental or instrumental or jazz music, back even 10 years ago, you had to really do more digging and deliberate searching. It’s so much easier, the barrier of entry to discover all these great new artists or the whole history of jazz, if you wanna dig deep, it’s right there at your fingertips. 

I saw Nubya open for Khruangbin at the Anthem with 6,000 people and was surprised how this young, indie rock-ish crowd totally appreciated her.

Totally. That was a deliberate choice. Knowing Khruangbin, also another client here, and the eclectic influences they draw from musically and their audience, I thought they would be a receptive audience to Nubya for what was really her first bona fide North American tour and it went over great. She picked up new fans, so that’s a perfect case example of how that works. From a booking perspective that’s what I try to do with basically all these artists. Yes, I work with Blue Note and jazz clubs, and do the residencies, and Newport Jazz is a huge supporter of my artists and Monterey Jazz are mainstays, but I also try to pivot and play rock clubs. 

I remember jazz clubs in the ’80s and ’90s with expensive two drink minimums, pricey tickets and atmospheres that felt a little staid and not very interactive; but jazz today doesn’t have to be that. 

No, but there’s a place for that; I’m glad those places exist. I’m going next week. It’ll be intimate, you’ll pay a higher ticket, you’ll sit in a seat and you’ll be five feet away from the artist with only 40 other people. That’s its own experience, but a lot of these artists are so much more than that and can command a sold-out rock stage in a standing room venue or festival stage. So, it’s not eschewing the world jazz club circuits and old jazz festivals, that are a little bit more mellow and older demographic, there’s a place for them; but it’s been really exciting to prove to people that these acts are hard ticket and festival acts and not just PACs and traditional clubs.

Things in the world are a little crazy these days, do you think there’s something about jazz, which can be chaotic and omnivorous and touch all genres with virtuosic playing, that maybe makes it resonate today more? Maybe it’s the right music for the wrong times? 

That’s one of the exciting things about this music. One, there’s not a strict lyrical component, which you filter through meaning and the vibe, it’s open to interpretation. You can channel as a listener your own meaning and superimpose your own thoughts and reactions to the music. Two, it’s improvisatory, so every time you hear it, it’s going to be different. And that can be a really immediate reaction to the energy of the crowd or the room they’re playing, or the festival or the mood that they’re in that night. That allows for an elasticity, which is exciting in music. 

The Sons of Kemet at Bonnaroo, again no words or lyrics, but if you tell me that music doesn’t feel timely, relevant or have an immediacy and rawness to it and doesn’t encapsulate everything that’s going on in the world   – again open to varied interpretations – then I don’t know what to tell you. And that’s putting my feelings on it. I’m not saying they wrote it from any perspective or performed it with any take on current event or whatever, but it certainly feels that way to me, like it’s a reaction to today, which is why it feels relevant.

That’s really what I’m talking about.

One of the pitfalls of jazz is that people have this notion that it’s academic or it’s this preserved medium. Like you go to a museum and, oh, that’s jazz, you know? Like when you go see jazz perform like, oh, that’s a time capsule into 52nd Street in 1945 or whatever. But it’s a living, breathing thing.