RECORD GURU KEEPS JAZZ’S GOLDEN AGE SPINNING (from the San Francisco Chronicle, 1/14/09)
When Tom Madden was 12, he started going to jazz clubs in San Francisco. The best of them, the Black Hawk, had a food license, which meant that minors could attend as long as they didn’t drink.
“I saw the two house bands, which were Dave Brubeck and Cal Tjader,” Madden says. “I saw Coltrane, Miles, Cannonball, Bill Evans.” Those were golden years for live jazz. Madden, a San Francisco native, was lucky to catch them. Today, he’s keeping the flame alive as owner of Jazz Quarter, a record store in the Sunset District. Arguably the city’s resident expert on jazz recordings, Madden, 69, sees his customer base getting older and, inevitably, shrinking. “They’re mostly old and gray,” says Madden, a 6-foot-5-inch bearded hipster with a long, dreaded ponytail. Several of his regulars are too old to visit the store. “A couple of them had hip operations and don’t like to go anywhere. And they can get stuff on Amazon now.” An old, overhead heater groans and rattles as Madden speaks. The counter spills over with yellowed jazz magazines and piles of CDs. One wall is papered with newspaper obits on jazz musicians, others with old concert posters. His inventory, arranged in a maze of bins and stacks and boxes, is two-thirds LPs, one-third CDs. Madden opened Jazz Quarter in the late ’80s, after years of working at the Magic Flute and other long-gone record emporia. On 20th Avenue near Irving, the store doesn’t feel like a business so much as a cluttered, unkempt, musty salon for Madden and his clientele. “You walk in there and see this tall, imposing figure,” says August Kleinzahler, a San Francisco poet and Jazz Quarter habitue. “Not at all friendly initially. He doesn’t smile or say, ‘Have a look around.’ He just sort of shambles around. “If you ask him a question, he might give you a direct answer,” Kleinzahler says. “But often as not he’ll give you a sideways answer. He’s certainly not the Chamber of Commerce Man of the Year.” Madden was wearing a Jules Broussard T-shirt, polyester vest and sneakers when Kleinzahler visited the store recently. He put on a CD of Sacha Perry, a New York bebop pianist, and poured a glass of Diet Pepsi from a jumbo-size container. During a one-hour conversation, only one customer entered the store. Madden’s stock is low right now. In September, a Japanese collector flew into town and bought 900 LPs for $3,500. “Some of my regular customers say, ‘The bins are low!’ ” Madden says. “Like I’m just gonna turn up new records, abracadabra.” The store is full of treasures, covering a wide range of jazz idioms. “He stocks what he likes,” Kleinzahler says, “not what he thinks will move.” If Madden doesn’t like a customer or notices that “they buy all kinds of crap,” he’ll refuse to sell them his good stuff. “There are people who shouldn’t even deserve records that good,” he says. “Everyone has this enormous respect for Tom’s knowledge,” says Larry Letofsky, a longtime friend and fellow jazz enthusiast. “He’s also kind of a record detective. He’ll go to Amoeba on his hands and knees and go through all the cheap stuff and find some obscurity that’s just phenomenal.” Enigmatic and sleepy-eyed, Madden doesn’t say much when asked about his past. He joined the Merchant Marines as a teenager, worked part time as a process server, drove a cab “for about an hour.” His dad, an attorney who worked for Pillsbury Madison & Sutro, was a Fats Waller fan who turned him on to jazz. Madden says he’s never married, “but there’s a few women who still talk to me.” Once a month, Madden meets with a group of jazz lovers at Letofsky’s Sunset District home. “It’s called the Second Thursday of the Month Club,” Letofsky says. Twelve or 15 guys show up and each takes a turn playing a selection of five to 10 minutes. “You pay a dollar to get in and then we vote at the end of the evening for the best selection. Whoever wins gets the money. We make it into a big deal; it’s bragging rights more than anything.” Most of the regulars are geezers, Letofsky says. But two guys are in their 30s. “Fortunately one of them’s a physician, so in case anybody collapses …” There’s an intensity, a competition among serious record collectors. One day in the ’70s, Letofsky was combing through an obscure record store and found a rare, mint-condition album by Tina Brooks, a tenor saxophonist who recorded a handful of records in the late ’50s and early ’60s. “I didn’t know who Tina Brooks was,” Letofsky says. “I told Tom about it over the phone and he started screaming at me. He got really upset that I had found it and he hadn’t. Finally, after he had calmed down I said, ‘Well you can have the album. It’s not that important to me.’ ” Madden says he has no plans to close Jazz Quarter, “unless something happens. I’ll be 70 soon.” He pays $1,500 rent – there isn’t a lease – and says the proceeds from the store rarely cover the rent. “I have some money left over from my folks.” Jazz is in bad shape today: Clubs are closing, musicians can’t make a living and young audiences have no interest in the form. It’s heartbreaking, but Madden seems resigned. He’s got his record collection, his fellow enthusiasts. He’s still a fixture at most Bay Area jazz events. He’s hanging on. “Art Blakey said, ‘Jazz washes away the dust of everyday life,’ ” Madden says. “What he didn’t say is that it doesn’t sell a lot.” In the Jazz Quarter, the enormous overhead heater continues its mechanical drone. The phone rings. “That’s someone I don’t hear from much,” Madden says after hanging up. “He wants to know if I’m still open.”
E-mail Edward Guthmann at email@example.com.
Thanks to Barb Hauser for sending this story: it reminds some of us of the days gone by when you looked at, inspected, and considered the jazz records you might buy — rather than ordering them online. This summer, I visited a few stores like this in Portland and Orono, Maine: I’m reassured to know that such dens of improvisatory iniquity exist on both coasts.
Photograph of Madden (top) by Mike Kepka.