Six-Time Grammy-Winning Nonprofit Record Label Founder
Six-time Grammy-winning nonprofit classical music label Cedille Records, founded by Jim Ginsburg ’83 in 1989, has enhanced the world’s catalog of classical music with more than 185 albums and 250 world-premiere recordings with a unique Chicago focus. A Grammy-nominated producer himself, Jim released Notorious RBG in Song—the label’s 178th record—in June 2018 in honor of the 25th anniversary of his mother, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s, appointment to the Supreme Court.
More than 70 artists (soloists and ensembles) have made their first commercially released album with Ginsburg’s Cedille, including Third Coast Percussion, Anthony McGill, and Eighth Blackbird (whose four Grammy-winning records were all on Jim’s label). Still others, like violin virtuosos Rachel Barton Pine and Jennifer Koh, joined Cedille early on in their careers. These extraordinary artists have found the same kind of rich, organic collaboration with Jim and collaborators at Cedille that he found at GDS.
Jim Ginsburg ’83 (known as James in High School) came to GDS in 1980 when his mother—whom he lovingly and interchangeably refers to as “mom” and “RBG”—got “a good job” in DC, as his father Martin Ginsburg liked to say of his wife’s appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
They moved to DC from New York City, where Martin was teaching at Columbia University Law School, while Ruth was at Rutgers, Columbia, and the ACLU, and Jim was attending the Dalton School.
Jim recalled, “Sophomore year, my first at GDS, was a transitional year for me from being a horrible student to becoming a good student. Frankly, at the Dalton School, I was not a good student because [Dalton in the 70s] was, for me, an uninspiring place to learn.”
It was while at Dalton in 1973 that third-grader Jim commandeered an elevator, and the Dalton Headmaster ran afoul of RBG. The story has been preserved in “The Elevator Thief,” the 7th track of Notorious RBG in Song.
In soaring vocals, Jim’s wife Patrice Michaels, the featured performer and composer of the album’s main work, invokes young Jim the prankster—
“I did it on a dare. I only took it up one floor. (I wish it had been more!)”—
and the headmaster’s blunder—
”I find I need to call you once again, Mrs. Ginsburg. It’s unfortunate I’m calling you once more.”
And with her now-famous, equity-based remonstration, Mrs. Ginsburg won a clear point for equal rights—
“My dear Headmaster Barr, things have really gone too far / I remind you that this child has got two parents! / Beginning now, henceforth, today, ad infinitum, / Please alternate the calls about our son and his behavior.”
"My behavior didn't improve,” Jim told NPR’s Nina Totenberg. “But somehow the calls became much more infrequent when they had to consider bothering a man about my behavior.”
“GDS was a whole new world for me,” Jim explained. “It was so intimate, and my classmates were so amazing. I loved the informal atmosphere, and I thought it was wonderful being on a first name basis with my teachers.”
Jim came alive at GDS: he joined the math team under coach Joe Wolfson, Model U.N. with teacher Gary Nicolai, studied art history with Janet Hahn, and wrote English papers that still bring him pride today. Long-time English teacher John Burghardt remembers Jim being “alive to the text from the start. A student whose eyes would light up when I was making a point—one of the live minds in the room. I also remember him being an eerily good piano player.”
Jim and his family lived in the Watergate, across from the Kennedy Center, and between the Kennedy Center and GDS, his music life thrived. In September 1981, the National Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Mstislav Rostropovich, gave a tribute concert on what would have been the 75th birthday of Dmitri Shostakovich. It was a turning point for Jim. “He was a composer I was completely unfamiliar with, and it was a life-changing experience,” Jim recalled. “The music was like nothing I’d heard before. I became fascinated—even obsessed—with Shostakovich. I started going to the Martin Luther King Jr. Library to gather every record I could find of his music.”
Jim carried Shostakovich with him, weaving his music into his time at GDS. After taking a music history class at GDS with Terri (Williams) Surabian during his junior year, Jim taught the class in his senior year—with a new two-week unit on Shostakovich. “Back then, he was more controversial,” Jim explained. “There were still a lot of critics who had turned up their noses at Shostakovich as being too romantic or a soviet realist. They didn’t understand the true nature and genius of his music. Today, he’s one of the most popular 20th century composers. I like to think I was on the leading edge of that.”
“In my 15 years teaching at GDS, I don’t believe I ever had a student who loved classical music as much as James did,” Terri wrote in a recent reflection. “One of my favorite memories of James, however, was his role as emcee for our High School concert featuring the music of P.D.Q. Bach [the fictional composer created by musical satirist Peter Schickele]. James, of course, wrote a well-researched script, full of corny jokes, and appeared in the loudest plaid jacket you can imagine. James won my heart not only with his passion for classical music, but also with his endearing sense of humor. At the same time, James had an extraordinarily advanced knowledge of musical form, style, and repertoire. Add to this his genuine delight in the music of masters such as Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven and you had a scholarly, dynamic, and funny musicologist.”
Then, as is the case for many GDS alumni, the passions developed while at GDS continued into adulthood. Even as Jim started to pursue the law, like his parents and sister before him, his pursuit of classical music continued in counterpoint.
Always, it seemed, classical music conspired to keep Jim close. While at the University of Chicago as an undergrad, Jim worked as a classical DJ for the mixed-format campus radio station WHPK and eventually ran the format. Then, serendipitously, during the second week of Jim’s summer internship at Nonesuch Records, the office secretary was promoted to sales at the parent company Elektra Records. “For two and a half months, I was the secretary,” Jim recalled. “Everything went through my desk, and I really got a sense of how to run a record label.”
“[While reviewing for the magazine American Record Guide after college] I began to notice the difference between a recording that was well-produced or not, realizing it was the recording—even more than the artists who were on the album—that could make a difference in the listening experience between an album worth having and one not worth listening to.”
Jim at long last set about to try his hand at producing. While preparing to return to the University of Chicago for law school, he connected with an engineer friend working part-time at WFMT, Chicago’s classical radio station. As Jim considered whom to record, the friend “started surreptitiously sending me tapes of live broadcasts, and I very quickly settled on the Russian emigree pianist Dmitri Paperno.”
In the fall of 1989, Jim’s first album was released. It found distribution right away, and Jim found himself creating a classical music label and beginning law school at the same time—he chose music, leaving behind law school after one year. For the first time, classical music took the lead melody in his life. And so from day one, Cedille has been devoted to recording and promoting Chicago’s finest classical musicians to a worldwide audience.
“What’s unique and fantastic about his recordings—aside from the fantastic quality—is the added element of local artistry,” explained Nick Martin ‘84, Director of Operations at Chicago’s Lyric Opera and now co-author on his mother’s Ms. Manners (GDS alumna Judith Martin) publications. “For me and for Chicagoans, there is a great deal of civic pride still in the city. That’s not an outdated concept here, and Jim has made such wonderful use of the many talented artists in the city that we also use at the Lyric Opera: Barbara Haffner the cellist—his wife Patrice...”
In 2013, soprano and composer Patrice Michaels, who has been with the Cedille label since 1991 (and married to Jim since 2010), created a song that eventually became part of a song cycle that is the centerpiece of her Notorious RBG In Song album.
On the occasion of RBG’s 80th birthday, Jim and his sister Jane Ginsburg commissioned three songs by three women composers based on texts from RBG’s life. Patrice was one of them, presenting “Anita’s Story,” the feminist awakening of a law firm typist working her way through RBG’s legal pad notes on gender discrimination. “RBG converted me...through typing.” The 80th birthday party was held at the Supreme Court, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of her appointment to the Supreme Court. Jim explained, “It was such a success that Patrice started thinking, ‘What if I looked at other aspects of her life and made an actual song cycle.’”
On her own, Patrice began expanding the collection, which eventually included the aforementioned “The Elevator Thief,” several RBG dissents, two additional collaborators—enough for nearly an hour of song about RBG’s life. Patrice had originally planned to record the song cycle archivally, but Jim sensed an album in the collection. He produced the sessions for what became a remarkable celebration of RBG’s completion of 25 years on the United States Supreme Court. A touching tribute—or perhaps penance for all those prankster years before Jim found himself a home at GDS.
Jim continues to carry GDS with him, echoing the spirit of our mission in a behind-the-scenes interview for Cedille. He might just as easily be speaking of the way Georgetown Day School values the wisdom, talents, and passions of each individual. “One thing that makes Cedille special is that we aren’t really pitching repertoire. The artists come to us with their ideas and tell us, ‘Here’s the music I’m most passionate about’....When artists play the music they care most about, we get the best performances.”
“2018 really was the year for RBG,” Jim reflected. You can learn more about Jim and and the Ginsburgs’ story between the documentary RBG, the album Notorious RBG in Song, and the feature film On the Basis of Sex, written by Jim’s cousin Daniel Stiepleman. Jim produces an episode of Cedille’s Classical Chicago Podcast to accompany each newly released album, including Notorious RBG in Song. You can also contribute to support Cedille’s musical mission by visiting http://www.cedillerecords.org
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Six-Time Grammy-Winning Nonprofit Record Label Founder
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