The man who first recorded Oliver Jones, Ranee Lee, The Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir and Diana Krall’s first album is celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Justin Time Records the company he founded in 1983 and built to become Canada’s biggest jazz record label.

Jim West was awarded the prestigious Order of Canada on July 1, 2022 for his contribution to the performing arts in Canada. Ironically some of his artists preceded him, including Oliver Jones and Trevor Payne, Founder of The Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir. “I was often consulted by a person in the Governor General’s office about candidates whose nomination was being considered. When she called in June of 2022, I asked who she was calling about. ‘Its about you Jim… what would you think about being made a member of the Order of Canada?’ I was floored! Of course – that would be lovely!”

Jim West

Jim’s office is packed with awards and memorabilia gathered in his 40 years at the helm of Justin Time Records

While Jim West is still very close to the artists he started out with, he keeps the label fresh and relevant with new jazz talents, including the immensely talented jazz pianist Taurey Butler. Three ‘new’ Justin Time artists have been nominated and received JUNO Awards, confirming the quality of the label’s emerging talent, and adding to the many JUNO Awards already won by Justin Time artists. Jim West’s decency and integrity have earned him the trust and respect from the many musicians and singers that Justin Time has recorded.

Jim West got his first taste of the music business when he managed a couple of rehearsal studios on St. Catherine Street, in the same building that housed a Youth Clinic. “We had some terrific musicians come through those practice rooms; guys like Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush, Bob Segarini and The Wackers, and I’m sure that April Wine must have been there too,” In the early 70s he also helped to set up equipment for rock shows at the Montreal Forum; promoted by the legendary Donald Tarlton, better known as Donald K Donald. Jim went on to learn the record business at the retail level when he was hired to help open the massive Sam The Record Man store on St. Catherine Street.

“Oscar was sitting at the piano and asked; ‘What do you want me to play Jim?’ Oscar said ‘How about some Gospel.” He played and it was magnificent. He said quietly; “I wish my sister was here so that she could have heard that.” 

“I also worked as a roadie, setting up equipment for Donald K Donald at the shows he produced at The Forum in the early 70s. I helped out with The Rolling Stones, Alice Cooper and many other groups that he brought in.”

“I got involved with Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush, travelling all over Quebec. Frank and I are still good friends and we speak regularly. He’s an incredible musician, and I still get booking requests for him. At one time – we did 300 shows in a year.”

“I was then hired to assist in opening up the huge Sam The Record Man store. I worked there part time while I was earning my Political Science degree at McGill. I learned a lot from Sam himself, why it was important to check for misfiled albums, how to set up displays, posters and everything you needed to know about record retailing.” Jim worked his way up to being the head buyer for the Quebec region. However, it was a family business, and Jim wasn’t part of the family. He knew that to get ahead – he’d eventually have to move on.

“I got a job with a company that imported and distributed records, so it was an opportunity to learn another part of the business. Unfortunately, they closed after I’d been there for only six months.” In lieu of severance pay, the company paid Jim with unsold records, racks and even office furniture. It turned out to be a silver lining… “I was in business overnight. I had an inventory and display racks for the stores. I set up my business in the basement of my house.”

“One night some friends and I went to Biddle’s for dinner and to listen to some jazz. Oliver Jones was playing piano, Charlie Biddle on bass and Bernard Primeau was the drummer. The place was packed, and people stood up and clapped and cheered after the show – they loved it!” Continuing, Jim adds; “I introduced myself to Oliver and said that I’d like to record him – I was sure that I could sell his music.”  Jim recalls that Oliver was polite but didn’t seem particularly excited about the invitation to make a recording. “Oliver later told me that club patrons (perhaps fueled with some liquid courage) would often approach him to record, and that he’d never hear from them. He said; ‘Jim – you actually called me and followed up’.”

“George Durst had a small office on the upper floor, and we set up recording console in a part of his office.” Oliver Jones’ first album was also a first for Jim West and his fledgling company, Justin Time Records. “Oliver’s Live At Biddle’s was JT-001, our first recording.” Since then, Jim West and Oliver Jones have been steadfast friends, recording music over a thirty-five year span.

Oliver Jones trusted Jim and as their friendship grew, Oliver would encourage Jim to record other artists. “Oliver also encouraged me to record Ranee Lee, and once again his advice was excellent. Live At The Bijou was Ranee’s first album with us, and she’s still recording and touring.”

“Oliver was the organist in the early days of The Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir directed by Trevor Payne. Oliver encouraged me to listen to the choir, and we have recorded all of their albums.” Along the way, Jim has forged a deep personal bond with the choir’s Founder and Musical Director, Dr. Trevor W. Payne.

Jim West

Jim West celebrated the 40th Anniversary of Justin Time Records with many of his artists performing on consecutive evenings at the UpStairs Jazz Bar & Grill

“After producing many albums with my core artists and other musicians, Oliver came to me and said that I had to go hear a young female jazz pianist. I did, and then we had lunch in Kingston where she was performing. She agreed to record three albums with Justin Time, and we signed Diana Krall to her first recording contract; agreeing to produce three albums.

Continuing, Jim adds “Oliver was JT-001 and Diana Krall was JT-050; so we’d already come a long way. After recording her debut album, we booked some shows for Diana in New York. The folks from Universal wanted to take her over and give her a much larger distribution in the US and beyond. I didn’t want to hold back her progress… I agreed to license her next two albums, and requested her Canadian distribution rights for subsequent recordings after the two remaining on her contract with Justin Time. They wouldn’t agree to that, so I decided to not to give them her first album – which Justin Time retains to this day. The important thing is that Diana’s career blossomed and everyone involved did well.”

Another highlight was working with and recording the incomparable Oscar Peterson. Once again, the longtime friendship between Oliver and Oscar played a role. “Even though Oscar was still recovering from a stroke, he could do more with one hand than most musicians with two.”

Jim recalls a request for the legendary pianist to autograph an album that featured Oscar and trumpeter Louis Armstrong. “Oscar held that CD and looked at it without saying a word. As the seconds ticked by, I began to fear that I’d made some kind of faux pas… He finally turned to me and said; ‘Do you know how much fun we had making this record?’ My request had brought back a flood of sweet memories to Oscar. I still have that autographed CD.”

Jim had another project to record a three volume album set of some the world’s greatest jazz pianists… one of them being Oscar Peterson. (This memory of Jim’s includes Daisy Sweeney, who was Oscar’s older sister and taught Oscar and Oliver Jones – along with many other children in the Little Burgundy neighbourhood.) “Oscar was sitting at the piano and asked; ‘What do you want me to play Jim?’ I froze, with my jaw hanging open. Here was the world’s greatest jazz pianist asking me what I wanted him to play. I hemmed and hawed, and Oscar said; ‘How about some Gospel.” He played and it was magnificent. He said quietly; “I wish my sister was here so that she could have heard that.”

Jim has travelled the world with his artists and to attend industry conferences. It was during a tour of major African cities with Oliver Jones that Jim came to appreciate the devotion that his first artist had for children. “We had this tour all set up for Oliver to perform for various heads of state, and it was going to pay very well. Olive stipulated one condition; that we also go out to a school and play for the children. And so we did. Oliver’s ability to captivate the attention of children and attract them to music is inspiring. Frankly Peter, it was a gift to be a part of that experience.”

Jim and the company weathered some tough times, but have continued to produce promising and talented jazz musicians and singers. “We owned a fairly large building on Cote de Liesse, and that turned in an expense that we couldn’t really afford. As music purchasing habits moved to online, we had to close our distribution business, and that was expensive.” Through it all, Jim and label General Manager Nancy Marley continued to find, evaluate and record artists, adapting to the rapidly changing climate of the music business. “It’s changed so much – you can’t even find a record store in New York City!”

“Most people now buy their music online, and for not much money. Jazz continues to sell on CDs, and the growing resurgence in vinyl albums. However, the artists now make most of their money from live shows; which also provides a chance to sell large quantities of CDs. A CD is a great souvenir to remember an exceptional performance.” In fact, the willingness and ability to perform live are now part of the criteria used when Jim is considering an artist for Justin Time Records.

In a previous interview, Jim acknowledged that he never really had a ‘master plan’, that he was fortunate to have the ability to recognize talented artists. Having a solid background in the retail aspect of the record business was also a big asset.

Perhaps the embodiment of Jim West’s contribution and achievement in creating Canada’s largest jazz recording company came when The Montreal International Jazz Festival Co-Founder André Ménard presented Jim with the festival’s Bruce Lundvall Award in 2016. Lundvall was the President and CEO of the venerable Blue Note jazz label, and he was credited for successfully re-building that iconic label to international prominence. The award is presented “to a non-musician who has left a mark on the world of jazz or contributing to the development of the music through the media, concert or record industries.”

During the course of our conversations, I was impressed by Jim’s respect for the artists that he represents, and that he has a clear vision of his role in promoting their artistry – all to the good for his first love: Justin Time Records. Bravo!

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