Post-Bop Shopping

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

The majors inadvertently created a booming market for used jazz in the 1970s, when at any given point it seemed as if a good percentage of the essential works from previous decades was out of print. Fantasy's OJC facsimile series and completist labels like Mosaic soon came to the rescue, though what opened the floodgates was the sudden need for "new" product that resulted from the introduction of the CD in 1983—reissues became the new technology's ghost in the machine. It's the music that counts, right? Even so, there are still collectors for whom only original pressings will do.

Me, I'm OK with CD reissues, and I like the size and portability of CDs. I limit my hunt to older albums that don't figure to reappear on the market anytime soon. One I finally nabbed a few years ago was the 1957 Riverside double Coleman Hawkins: A Documentary, a talking record on which the saxophone patriarch reminisces about the early days. I happened to mention I was looking for it during a phone conversation with a dealer from the West Coast, who immediately offered to sell me his. "I don't collect records anymore," he said. "I decided it was a sickness." But after we agreed on a price, he said I could pay him in stamps if I had any that were colorful or rare—"That's what I'm into now." I felt like I was at an AA meeting, watching somebody chain-smoking and gulping black coffee while reporting how many days he'd been off the sauce.

The most dogged collector I know—he seems to have two copies of everything, one to keep and the other to trade—values obscurity above all else. Whenever I visit him, he puts on something he thinks I should want, and lately, it always seems to be Japanese Coltrane imitators. "When you get into Japanese modal," he'll holler over the seesaw drone, "and you will . . ."

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

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    It's not just a spiel. He honestly believes I'll still need my fix even after I track down everything I'm looking for now, and maybe he's right. Collecting anything is an addiction. Like jazz, it also seems to be a male thing, and the only reason comedians make fun of Trekkies is that they don't know about us. I can't count the number of men I know whose wives or girlfriends have banished them to their attics, along with their sound systems and their stinky LPs. These are the guys you see hanging out at flea markets and used record stores on Saturdays, the way other men hang out at Home Depot. I tell myself I'm not one of them, yet there I am browsing right alongside them—and, for all I know, bidding against them on eBay.

    Quite apart from the rarities waiting there, eBay's jazz listings are irresistible for their glimpse into a fanatical subculture with its own code words and abbreviations: "ear," "beats," "RVG," "DG," "OBI"—either you already know what these mean or you don't care. Then there's "heroin" (some sickos collect junkies) and "cheesecake" (I hope the guys bidding on albums whose jackets show cleavage and gams are into camp, because it's too pathetic to think about otherwise). Sooner or later, you're going to be "sniped" (outbid in the closing seconds by someone with a program designed to best your undisclosed top offer by one dollar), and you learn never to bid against the fabulous Japanese collectors with the usernames ondemand and trotandgallop, because you're not going to beat them.

    But yes, I bid. I download and burn, too, when there's something I want and there's no other way to get it. Every so often, though, when I'm not writing, I like to shut down my computer and step outside. My idea of taking a walk is to head for a record store. But the ones I frequent ain't what they used to be, for which I blame eBay.

    image
    photo: Cary Conover
    Don't get me wrong. eBay serves more than one useful purpose. Its auctions have regulated prices; stores have caught on that a used record is worth what it goes for in competitive bidding on eBay, not what some price guide says. Since collectors are often a step ahead of critics, seeing which neglected performers or genres are fetching top dollar can be instructive—a clue to which ones are next in line for critical reappraisal (put your bet on European post-free). I listen to some of my prized acquisitions of recent years—Kenny Wheeler's Windmill Tilter; Jeri Winters's Winters Here, featuring the original version of "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most"; proto-harmolodic Ornette in Italy in 1974, with Sirone, Billy Higgins, and Blood Ulmer—and wonder what I did before eBay.

    So what's my beef? It's that most of the stores you could once count on have joined eBay too, and when anything remotely collectible walks in now it gets scanned and put on auction, not priced and displayed on the wall. It's getting to where it's hardly worth dropping in anymore, except to talk music or movies or politics with fellow customers and the help. My fear is that as more and more collectors figure why bother, many of these stores are going to give up their leases and sell exclusively over the Web. What a sad day that would be for those alienated guys listening to Sonny Clark or Giorgio Gaslini and going on eBay and logging onto jazz chat groups in their attics: the loss of the only community they feel fully part of that doesn't require the proviso "virtual."

    OK, a sad day for me too. What am I supposed to do for exercise?

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