Collecting Their Thoughts

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.

The way it's going now, the experienced collectors, those with an ear to the music and an eye to the future, are not giving up their lifetime acquisitions just to make a quick buck or even many thousands; they are gradually replacing their collections of jazz 78s and LPs with CD reissues. But where does the average (read impoverished) collector go to find all these historical and musical indispensibles that people like me keep writing about? Overseas, of course.

The truly industrious jazz collector will never be a passive dupe of the major American recording companies or, even less, the avaricious retail chain outlets that shape public taste through ignorant and discriminatory marketing practices. Since by nature he is both single-minded and relentless, he will seek out his quarry, wherever it may be. And in the case of high quality, conscientiously produced reissues of classic jazz, he will turn to Europe.

There were quite a few Americans who took their jazz seriously enough in the Twenties and Thirties to buy records and even keep them, but from the earliest years on, it was the Europeans - primarily the British, French, Belgians, and Swiss - for whom the study of jazz became life's controlling passion. They wrote the first intelligent criticism; they compiled the first discographies; and they sculpted the first, albeit groping, histories. They had the first regional appreciation societies and even, by example, influenced American record companies to bring back into circulation earlier records. These were the first reissues. The fever spread, and independent bootleg jazz labels began sprouting up in Australia, Italy, Spain, Argentina. While the more passive stateside collector was content to wait for the occasional obligatory bone thrown him by the American majors - Victor (RCA), Columbia (CBS), and Decca (GRP) - his more intrepid counterpart spread his net globally to haul in rarities to this day not recognized by U.S. labels.

This does not mean, however, that the interested collector has to seek out each and every foreign jazz label and deal with them individually. Stepping in to perform that service is the so-called "one-stop" mail-order distributor. The function of this middleman is to facilitate import purchases by dealing directly with foreign companies or their agents, buying in bulk to cut down costs in shipping, and, for the most part, passing the savings along to customers. These distributors don't advertise in the general press, so one has to ferret deep in the underground.

A good start would be to learn something about these various labels and their recent releases. Such factors as stylistic orientation, quality of remastering, access to previously unissued titles or alternate takes, average playing time per CD, and price range are the major elements to consider before taking the plunge. But even to get this far takes some doing, because such rarefied information is generally confined to the review pages of specialist jazz magazines, hardly the sort of reading matter one would find in convenience stores, supermarkets, or the local library. I refer specifically to such English-language publications as Jazz Times, Down Beat, Cadence, and The Mississippi Rag in America, Coda in Canada, and Jazz Journal International in England.

In addition to articles, news items, and relevant album and concert reviews by knowledgeable critics, many of whom are also musicians, these magazines carry in their advertising a virtual directory of jazz specialist shops and mail-order distributors, both here and abroad. Admittedly, the absorbing hobby of jazz collecting involves both time and money, but with the right sort of guidance these investments can be kept to a minimum, while the major goals - enjoyment, fulfillment, and heightened awareness - become increasingly a part of everyday life.


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