December 28, 2018 by John Wirt
When John Snyder joined the Loyola University faculty as the Conrad N. Hilton Eminent Scholar in Music Industry Studies, he brought decades of creativity and expertise to the job.
“One of my early goals was to prevent brain drain, to keep the kids in New Orleans, keep them from going to Los Angeles and New York,” Snyder said in his office at Loyola’s Communications/Music Complex. “Now that’s happened. We run clubs here. We run management companies and agencies here. Our students are part of the fabric of the music industry in the city.”
Snyder’s 14 years of preparing Loyola students for music careers more than qualify him for the Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement Award in Music Education. Prior to his tenure at Loyola, he’d already made vast contributions to music, producing nearly 350 original recordings and more than 400 compilations and reissues. His productions have won five GRAMMY Awards and received 32 GRAMMY nominations.
The record labels Snyder worked with—either on staff or as an independent producer—include CTI, A&M, Atlantic, Fantasy, Concord, RCA, Sony, Sony Legacy, Verve, Private Music, Telarc, GRP, Elektra, Rounder, Columbia, Evidence, Gitanes Blues, House of Blues, Justin Time and his own Artists House Recording Company.
In the field of jazz and blues, the artists Snyder produced include Dave Brubeck, Chet Baker, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, George Shearing, Gerry Mulligan, Lucky Peterson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, James Cotton, Etta James, Charles Brown, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Mavis Staples, Maria Muldaur, Junior Wells, Derek Trucks and hundreds more. In addition to the original productions he supervised from 1977 on, he produced top-of-the-line compilations and reissues from 1987 to 1998.
At Loyola, Snyder is a professor and chair of Film and Music Industry Studies. Being surrounded by inquisitive young people keeps him sharp, he said. “Guys my age, who don’t teach in academia, don’t have 18 to 20-year-olds asking them for their opinion all the time. But I do. We have 340 students. So that keeps me on my toes. And I realize that this will end at some point, so I’m making the best of it while I have it.”
Loyola’s Music Industry Studies program, offered in conjunction with the School of Music’s jazz and classical training, includes highly relevant courses in management, technology, event production, marketing, publishing, distribution and entertainment law.
“What we’re really training here is the creative work force,” Snyder said. “I wouldn’t call our students only musicians. As a member of the creative work force, they must do a number of things in order to stitch together a life, a career and a sustainable existence. We teach kids how to build websites and shoot video. Those are creative pursuits that fit into the life of a musician and an entrepreneur.”
Scott Billington, a veteran producer, former vice president of A&R at Rounder Records and instructor in music production at Loyola, has known Snyder since Rounder Records distributed Snyder’s Artists House recordings in the 1970s. “Those Artists House albums set a standard for production—in care in preparing for the sessions, astute decisions in the studio, recording quality, superb packaging, photography and notes—that many companies still can only hope to emulate.”
In the 1990s and 2000s, Billington and Snyder regularly produced recordings at Dockside Studio in Maurice. “John and I seemed to be tag-teaming at Dockside when he made a series of wonderful records for Telarc and other labels,” Billington said.
Snyder produced recordings at Dockside by many blues and roots music artists, including Junior Wells and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. “Those blues artists had been accustomed to playing with whomever was with them at the time of a show,” said Dockside Studio co-owner Cézanne Nails. But Snyder, Nails said, paired the veteran artists he produced with world-class session players. “The result was the funkiest, bluesiest sound to ever come out of Dockside Studio,” Nails said. In the studio, she added, Snyder has “an amazing ability to squeeze every ounce of talent and heart out of each person in the session. Sometimes he is really hands on, sometimes he just steers the ship in the right direction. He can open the mind of an artist so that they can believe in their own musical possibilities.”
Nails credits Snyder for helping put the now internationally known Dockside Studio on the map. “He introduced so many talented and recognized musicians to our studio,” she said. “And he was responsible for so much of the recognition we received from the GRAMMYs and people in our industry.”
At Loyola, Billington said, “John strives for the same excellence in education that he achieves with his records. He runs one of the best music business programs in the country. Really, he never stops inspiring me and others, by his words and actions, to reach for the best and to think deeply about what we are doing.”
Snyder takes students on field trips to Dockside Studio, the 12-acre studio complex near Lafayette. “John covers every aspect of recording with them,” Nails said. “Not just strumming a guitar and singing in tune. He is all about lifting the kids to their highest standard and watching them grow.”
Snyder’s lifetime in music began with a Louis Armstrong concert he attended in his native North Carolina. He was 10. “I was in the front row,” he said. “All I remember is a big handkerchief and a lot of sweat and a lot of teeth. I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It made me want to play trumpet. Louis Armstrong got me into this.”
Snyder’s father had kept the cornet he’d played in high school. “Daddy would bring it down from the attic maybe once a year when my brother and I were little,” Snyder recalled. “But he hadn’t played it in years. If you stop playing, you lose it. I was always fascinated by the cornet. So, I got it.”
At first, the music Snyder heard mostly came from TV, including crooner Perry Como’s weekly variety show. “And I fell into Al Hirt and Herb Alpert records,” he said. “But those records were kind of too white for me. I moved into other things.” The other things included Count Basie, George Shearing and Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool.
Snyder soon played trumpet in school bands. His performance of “Java” at a talent show during his sophomore year of high school was a turning point. “Girls didn’t talk to me before that, but, all of a sudden, after I played ‘Java,’ they talked to me.”
A 15, Snyder became the youngest member of the Rivieras, a popular local band that specialized in the rhythm-and-blues music known in the Carolinas and Virginia as “beach music.” “That was Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs, the Tams, the Drifters, Major Lance,” Snyder said. “We were a totally white band, but we played totally black music.”
After high school, music was the only subject Snyder wanted to study in college. “To me, I wasn’t anything but a musician,” he said. Because Snyder’s father refused to pay for such foolishness, he paid for his music education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro via gigs and scholarships. The gigs included the circus, a jazz quintet that played country clubs and pickup dates with traveling stars such as Brenda Lee and Sonny and Cher.
Snyder found the classical music curriculum at UNCG disconcerting. “It was all about girls who were training to teach for the two years before they get married,” he remembered. “That wasn’t me. And there was no jazz there. In fact, they said jazz music would ruin your embouchure and your sense of time, all these things that were not true.”
Bucking the system, Snyder and some of his fellow students founded a non-accredited jazz band. “We were aggressive,” he said. “And I wrote papers that argued for teaching jazz in secondary schools. I was an agitator.”
After the concerts his renegade jazz band performed outdrew performances by the school’s orchestra, concert band and chorus, UNCG administrators hired a jazz instructor. They also granted a half-credit for participation in jazz band. UNCG is now home to the Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program.
In 1973, Snyder’s post–music school sidestep into UNCG’s law school helped get him a job in New York City with CTI Records. Hired as assistant to Creed Taylor, CTI’s president, he oversaw the company’s legal and business affairs, publishing, manufacturing, distribution and A&R operations.
Snyder followed two years at CTI Records with two years as director of A&M Records’ Horizon Jazz Series. In 1977, he founded his independent label, Artists House Recording Company. “I was an idealist,” Snyder said of the latter venture. “I was so dedicated to the artist. I wanted every project to be the artist’s best record, representative of who they are. And I didn’t want to have a production style, where somebody could say, ‘Oh, that’s a John Snyder production.’ No. It wasn’t about me.”
At Artists House, Snyder brought LP packaging to an unprecedented level of completeness. The albums he released included artist interviews, discographies, sheet music, even transcribed solos. “And every artist wrote a little note and signed it,” he said. “I was all about informing the listener.”
During his 1977–1983 run at Artists House, Snyder also managed Ornette Coleman, Chet Baker, Gil Evans, Jim Hall and Art Pepper. The work could be challenging. “Ornette wasn’t a drug user, but he was just so far out,” he recalled. “When I first met him, I couldn’t understand his syntax.”
Hoping to better understand Coleman, Snyder regularly taped conversations with the innovative saxophonist and composer using a Sony professional Walkman. He studied the tapes and learned to decipher Coleman’s usual way with the English language.
“When Ornette accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award at the GRAMMYs, I must have been the only person there who understood his speech,” Snyder said. “It was so far out and so great. Then the scary thing was I started talking and thinking like Ornette. He made me hypercreative. I can’t stop. I’m an idea guy. Whatever you say, I can spin something back.”
The ability to reply to anything that anyone says sounds like jazz. “Jazz is the music of democracy, an example of the power of one,” Snyder said. “It’s not the totalitarian stage that a symphony orchestra is.”
But Snyder’s Artists House Recording Company folded under the weight of his idealism. “I messed up because it was too expensive,” he said. “I couldn’t stay in business.”
Retreating temporarily from music, Snyder returned to North Carolina, spending two years being a stay-at-home dad while his wife taught school. In 1985, he returned to New York and the music business for a 15-month stay at Atlantic Records as director of jazz production. With the end of that position—his last full-time job working for someone other than himself in the music industry—Snyder came to a realization.
“I thought, ‘I can go back into these executive ranks and participate in the music business scam and make a good deal of money—or I can live by my wits. Nobody will pay me unless I convince them to buy an idea.’ So, I woke up one morning and said, ‘You’ve got a job. You’re a music producer. So, go produce something.’ That change of mind and focus made all the difference.”
Snyder’s production of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s GRAMMY-nominated album The Man brought him to Dockside Studio for the first time. His prolific production work at Dockside sessions led to his position as Loyola’s Conrad Hilton N. Eminent Scholar in Music Industry Studies.
“I call music education creative education,” he said. “It’s all about the power of the individual to solve problems, usually through the application of teamwork. And those are big lessons. Educators who don’t seek a balance between math and science and art are doing a great disservice to their young people.”