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.
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.
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 . . . ”
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.
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?