Post-Bop Shopping

For fans in general and collectors in particular, a crucial social locus enters the virtual age

A friend of mine who took a jazz history course taught by Archie Shepp at SUNY Buffalo in the late '60s recalls one class in particular. After playing a track by Charlie Parker, Shepp reached for the tonearm and seemed about to say something and . . . scraaatchh. "It's only a record," he said. My friend still isn't sure whether Shepp scratched the record accidentally or on purpose, so she doesn't know if he meant records were replaceable or not to be trusted—simulacra, we'd say now. Either way, point taken. Because it's been drummed into us that jazz is fleeting, revealing its essence only in live performance, even those of us whose collections number in the thousands tend to be ambivalent about recordings—guilty about owning so many, or maybe just guilty about owning. Yet if not for their recordings, hardly anyone alive would know what Parker, Clifford Brown, or Art Tatum sounded like—they would be as mythic as Buddy Bolden. Max Roach once referred to recordings as musicians' "textbooks," and their liner notes and personnel listings, together with the legacy they preserve, make them indispensable references for anyone who writes about jazz: I fact-check by reaching for an LP or CD as often as I do by reaching for a discography or Feather and Gitler.

Filling in historical gaps is one of a critic's duties, which is why I've recently gone about acquiring so many used LPs from the 1960s by overlooked European improvisers and composers. But I'd be lying if I said professional obligation is the only reason I collect. The satirist David Sedaris once wrote me that on his first trip to Paris he was skipping the city's cathedrals and museums in favor of clothing stores and bookshops—he didn't want to waste time looking at anything he couldn't buy and take home.

Maybe he was being facetious, but in quoting him I'm not. For me, it's record stores, preferably ones specializing in used LPs. Beginning with Milt Gabler's Commodore Record Shop (birthplace of the first independent jazz label, the first jazz reissues, and the first jazz discography published in the U.S.), record stores have been more than sales outlets. Dial, which issued some of Charlie Parker's most indelible sides in the late 1940s, was founded out of a record shop, and so was Delmark, the label that gave us our first taste of the AACM two decades later. The aisles of record stores have been gathering places for the jazz faithful, and significant developments have resulted from chance encounters in them: John Zorn and Bill Frisell struck up a friendship, and then a musical partnership, when Zorn was clerking at the Soho Music Gallery in the late 1970s; and Matt Shipp met the hip-hop experimentalists Priest, Beans, and M. Sayyid when browsing in Other Music on East 4th Street a few years ago. When Tower opened downtown in 1983, the staff included Tim Berne, Butch Morris, Frank Lowe, and Melvin Gibbs.

Collector examines iconic vinyl at Manhattan's Academy Records
photo: Cary Conover
Collector examines iconic vinyl at Manhattan's Academy Records

Details

'Voice' Jazz Supplement

Institutionalized: JAZZ and the retailer/record label/arts center/museum/university/conservatory

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    You could even make a case for used record stores as art galleries. Thirty years ago, whenever I was in New York, I'd make it a point to drop in at Golden Oldies on Bleecker Street to check if Presenting the Fabulous Ronettes was still on the wall. At $50, I couldn't afford to buy it, but I could visit it—the same way you would a Picasso or Van Gogh. High art is immortalized in museums and concert halls, and you can't buy it, because it's supposedly everybody's by definition; popular art, though believed to be perishable, is resurrected again and again in secondhand shops, and it's yours if you can meet the asking price and nobody beats you to it.

    At the risk of intellectualizing what is probably a compulsion (if it wasn't records, it would be something else), my urge to collect stems in part from a fascination with the process by which a mass-produced object can eventually become so scarce it's vied for. To a certain type of collector—my type—that vintage comic book, baseball card, campaign button, or paperback original is valuable not just because it's rare but because it didn't used to be. Same goes for the LPs that lined the walls of retailers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the first decade of the 12-inch, long-playing record—and maybe more to the point, a storied period for jazz and the last in which it held its own commercially.

    Along with the sheer randomness of it all—the dumb luck involved in one day finding an album you've wanted forever, in good condition and ridiculously underpriced—part of what lures many jazz collectors is a preoccupation with the few years they just missed out on, before they started going to clubs and buying records. Deep-groove Blue Notes with the West 63rd Street address from the late 1950s are an obsession with many of my middle-aged friends who began listening to jazz in the late '60s or early '70s, by which point Blue Note had been sold to United Artists and surrendered its mystique. They're Gatsbys, these guys, borne back ceaselessly into the past—their green light is the "ear" engraved in the dead wax of a Blue Note first pressing.

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