Bedside Jazz

Sometimes You Want It All—But Usually You Don’t

The joy of anthologies is giving yourself up to someone else's taste. It was precisely that joy that chaperoned many of us through the historic realm of jazz during the LP era. If you bought the Columbia Golden Era Series or RCA Vintage compilations or Decca Heritage collections, you got a short-order survey of flash points, one masterpiece after another. In the 78 era, reissues meant pricey, bulky photo-album sets, rarely with more than six or eight sides. The LP greased the process of salvaging history. A jazz expert like George Avakian or Mike Lipskin would select 12 or 14 or 16 tracks, the best in that person's judgment to represent a given artist, and a generation was weaned on the old even as it pursued the new. Then a strange thing happened. After you had committed to memory every measure of the 12 classics on Lady Day, you wanted more. So the label released a boxed set (48 tracks), which did well enough to justify a second box. By now you had heard a helluva lot of Billie Holiday and you wanted to get beyond the anthologist's subjectivity: You wanted everything. You bought imports and bootlegs, traded tapes, focused on chronology and the sessions themselves, railed against the capitalist pigs who were keeping all this stuff in their goddam vaults.

Ultimately, some of you went to the trough yourselves and began producing reissues, offering the public what you had once hungered for: completeness—every track, in order, with every alternate take, short take, false take, plus studio chatter and even (cf. the CD version of Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall concert) the sound of furniture removal. By 1990, our shelves sloped under grave-marker boxes—historical documents that tried to reveal what really happened at those once secret conferences laughingly known as recording sessions. And we listened and we marveled. Once. And then we went back to the anthologies—except that not many of them made the transition from vinyl. Most younger producers, stamp collectors at heart, were too modest or inept to pick and choose. When they did choose, they sometimes relied not on musical taste but on ancient chart rankings.

As an occasional teacher during the first decade of the CD, my hardest job was recommending records. Students did not want and could not afford the complete works. They wanted 12 Lady Day masterpieces, or maybe 25. What's more, the sound was so offensive (particularly on the early Columbia and RCA CDs) that those of us who didn't know our high end from our rear end suddenly discovered that it was possible to filter all the joy out of records that had sounded just fine for 50 years.

The pendulum has swung back. It may be cold comfort or none at all to acknowledge an upturn in reissues at a time when major labels are turning thumbs down on living jazz musicians, but right now jazz classics are a better investment than Microsoft. The outstanding reissues of recent months include admirable examples of long-sought completeness and the best series of anthologies since the advent of the CD. Ideally, they ought to work together. But such is the topsy-turvy world of jazz that instead of getting a crème de la crème disc of Mildred Bailey that leads to a complete works, we begin with the latter—and hope it will generate enough attention and sales to spur the interest of the copyright owner, Columbia. Meanwhile, The Complete Columbia Recordings of Mildred Bailey, a limited edition (5000) set from the mail-order company Mosaic (203-327-7111), does what a serious survey ought to. In this instance, it isn't just a handy storage box, but an argument on behalf of an important but long-neglected artist—an overdue assessment (voluminous notes by Will Friedwald) and a chance to follow her career from 1929 to 1942 (she recorded for other labels during the same period and through 1951) with an exactness never previously possible.

The key years here are the mid '30s, when Bailey rarely took a false step. During that period, following the decline of Ethel Waters and Bessie Smith and before the rise of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, Mildred, along with Holiday and their male counterparts, Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, was a dominant force in jazz and pop singing. If her high girlish voice seems to date her, her impeccable time and phrasing and extraordinary subtlety keep her current. Having recently written at length about Bailey (www.villagevoice.com/issues/0023/giddins2.shtml), I will defer to a singer friend who succinctly explained why she remains so compelling: "You always believe her." More than half the 214 tracks, including 36 alternates, are new to me, and I'm only beginning to glean the details. When I first played through the 10 discs, I grumbled that the alternate versions hadn't been collected at the end. I've changed my mind: After a perfect take of, say, "Rockin' Chair," you wonder why she would take another. Discreet tweaking is the invariably rewarding answer. In this regard, the great January 10, 1938, session ("Thanks for the Memory," "Lover Come Back to Me") is most illuminating.

In addition to Red Norvo's wittily baronial orchestra, her accompanists include Eddie Lang, the Dorseys, Bunny Berigan, Casa Loma, Benny Goodman, Coleman Hawkins, Teddy Wilson, Chu Berry, Ben Webster, Ed Hall, Buck Clayton, Artie Shaw, Mary Lou Williams, Roy Eldridge, and the Charioteers—a serious chunk of jazz history. One caveat: Bailey, though partly Native American, unaccountably sang several numbers of the that-little-colored-boy-is-so-cute-he's-practically-human variety; prepare yourself for a handful of gwines and a Larry Hart lyric about a Harlem songwriter in the woodpile. History needs to acknowledge them; an anthologist doesn't.

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