Alan Douglas obituary

Record producer best known for his controversial posthumous releases of Jimi Hendrix recordings

The term "hipster" is loosely applied in today's culture, but the American record producer Alan Douglas, who has died in Paris aged 82, was the real thing. Equally at home in Greenwich Village and on the Left Bank, Douglas was distinguished by his advanced taste. The span of artists with whom he worked ranged from Duke Ellington to Jimi Hendrix via Eric Dolphy and John McLaughlin, and he was the first to record the Last Poets, the confrontational Harlem versifiers whose albums played a crucial role in the evolution of rap music.

Like a few other eminent producers, including Jerry Wexler, Tom Wilson and Chris Blackwell, he saw the role as demanding a measure of creativity and imagination through which he would encourage musicians to reach beyond their normal scope into new areas of collaboration and discovery. A typical Douglas project would be Money Jungle, the 1963 album that, by uniting Ellington with Charles Mingus and Max Roach, a bassist and drummer of a later generation, forced listeners to consider the veteran pianist and composer as a modernist.

When I asked him, a few years ago, what album he would like to make next, his answer was quick and precise. "Cecil Taylor," he said. "Playing standards." He was aware that the great avant-garde pianist had made a handful of similar recordings early in his career, and he knew that the application of Taylor's extreme keyboard techniques to conventional melodies, harmonies and rhythms could yield unusually rewarding results. The only problem would beremaining was to persuade the strong-willed Taylor, and the project was never realised.

Douglas spent several years occupying himself with the legacy of Hendrix. He befriended the guitarist at the Woodstock festival in 1969, but Hendrix died the following year, leaving a scattering of half-completed recordings, and Douglas gained control of the rights. He cleaned up and in some cases thoroughly reupholstered the tracks, releasing them as plausible additions to the relatively small catalogue of albums that had appeared during Hendrix's short career. By replacing some of the instrumental elements that made up the original tracks of the albums released under the titles Crash Landing (1975), Midnight Lightning (1975) and Nine to the Universe (1980), he left himself open to claims of inappropriate tampering during his stewardship of Hendrix's music, which lasted from 1975 to 1995, when the rights reverted to the artist's family.

Born Alan Douglas Rubenstein in Chelsea, Massachusetts, he briefly attended the University of Miami and served his apprenticeship in the music industry with the mob-affiliated Roulette Records in New York and then with Barclay Records in Paris. At the start of the 1960s he was appointed head of the jazz division of United Artists Records, where his successes included not only Ellington's Money Jungle but a classic album of intimate duets by the pianist Bill Evans and the guitarist Jim Hall, titled Undercurrent (1962). The more adventurous side of his personality was expressed by the release of an album called The Year of the Iron Sheep (1962) by the young saxophonist Ken McIntyre; there was also a recording of a particularly turbulent and controversial Town Hall concert by Mingus's big band.

All these albums were conceived and packaged with a care for presentation unusual for a major label's involvement with jazz, and it was no surprise when at the start of the 1970s, having supervised two albums by the saxophonist Dolphy for the short-lived FM label, he re‑emerged at the head of his own imprint, Douglas Records.

McLaughlin's Devotion (1970) and My Goal's Beyond (1971) were two of his early releases, but it was the incendiary debut recording of the Last Poets, providing a soundtrack for the growth of black militancy, that created the biggest and most lasting impact. Abiodun Oyewole, Alafia Pudim and Umar Bin Hassan, the poets in question, accompanied only by Nilija's conga drum, were pulling no punches in tracks such as Run, Nigger and Niggers Are Scared of Revolution. A full-page advertisement placed in Rolling Stone for their second album, This Is Madness (1971), proclaimed in bold capital letters: "If you're white, this record will scare the shit out of you. If you're black, this record will scare the nigger out of you."

After his adventures with the Hendrix catalogue had come to an end, Douglas revived the idea of his own label, releasing albums of music recorded over the years at the Monterey jazz festival in California, notably by Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Earlier in his career he had published a book called The Essential Lenny Bruce (1967) and a volume of Timothy Leary's writings. Last year, he supervised an edition of Hendrix's writings and interviews, titled Starting at Zero, to be followed by a documentary film.

He is survived by his fourth wife, Lucia Solazzi, and by two daughters and a stepson.

• Alan Douglas (Alan Douglas Rubenstein), record producer, born 20 July 1931; died 7 June 2014


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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