Memory Lane :: Lester Koenig, Contemporary Records, Shelly Manne and AKG

Page first published on the web June 28, 2010
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History of Contemporary Records

Shelly Manne & His Men Play Checkmate

In a documentary film about food supplies to be consumed in time of war, stored in underground bunkers, I used a solo of drummer Shelly Manne for a sequence of never ending rows of shiny tins with biscuits and corned beef. The solo was from the Contemporary LP "Shelly Manne & His Men Play Checkmate". My colleagues complimented me on the excellent choice of music and the mixing engineer asked me where I got that superb recording from.

Well, I had bought the Checkmate LP in a sale in a department store. After coming home and playing it, I became an avid lover of West Coast Jazz instantly. The adaptation of the score of John Williams - who was a pianist and who in those days was called Johnny Williams and was writing a lot of music for television before he became the prolific John Williams of the big screen - was played with suspense and a sort of coolness by Shelly Manne (drums), Conte Candoli (trumpet), Richie Kamuca (tenor), Russ Freeman (piano) and on bass Chuck Berghofer, the youngest of them all.

Sound - Howard Holzer - Roy DuNann

The sound of the LP was indeed superb, realistic and full of detail and I realized that I had stumbled upon a treasure, a product in the category "State of the Art" - even if in those days this term was not commonly used.
Technician Howard Holzer and producer-owner of Contemporary Records Inc., Lester Koening, were the creators of this recording art on Contemporary Modern Jazz Series C3599, the issue I had bought. What I sensed was that technical knowledge, artistic feeling, empathy with the music and the musicians, and a very musical ear, were assisted by the valve circuits in microphones, mixers and amplifiers, by the specially designed cutting lathe and cutting head, and finally by the quality of the pressings. We are talking 1962. John Koenig, Les Koenig's son, adds:

"Howard Holzer was genius, too. But Roy (DuNann) built the Contemporary studio and Howard learned a lot from him. I was fortunate to have spoken on a panel a couple of months ago at the Los Angeles Jazz Institute celebrating Roy, who is now in his middle 90s. (...)
Roy DuNann, Contemporary's original (and greatest) engineer, devised an early noise reduction system that involved referencing the record electronics of the Ampex 350-2 tape machine so as to pre-emphasize the high end a couple of db and then compensate for that by referencing the machine on playback so as to bring the high end back down the same amount, thus bringing quite a bit of the tape hiss with it. I tried to explain this to the engineers at Fantasy when they took over the label, but they didn't want to hear it. As Les Koenig's son, I was, to them, just an upstart. It never occurred to them that I knew how the records had been made down to the finest details. But I did. I just didn't have the ability to convince them that I knew it." - John Koenig, November 30. 2011

Sure, Roy Dunann built the studio. Yet even the earliest recordings before Dunann joined Contemporary, the recordings made by engineers Val Valentine or John Paladino had already a specific signature in sound, as can be heard on Shelly Manne Vol. 2 with modern jazz works, composed and played by Bob Cooper, Jimmy Giuffre, Bill Holman, Jack Montrose, Marty Paich, and Shorty Rogers on C2511: Divertimento For Brass & Rhythm, Alternation, Lullaby, Etude de Concert, Dimensions in Thirds, Shapes, and Motion and Color.

Liner notes were written by Lester Koenig and Johnny Williams.The cover of this original mono edition had a stamp saying: Distributed in Europe by Interdisc S.A.
Interdisc was the French company that also represented and distrubuted other original labels like Riverside and Pacific.
Lester Koenig often wrote the liner notes himself. For many releases Leonard Feather wrote notes. Leonard Feather himself was already producing records and playing piano in the nineteen forties. See Jazz on Continental 78 RPM.

Sebastian Cabot, Doug McClure & Anthony George

The Drummer

Although my respect was for producer Koenig, it was Shelly Manne who became, at least to me, a sort of trademark. His name on the label was the quality stamp. Sure there were the other artists, and more good drummers among them. But Manne with his controlled and refined style - which is completely the opposite of, say, Gene Krupa's - appeared to be the bonding factor of 'music making without egos fighting to get the upper lead' (which by the way can be fun too!). And when Shelly's group came to the end of a live session, A Gem from Tiffany was played, the names of the musicians were mentioned and the audience was thanked for their attendance. John Koenig says about Shelly Manne:

Shelly Manne enjoying the game.
(Photograph by William P. Gotlieb - from his book The Golden Age of Jazz,
Simon and Shuster, New York, 1979)

"(Shelly Manne) was a great drummer per se, but beyond that, he was a great recording drummer. He imagined -- accurately -- what his cymbals would sound like coming through the speakers as he played. He never overplayed. And he had wonderful sounding cymbals and beautiful wooden drums with calfskin heads, which sounded beautiful live and which recorded beautifully." - John Koenig, November 30, 2011

In the British record magazine "The Gramophone" of December, 1962, Alun Morgan, editor and reviewer of the Jazz & Swing Section, quotes Shelly Manne saying about Checkmate: "What attracted me to the music was the mood the pieces create—you might call it a "modal" mood. I mean there aren't a lot of changes and because of it you can create more exciting rhythmic interest".

At The Manne Hole

Now more Contemporary artists were on my list to be investigated: Curtis Counce, Hampton Hawes, Art Pepper, Cecil Taylor, Barney Kessel, Chet Baker, André Previn, Phineas Newborn, Ray Brown. This led to my second best buy, this time the 2 LP set "Shelly Manne and his Men at The Manne Hole" (S7593/4) which is another striking Koenig account, again with Howard Holzer responsible for the sound recording, and again with Shelly Manne, Conte Candoli, Richie Kamuca, Russ Freeman, and Chuck Berghofer. The liner notes were written by Leonard Feather.

Reference Recording

Contemporary records do have a high content of naturalness. Like Mercury Living Presence, Contemporary served as an example and inspiration to other labels from the 1970s like Sheffield Lab, Eastwind, Concord Jazz, Proprius (because of a strange phase shift their title Jazz At The Pawnshop cannot compete with The Manne Hole Sessions), and also Three Blind Mice, I dare say. Even today many a Contemporary record can be qualified as being a true reference.


Technical Data

Many record companies do print technical data on the back of their covers just to impress the buyer. Often these data are accompanied by an advertising slogan. The technical data mentioned on the back of Checkmate were there for advertising purposes, no doubt, but the mention of these data was really meaningful and justified, and surely Lester Koenig wanted the buyer to know that his recordings were among the best a fan can get. I had taken the wide frequency band of 30 to 20.000 Hz. and the tangible mid band for granted until l noticed that the cover of the stereo version of Checkmate - which I bought later - mentioned 15.000 cycles as upper limit. That stereo issue sounded rather thin. I realized that the cutting head was not yet able to engrave the same dynamics stereophonically. Many early stereo cuttings of Blue Note (Rudy van Gelder), Riverside, Pacific, London (English Decca), Deutsche Grammophon Red Stereo, and Philips Hi-Fi Stereo do have this somewhat slender sound characteristic.

Contemporary S7593/7594 - Shelly Manne & His Men at The Manne Hole.


Shelly's Manne Hole located at 1608 North Cahuenga Boulevard, between Holywood Boulevard and Selma Avenue. Image taken from S7503/4.











Leonard Feather on the dust jacket of The Encyclopedia of Jazz, Bonanza Books - Photo Bengt H. Malmquist



TECHNICAL DATA (Contemporary Mono Recording):

* 30-20.000 cycles.
* Multiple microphone technique featuring AKG C-12 condenser microphones.
* Presto tape recorder.
* Reeves Soundcraft tape.
* Mastering on Contemporary Records' specially designed electronically controlled, continuously variable pitch lathe.
* Westrex feed-back cutting head.
* Heated stylus, inner diameter quality equalization.
* RIAA playback curve.
* Custom-made, noise-free, vinylite "Gruve/Gard" pressing.

September 1958

The Stereo LP format was introduced in September 1958 worldwide. The Schwann catalog of that month and the editions of the following months show that the big companies had already been recording in stereo long before the introduction of the new format, and they were releasing discs, while most smaller labels, and jazz labels in particular, were late in releasing titles in stereo.
Nevertheless already in 1956 Lester Koenig did produce his first stereo recordings. 1956 was also the year when Roy DuNann (originally from Capitol Records) joined the company.



By 1958, Lester Koenig and engineer Roy Dunann were well aware of small sonic differences between mono and stereo discs which were displayed in the frequency band and the restricted dynamics. Maybe they were somewhat hesitant in issuing such recordings that might result in less favorable reviews. I guess that the stereo format did not meet exactly the standard set by Koenig and DuNann. Meticulous as Lester Koenig was, he did not want the reputation of his Contemporary Records label be tainted by lesser quality stereo recordings. So he registered the Stereo Records label to release stereo recordings. Label, covers, and lay out of the back of the cover with the liner notes all were done in the Contemporary Records design, except that the front now carried an oval emblem with STEREO printed in black on a white background. And on the back at the upper right corner, the line "In Association with Contemporary Records" was added.

The 7000 Series

Schwann publications indicates that the "Stereo Records" label was first listed in the January 1959 issue that was available in December 1958 on news stands and in shops. The label was listed as Stereo and in brackets was added 'in stereo only'. Schwann's list of stereo labels can be found on the last pages of the catalog. The releases had references in the 7000 series, the same used by Prestige which could have been somewhat confounding. The recordings appeared on the Contemporary label also but then in mono only. An example is the disc Hampton Hawes: Four! which was released as Contemporary C3553 in January 1959. The stereo edition was available around the same time as STEREO RECORDS S7026. Stereo Records was still listed in the early 1963 catalogs but was soon deleted from the list of record labels when the recordings became available in the Contemporary S7000 Series. Some were newly cut, but a few still had STEREO stamped in the dead wax in a large font.


A few STEREO RECORDS releases and dates of release according to various editions of Schwann Long Playing Record Catalog:

# S7001 Barney Kessel - Music to Listen 6/58
# S7002 Shelly Manne - My Fair Lady 6/58
# S7003 - The Leroy Vinnegar Sextet: Leroy Walks 6/58. The mono edition was issued in mono as Contemporary C3542. Stereo Records S7003 was later remastered and renumbered and issued as Contemporary S7542.
# S7004 - Andre Previn - Pal Joe 6/58
# S7005 - Firehouse Five 6/58
# S7007 - Swinging Sounds 8/58
# S7008 - Howard Rumsey: Music for Lighthousekeeping. The mono edition was from May, 1958
# S7009 - Red Norvo - Music to Listen 8/58 - released in mono as C3534 also in August 1958
# S7010 - Barney Kessel - Poll Winners 8/58
# S7011 - Double Play - Andre Previn and Russ Freeman 8/58. The mono edition was from December, 1957
# S7012 - Coop! The Music of Bob Cooper 8/58 and released at the same time in mono as Contemporary C3544
# S7018 - Art Pepper meet the Rythm Section 1/59
# S7019 - Shelly Manne L'll Abner 1/59
# S7020 - Andre Previn - Gigi 1/59
# S7021 - Castle Jazz Band - Famous 11/59
# S7025 - Peter Gun 4/59
# S7026 - Hampton Hawes: Four! - issued in mono, January, 1959
# S7028 - Benny Carter: Jazz Giant - issued in mono, January, 1959·
# S7030 - The Gambit: Shelly Manne & His Men - issued in mono as C3557






TECHNICAL DATA (Stereo Records Recording):

30-15.000 cycles.
Multiple microphone technique featuring AKG C-12 condenser microphones.
Ampex stereo tape recorder.
Reeves Soundcraft tape.
Mastering on Contemporary's specially designed, electronically controlled, variable pitch lathe.
Westrex "StereoDisk" cutting head, heated stylus, inner diameter quality equalization.
RIAA playback curve.
Custom made, noise-free vinylite pressing.



I own At the Blackhawk 1, 2, 3 and 4. The discs belonged to KRAV FM Radio in Tulsa (Oklahoma). Nos 2, 3 and 4 have stamps on the back of the covers. The ink is smeared. The stamps say "Demonstration Copy Not for Sale - Your dealer has a sealed copy for you".
Blackhawk 2, 3 and 4 also have the label name STEREO stamped in the dead wax. As the sound is also somewhat thin, I suspect that these were the earlier issues on the Stereo label. Volume 2 is a very thin disc and one would think it is a RCA Dynaflex pressing, although RCA introduced Dynaflex in 1969. Volume 3 is also heavier (normal). The labels of 2, 3 and 4 are black. Volume 1 has the later yellow Contemporary label.
The first disc of Shelly Manne and His Men at the Manne Hole has also that same STEREO stamp in the dead wax. The second LP does not have the STEREO stamp in the dead wax and sounds warmer. Now I have to check the stereo edition of Checkmate.


Instrumental Realism

Making a live recordings in a club is something completely different from making a studio recording where producer and recording engineer can have full control over acoustics, the positions of the players, the sound can be tested and microphone placement can be meticulously adjusted, and if the musicians do not have the right spirit they just can go away and come back some other day. Not so when an actual performance is to be recorded in Shelly's club in Hollywood. Then and there one must make shift with what one has. From the recording it is clear that there is no luxurious grand piano but a simple upright piano. And an upright has a distinctive sound because the attack of the felt hammer moves the string with force towards the soundboard first. The reflection which is picked up by the microphone is primarily out of phase.

In and Out of Phase

In recordings of a grand piano, microphones are often positioned left and right from the piano. And at least one microphone above (or somewhat close to) the strings. There the felt hammer strikes from underneath and the mike(s) picks up the sound which is for the most part in phase. The intensity of the reflected sound is less and that reflected sound of course is out of phase with a minute time delay.

In an upright piano the sound board is in a vertical position and the space between the strings and the sound board is much smaller so there is less volume of sound. Now the felt hammer strikes in the direction of the sound board and the initial vibration is out of phase relative to the microphones, does not matter if these are positioned above the piano or in front when the lid is taken of. Of course it is possible to connect the microphone out of phase, but only then if it does not mess up the characteristic of the complete sound recording.


Shelly Manne & His Men at The Manne-Hole features a 'primitive' upright piano. Primitive, but at the same time determining the atmosphere in the club. On top of that one can hear that during a few passages and solos the level of one of the microphones is adjusted to bring out the piano or another instrument better. One can hear, that at least in one instance in Cole Porter's melancholy "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye", the signal of the microphone placed near the piano, when a solo is played, is slightly increased. That too tells the listener that this is a live recording. Despite this circumstance, S7593/4 became one of my treasured Contemporary albums too, because the recording gives a strong sense of 'being there'.


Checkmate on C3599 and Shelly Manne & His Men at The Manhole on S7593/4 - with classics like Softly as in a morning sunrise; Love for sale; On green Dolphin Street; I am a bell, What’s new?, etc. all embedded in the live atmosphere - have always been favorites. But there are more Contemporary titles on the shelves. For instance LP's of pianist Phineas Newborn Jr., and there is the disc with Swingin Sounds. A later title 'More Swinging Sounds' is from 1956 and - mind you - was already recorded in stereo. It has Russ Freeman's The Wind on it which is in some way foreboding the atmosphere of the Checkmate recording. Whenever a Contemporary disc was spotted by me, it was bought. Too many examples. One fine example in the long list is 'Grooveyard' with Harold Land (tenor), Rolf Ericson (trumpet), Carl Perkins (piano), Leroy Vinnegar (bass) and Frank Butler (drums) on S7550. And even when many titles of the catalog were re-issued on Original Jazz Classics by Fantasy, they were considered if the originals were missing in the collection. That is why More Swinging Sounds as a reissue in the OJC-Series is a much appreciated release.

At the Black Hawk

Then there are of course the 4 Black Hawk session discs with those trotting titles as Whisper Not and Step Lightly... S7577, S7578, S7579, and S7580; also sound by technician (recording engineer) Howard Holzer. Even if Holzer worked together with Roy DuNann for a specific recording - as the Harold Land disc 'Grooveyard' - one can not deny hearing his, Holzer's influence. That is the opposite of the crisp and clear 'West Side Story' recording of pianist Andre Previn on S7572 made by Roy Dunann. Howard Holzer, who had worked with Capitol Records as well, left Contemporary in 1961 to start his own business, Holzer Audio Engineering Corporation (HAEC). He and his company invented, designed and introduced products for the production, cutting and manufacture of records. He worked for A&M and recorded Herp Alpert. Howard Holzer died on July 29, 1974, in a plane crash. (Source: Audio Engineering Society - AES.)


Even a very young guitarist, Pepe Romero, is on Contemporary. He came with his father to the studio to play flamenco guitar. No matter what, there is always this kind of perfect music making. And there is the "natural sound", notwithstanding the fact that Lester Koenig and his technicians used multi miking. There are no problems with phase that are noticeable.
Early pressings had green and black labels. They also can be recognized by the machine stamped matrix number in the dead wax. For stereo discs the reference began with LKS, meaning Lester Koenig Stereo. The newer editions had the matrix numbers written by hand.

Great Britain and Japan

EMI (His Master's Voice) issued many American record labels like Verve, Mercury, and also Contemporary Records. In general HMV matrices of all these labels were cut with less prominent dynamics. The Contemporary pressings had the LAC reference, probably meaning Los Angeles Contemporary. After the contract was ended, EMI was allowed to issue a few Contemporary discs in the Music for Pleasure (mfp) Series, like the recording with genius André Previn (piano) with selections of My Fair Lady with the great Shelly Manne (drums), and the great Leroy Vinnegar (bass) on MFP 50527. The nature of the Contemporary sound is still recognizable. But the best known Contemporary discs released in Great Britain are the Vogue issues.

Shelly Manne & His Friends Play My Fair Lady

When the Contemporary catalog was issued by Fantasy, the releases were issued in the UK by Boplicity, and by ACE, Steel Road, London.
In Japan Contemporary records were pressed with prefix GP, and in France they were pressed by Vogue also with LAC as prefix for the matrix number, written in the dead wax.
Click here to view images of the original American inner sleeve with the listed releases.


Good Time Jazz

John Koenig: "My father, Lester Koenig, ran a jazz record company, which he founded in 1949 in Los Angeles (...). He'd started it as a kind of a hobby."
Lester Koenig (December 3, 1917 - November 21, 1977) may have officially founded his Contemporary record label in 1951.
In Schwann Long Playing Record Catalog, edition of June 1951, Good Time Jazz is listed for the first time. The small company was located at 707 North Irving Boulevard in Los Angeles. Good Time Jazz was the home of dixieland and ragtime music. Even then sound quality was high on the list. On Good Time Jazz LP with reference number 21, Kid Ory (at age 67) plays with his Creole Jazz Band, recorded in 1953.
William Claxton made photographs during the second recording session which took place at Capitol Studios in Hollywood. John Paladino was the recording engineer. The British 10 inch edition, released by Vogue in Great Britain, has reference number LDG 093/GTL 21. The disc was pressed from LKL 61 and LKL 62. The text on the back of the cover says:

"This is a high fidelity recording, which reproduces the full audible frequency range of the music with a minimum of distortion, well defined separation between each instrument, and living presence for the soloists. The AES curve is used. The dynamic range of the performance is retained by elimination of limiting."

The sound on this record is stunning. Already then high quality in sound recording was Koenig's trademark.

Society for Forgotton Music

Lester Koenig started also a label for classical music, Society for Forgotten Music (SFM). Piano Sonatas for Four Hands (Jan Ladislav Dusek) is the earliest mono release on M 1002, and later recordings were released of instrumental and chamber music by composers Mily Balakirev, Guillaume Lekeu, Ernest Chausson, and Vernon Duke.
Both in Schwann Long Playing Record Catalog and The Long Player, the Contemporary label is first listed in the fall of 1953 with Howard Rumsey's Light House All-Stars on three ten inch records with reference C2501, 2506, 2510. And there is Shelly Manne and His Men on C 2503, 2511, 2516, and 2518, available as a four 10"-set. But soon Koenig switched to the 12" format in the 3500 series and the titles "The Three" and "The Two" (Shelly Manne with Shorty Rogers and Jimmy Giuffre, and pianist Russ Freeman) landed on Contemporary M3584.

The earliest classical recording issued was C2001, a 10" LP with George Barati's String Quartet performed by the California String Quartet of which he was the cello player. The release was reviewed in 1953 in the September-October edition of High Fidelity Magazine by Alfred Frankenstein who had written the liner notes for this recording.

France - Jazz Selection

Some of Koenig's early recordings were made in cooperation with 'European Records' from France - possibly because of the contacts Koenig had with film people from abroad. There are indeed a couple of recordings which were made in France but these seem to be the result of a license agreement: C 358 (Dizzy Gillespie - My Man - Ooo-Bla-Dee); C 2502 (Henri Renaud All-Stars - Modern Sounds); C 2504 (Dizzy Gillespie - Dizzy In Paris); C 2512 (with young French pianist Martial Solal). In France these and other Contemporary records were issued on JAZZ Selection.

Dizzie Gillespie (at far left, with glasses, looking up) at the time he made the recordings in Paris, in 1953. In centre Don Byas (thumbs up) and at right Sarah Vaughan.
(Picture taken from the French Vogue double LP DP15 "Memorial" Don Byas.)

A 10 inch JAZZ SELECTION pressing from France of Shelly Manne and His Men. Reference J.S.L.P. 50.003 the equivalent of C2503 from 1953. Original Contemporary matrices LKL 37 and 38.

At right the label of one of the records of Shelly Manne and His Men in The Manne Hole released in Great Britain on the Vogue label. Plates and pressings by Decca.




Conte Candoli (trumpet) - Richie Kamuca (tenor sax) - Shelly Manne (drums) - Russ Freeman (piano) - Chuck Berghofer (bass)
Tracklist: SIDE ONE: Checkmate - The Isolated Pawn - Cyanide Touch
SIDE TWO: The King Swings - En Passant - Fireside Eyes - The Black Night








Johnny (John) Williams and Shelly Manne in the Capitol Studios in Los Angeles in 1964 when recording My Fair Lady with singers Jack Sheldon and Irene Kral, Shelly Man and His Men and orchestra conducted by John Williams who also wrote the arrangements.
(Photo EMI, taken from the cover of My Fair Lady, Capitol T 2173, Great Britain.)










Stu Williamson, trumpet; Charlie Mariano, alto sax; Russ Freeman, piano; Leroy Vinegar, bass; Shelly Manne, drums - on ABC-TV's Stars of Jazz, July 16, 1956. Photo by Ray Avery taken from the back of the cover of OJC-320, reissue of stereo LP S7519 from 1956.




Green gold label of S7578
Shelly Manne& His Men At The Blackhawk, Vol. 2




Black gold label of S7579
Shelly Mannen & His Men At The Blackhawk, Vol. 3





Click here to view images
of the original inner sleeve
with the listed releases.




Harold Land (tenor sax) - Curtis Counce (bass)
Images taken from Contemporary S7574

Carl Perkins (piano) - Frank Butler (drums)
Images taken from Contemporary S7574



During the 1953 session of Kid Ory's Creole Jazz Band, William Claxton photographed the musicians and Lester Koenig. Koenig can be seen in the lowest image on the Kodak Safety Film, third strip from left in this edited arrangement of pictures copied from the front of GTL 21.



Recording Kid Ory's Creole Jazz Band. Lester Koenig at right.



















Paramount Pictures

In the nineteen forties Lester Koenig was a writer for documentaries (Thunderbolt, The Memphis Belle) and later he was an associate-producer with Paramount Pictures. IMdB mentions The Heiress (with Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, 1949), Detective Story (with Kirk Douglas and Eleanor Parker, 1951) and Carrie (with Laurence Olivier and Jennifer Jones, 1952), although Art Pepper in his biography also mentions Roman Holiday (Audry Hepburn and Gregory Peck, 1953). It was already in his early years with Paramount that Lester Koenig displayed his interest in the technical aspects of filming and recording sound and investigated in these aspects. John Koenig:

"(...) I believe it was in the early '40s, (that) he wrote a profile of the renowned cinematographer, Gregg Toland, which was cited in The New Yorker in a piece on Toland within the last 5 or 6 years. My father wanted to know about what was involved in recording motion pictures and how to maximize the images. And just as he was passionate about exploring the technical possibilities of the motion picture camera, he was possessed by the idea of making the truest possible sound on his records. Indeed, before Contemporary had its own studio, he had tube microphones, C-12s, U-47s and the like, that he used to take with him to sessions at Capitol, which is generally where he recorded in the early days." - John Koenig
, November 30, 2011

Joseph McCarthy

After World War Two had ended the Soviet Union was no longer a partner to confer with, naturally, but became the new enemy in the political doctrine. It meant that The Cold War had started. Now anyone with more or less liberal ideas was suspected of having communist sympathies. Already in 1947 the hunt on so called communists had started. Famous is the fate of The Hollywood Ten. In 1950, Josef McCarthy, a Senator from Wisconsin who himself had served in World War Two, made a speech about how the Democratic administration had been infiltrated by subversive Americans, to be more precise, by communists. From 1950 on not only the government and its institutions, but now all media were being scrutinized. People who had suspicions about the liberal views of colleagues were urged to report this. But many refused to testify for the Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Also the film industry was now thouroughly X-rayed for alleged subversive characters. The outcome was that several writers, directors and producers were no longer employed. People were summoned to testify at the hearings organized by McCarthy and his Committee.


In his autobiography "A Straight Life" (originally published by Schirmer Books, New York, 1979), Art Pepper writes about how Lester Koenig became a producer of records:

"So the people in the industry were asked to sign a paper that they did not believe this or believe that or had never been a communist or had never attended a meeting or would never attend one and all that nonsense. And the people were called before a committee and asked to name communists in the movie industry. Most of them signed the paper and named names. They just said, "Well, fuck it - this is my livelihood." But there were a few that were such real people, such honest people, honest to themselves, that they would not cooperate. And Les Koenig was one of these. He wasn't a communist actually, but he refused to go along with it because he felt that the committee infringed upon his rights. And so he was ostracized and kicked out of the industry where he'd become a producer. After he left the movies he had to find something to do. Les was a person that liked good things. He liked art; he liked good writing; he loved music. And so he started Contemporary Records. Les was the first to record the Legendary Ornette Coleman when no other company would touch him. He recorded many young far-out people and gave them their first opportunities to be heard. And he recorded Sonny Rollins, Shelly Manne, André Previn, Hampton Hawes, Barney Kessel, and many more."
- Art Pepper

Art Pepper also remembers that Lester Koenig was like a father to him and many times helped him to make a start for "a straight life" again and again by giving him the chance to make recordings and help him clean up his financial situation.

Senator Richard Nixon of California took part in the hunt with heart and soul and insinuated that Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson had ties with the communists. The hunting reached a pinnacle when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg who were arrested in 1950 were tried and were executed in 1953. They died because they refused to confess and name others, one commentator said. Eventually McCarthy's Committee was more and more criticized and McCarthy himself became unbelievable and died a mad man. Wikipedia has pages about The Hollywood Ten, the Un-American-Activities-Committee, The Hollywood Blacklist, the Rosenbergs, and about Joseph McArthy. See for more info also Spartacus Educational Un American Activities Committee which had already been established during the depression, in 1937. The page links to videos on YouTube. Also check out Good Night, and Good Luck at the Internet Movie Data Base (IMdB). You may also want to read the Wikipedia entry on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist who developped the atomic bomb for America which made an end to World War II by dropping two bombs on Japan. He too was accused of having leftist ideas.


John Koenig

John Koenig who studied to be a cellist and took lessons from the great Gregor Piatigorsky, played in orchestras in Israel and Sweden. When at home in LA he was active in his father's firm. He was co-producer of the Art Farmer album On The Road (1976; S7636). After his father's untimely death in 1977, John gave up his post in the Swedish Radio Symphony in Stockholm and returned to Los Angeles to manage his father's record company and the estate. Now he was the producer of Contemporary Records and he himself was featured on disc: Chico Freeman - Peaceful Heart, Gentle Spirit (C14005). There were quite a few legal obstacles in the way which had to be taken care of. Koenig Jr. subsequently studied law and became a lawyer in a big law firm and eventually founded his own firm. You can read the fascinating John Koenig biography at the site of the International Cello Society. John Koenig has a vast knowledge of Contemporary Records Inc. by experience and by perception. He was also quoted in Art Pepper's biography.

"(my father) was the most meticulous person I ever saw. He was meticulous, and, if known for nothing else, at least in this business he's probably remembered for being about the most honest person in the record industry." - John Koenig

Although Les was a man who had an ear for new ideas, even if they were not executed well, he always was the man with taste and the technique had to serve.

For more covers designed by Robert Guidi; Catharine Heerman; Pauline Annon; George Kershaw; photographers Peter James Samerjan; William Claxton; Alex de Paula; Hal Adams; Dennis Stock; Roger Marshutz; Walter Zurlinden; Cecil Charles; Fred Lyon; George Bartell; and Illustrated by Irene Trivas. See the archive of




















The melodious and energizing art of pianist Phineas Newborn Jr. is evident on Contemporary S7600 from 1961. He plays with Paul Chambers (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums), and on Side 2 with Sam Jones (bass) and Louis Hayes (drums).







Liner notes by Nat Hentoff who's writings are also printed on the backs of Something Else! (C7551) and Portrait of Art Farmer (S7554) - Below: the cover of M3593/4 edited by RAB. Original photo by Roger Marshutz.



.Hampton Hawes

Pianist Hampton Hawes also wrote down his esteem for Lester Koenig. In 1952 Hawes had made a 45 RPM single for Discovery - the label of Albert Marx - with Shelly Manne, and he cut a ten inch for Vantage Records in 1955. That was it. But Shelly Manne took him one day to Lester Koenig's office. Hampton Hawes in his biography "Rise Up Off Me" (written with Don Asher, Thunder's Mouth Press, New York, 1972):

"I was on my way to Dick Bock's office to see if I could get a recording contract - he had recorded my first 45 single for Discovery Records in 1952 - when Shelly Manne, who had been the drummer on that gig and who I'd done a lot of playing with before the army, stopped me and asked where I was going. When I told him he said, I' ve got a better idea, there's someone who's anxious to meet you; he drove me to Contemporary Records where I met the president, Lester Koenig. Les had recorded the Sunday afternoon concerts at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach where I played during my unofficial absences from Camp Irwin and had the respect of a lot of people in the industry. He said he'd like to sign me to an exclusive recording contract. I said, Okay but I'm messed up with the union. He asked to what extent, I told him to the tune of three bills and he said to his secretary, Make out a check. Whipped it right on me and that was it." - Hampton Haws


Great sound by Roy DuNann

Valve Condenser Microphone AKG C 12

The AKG C-12 is a smooth sounding microphone and has the character which is so typical of good, vintage condenser microphones. The character is completely different from dynamic microphones which are so en vogue these days in the pop music business. It is clear that the equipment used in those days by Lester Koenig, Howard Holzer, Roy DuNann, Val Valentin, John Palladino, was of a different nature if compared to transistors and op-amps and one bit converters of today. The equipment matched the mikes to bring about the best characteristic and dynamics. The C-12 has a very individual signature which is easily recognized. For example in André Previn West Side Story disc (S7572), or Phineas Newborn's A World of Piano (S7600 - Original Jazz Classics Records reissue OJC 175).

When Cecil Taylor was recorded in New York City at Nola's Penthouse Sound Recording Studios by Tommy Nola and Lewis Merritt, no microphone type and other equipment is mentioned. Except that the cover shows an upright piano which is evident when listening to the disk.

New Productions

After a gap of nearly two years, John Koenig started producing several records which were issued in the S14000 Series. Check John Koenig at Discogs. One example is Sonic Text (Contemporary S14002) with Joe Farrell (tenor and soprano sax, flute), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet, flugelhorn), George Cables (piano, electric piano), Tony Dumas (electric and upright basses), Peter Erskine (drums). The recording is made by engineer Bernie Kirsch and is produced and mixed by John Koenig. It is evident that by that time the technical equipment had changed. There is a reminiscence of the old Contemporary style.


Valve Microphone AKG C12VR - remake of the C-12 as used by Lester Koenig of Contemporary Records.

1. capsule of 2 diaphragms of 25 mm.

2. transformers.

3. choice of three basic patterns: omnidirectional, cardoid, and figure of eight - with two steps in between the settings make a total of 9 characteristics to choose from.

4. socket with rubber damper to absorb shocks.

5. 6072 twin triode valve.

6. shock absorber.




Fantasy: Original Jazz Classics

Finally, in 1984, Contemporary was purchased by Fantasy Inc., Berkeley, California. Now original Contemporary recordings were remastered and issued by Fantasy as Original Jazz Classics (OJC). These definitely show that the tapes were replayed by using modern tape recorders for play back and that the music may have been re-recorded on another modern tape machine using modern sound equipment and that these recordings served as the new master tapes from which the OJC lacquers were cut. OJCs bear the character of transistors and have more straight dynamics, specifically in the high frequencies. Fortunately there is always some of the original sound character coming through, unmistakingly Contemporary and unmistakingly the C-12 microphone for which AKG has designed a more modern version, the C12VR. John Koenig points out:

"(...) all of the mastering moves on all of Contemporary's records were carefully recorded in mastering notes every time a lacquer was recut. I recut several of them myself up to 1980, when we had to move the company and shut down our studio and I wrote a detailed roadmap of what I did --every eq or level move (or any other devices that may have been utilized) -- for every lacquer that was processed. So if Fantasy had cared to follow those notes (some of which changed a little over time, as the equipment improved (viz your accurate observation regarding the frequency response of the early stereo cutting heads). Also, reverb on Contemporary's recordings was accomplished with mono EMT plate during mastering -- something Roy always advocated should be improved. But by the '80s, most mastering studios did not add reverb during mastering at all and Fantasy was no exception. So, in general, the Fantasy reissues sound dry and tinny because of the lack of reverb and the failure to realize or compensate for the fact that the high end was pre-emphasized. And, in general, the Fantasy masterings lacked the musicality of the lacquers we cut because in addition to having referenced the tape machines as the recordings were intended to be played back and adding judicious reverb, we were making moves to compensate for peccadilloes on the original recordings, which were, after all, recorded live and seat-of-the pants. ." - John Koenig, November 30, 2011











John Koenig's words give insight in how carefully recordings were mastered, and how slight alterations to the procedure were made in respect to the equipment used at the time. It explains also that the entire production of a title was truly a work of art. The slight addition of reverb can be noticed here and there, for instance in Whisper Not (Black Hawk 3 - S7579) which gives the performance just that little extra of realism. Yet the OJC editions are practically the only affordable ones if you want early items like The Two (with pianist Russ Freeman) and The Three (with Shorty Rogers and Jimmy Giuffre).

When a member of a Steve Hoffman forum posted the account given by John Koenig about the annotations concerning the mastering of various recordings, Steve Hoffman found it necessary to write the following comment: "Stop reposting that Koenig thing. It's really not accurate at all. Just a guy pissed off because they didn't include him in. I like John but this just ain't true." (September 11, 2013). Why did not he confer with John Koenig before making this negative remark?

DECCA Plates for Vogue

 I was even more aware of the meaning of John Koenig's instructions for cutting the lacquers when I had acquired an early British Contemporary-Vogue edition of Shelly Manne and His Men at the Manne Hole, pressed from plates cut by the Decca engineers and pressed in the Decca pressing plant. The dead wax mentions ZMGT-1834 1W, 1835-1W, 1836-1W, 1837-1W. So these are early plates. The labels say 'RECORDING FIRST PUBLISHED 1961', reference SCA 5032/3. British Decca have designed and built their own typical electronics connected to the cutting lathe they use and they devised their own specific vinyl mix when they were producing the early SXL 2000, 2100, 2200 series.

After listening to the Vogue-Decca edition I lightheartedly put on the same song but now of the original Contemporary record made in the US. I was expecting a slight difference. But I was not prepared for a surprise. The British records lacked some of the warmth, the realism, the tangibility, and the ambiance in Shelly's club which is shown in the Contemporary issue of the recording. This suggests that apart from the fact that the valve console and amplifiers used by Contemporary are of high quality and differ substantially from the Decca electronics, the Vogue products - though sounding very correct - could have sounded more like the original release if the Decca engineers would have had instructions, already then.

Digital Audio on LP and Compact Disc

Eventually Contemporary Records moved into the digital era. At right the covers of two recordings: C14012, California Concert (1984), and C14026, Bebop Lives (1986) with the indication "Recorded Direct To Digital". They were issued on LP. No Compact Disc equivalent of either one could be traced in Schwann catalogs from 1984, 1985 and 1987. The new digital format confronted any producer and any sound engineer with a few difficulties. Apart from the limitations of the digital format in those days, the biggest problem was that multitrack recorders - if available - were very expensive. Making multitrack recordings with the Multi-channel Ampex tape recorder as used by Contemporary in the years before was out of the question; unless you wanted to make an analog recording and convert it to the digital format afterwards. So the sound picked up by the various microphones had to be balanced on the spot, and the signals had to be mixed down then and there to the two channels of a basic stereo recording. These signals were then converted by a Sony PCM-F1, or a PCM 1630, and recorded on a U-matic or even a Betamax video recorder.

On the Spot

No re-mixing at a later date was possible. That is what "direct to digital" in most cases meant. The cover of Bebop Lives says that the performances were recorded and mixed aboard the Aura Sonic Mobile Unit by engineer Tom Mark. Given the equipment's capabilities, most recording engineers did a fine job when recording in a studio, but making a live recording was not all that easy. Whether the artistry of the musicians playing during the California Concert is worth listening to or not, is to be judged by the listener. However, the technical aspects of that and other recordings cannot be compared to Contemporary's analog recording technique of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, employed in whatever setting, be it club or studio, and the mastering and pressing of the quality discs.
Fantasy continued to make recordings to be issued on the Contemporary label. up to and included 1997. You may want to view The Contemporary Records Discography Project. Lateron the new life with Fantasy in the digital domain was cut short and Contemporary
became history.

This page is an adaptation and expansion of an article first published in 1995 of which an edited version also appeared in Analog Aktuell, the magazine of the Analog Audio Association, Germany. Page researched and written by Rudolf A. Bruil and first published on the web on June 28, 2010.

I am indebted to John Koenig for his recollections, comments and additional information.

Visit dadocerra's YouTube channel

Lester Koenig Topic on YouTube

Checkmate - The King Swings (1962 broadcast)

Salute to Contemporary Records


The original inner sleeve
with the listed releases.



California Concert with Bud Shank and Shorty Rogers on Contemporary C-14012 from 1984 - Bud Shank (alto sax), Shorty Rogers (flugelhorn), George Cables (piano), Monty Budwig (bass) and Sherman Ferguson (drums)

Bebop Lives with Frank Morgan Quintet on Contemporary C14026 from 1986- Frank Morgan (alto), Johnny Coles (flugelhorn), Cedar Walton (piano), Buster Williams (bass), Billy Higgins (drums).




It's Sand Man, Makin' Whoopy, Kansas City Tango, Ah-Leu-Cha, Echoes of Harlem, Mia, Aurex



















Page first published on the web June 28, 2010 and updated since.
My thanks to John Koenig for submitting his recollections which were added to the page on November 30, 2011.


Audio&Music Bulletin - Rudolf A. Bruil, Editor - Copyright 1995-2011 by Rudolf A. Bruil