Collecting Their Thoughts

Scientists reveal rare and aggressive species! Hide (or seek) those old records before it's too late!

Just like every other species that has survived through natural selection, so has the collector of jazz recordings. Contemporary observers claim to have spotted prototypes of this creature as far back as the early Twenties, when King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Jelly Roll Morton, and Bix Beiderbecke first began to record. If we are to believe these reports, the majority of the record buyers then were either other jazz musicians or slightly younger people who would someday join that fraternity.

Survival hasn't been easy. Even the most time-proven recorded performances of the classic era rarely sold in excess of 10,000 copies at the time of their release - when the highest price for any jazz record was 75 cents. Couple that with the twin factors of carelessness and ignorance - which resulted in mishandling, breakage, and the shellac-recycling effort that supposedly helped us win WWII - and you have an idea why some collectors today will pay hundreds for an especially rare, mint-condition 78 that somehow managed to survive the Holocaust.

To be a jazz collector requires a variety of talents, skills, and opportunities; this is where natural selection comes in. Many collectors have come and gone over the years. And those who've drifted off into apathy, maturity, or other, more easily satisfied challenges, such as sex, have only enriched the soil for the fittest, the true survivors. These are the ones who, with vulturelike sharpness of scent and the conscience of a corporate raider, zoom in on the objects of their quest with only one thing in mind - to further swell their own already-stuffed larders.

You've probably seen the dropouts, too, although you may not have recognized them as such. They are usually rather well off, but they don't look happy. Invariably, they are gray-visaged, bloodless men who can be found loitering around the front doors of LP-resale shops, looking and listening but never going in. By contrast the active collector brims with energy. He may be scruffy, but his eyes bespeak a man driven by divine inspiration, a knight, if you will, but one in service of his own temple, his own shrine to himself. In his time, he has seen many a competitor drop out of the race, but this has only brought him that much closer to his goal. It comes, as always, this savage lust for the kill, when the long-awaited gap-filler in a complete series of a certain artist or band is spotted.

What could be more sensually gratifying than to be able to fill in, after years of anticipation, the nagging hole left in a series of ten by an elusive Volume IV? Or, if that sounds too compulsive, what about discovering an unknown, privately recorded tape of Charlie Parker jamming with Bud Powell in Gil Evans's pad? Is there any pleasure, human or otherwise, that can compare with this sense of fulfillment, this earthly glimpse of the finite order of the universe? Certainly, to the true jazz collector, there is not.

Back in the days of 78s, collecting was hit or miss. The pioneers of the movement scoured the junk shops, antique stores, and Salvation Army repositories; they canvassed private residences in virtually every rural and urban black community in America; they unearthed vast caches of unplayed records in warehouses and radio stations. They bought, usually for pennies each, countless numbers of forgettable pop records in the hope there might be enough meaningful jazz items in the batch to make the purchase worthwhile. All this they did in order to piece together a patchwork quilt we now call Jazz History. Without question, the history was made by the musicians. But how much of it would we understand today without the records that document their playing?

What many of these smart old lads and their younger disciples are doing now is investing heavily in CD reissues of classic jazz. It may not come as much of a surprise to learn that, in addition to cornering the market on almost everything else American, Japan has also produced a new breed of millionaire jazz collector who can, with the mere stroke of a pen, buy out entire personal collections. In reaction to this recent change in the market, some older collectors have opted to play their game in accordance with the new economic order. They did the grimy job of digging deep into our nation's cultural history to find these artifacts, now they're ready to pass on some of their holdings to others. But the smart guys among them will not do it at a loss. There is a great deal of money to be made in the sale of collectibles. But most sane jazz collectors do not merely collect records; they collect the music on them. And that's the salient point.

Jazz records are not bottle caps or baseball cards. They are not campaign buttons, matchbook covers, or postage stamps. Far from being mute artifacts of a bygone age, they are our only audible evidence of something as intangible and ineffable as a jazzman's heart and mind. They are irreplicable, inimitable documents of creative moments captured in time, moments that tell us more about the human condition than any number of historical analyses or scholarly dissertations. Jazz records are our history. They tell us how people felt and thought, not what they did. And because the emotions and ideas transmitted through music are, however ironically, both more direct and abstract than those conveyed through words or even pictures, it follows that they should be able to touch everyone and enfold even more people into a common cause of oneness. But why this hasn't happened yet is, as they say, the subject of another show.

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