As a characteristically generous response to my post on the trumpeter Joe Thomas, my longtime friend Rob Rothberg sent me pictures of these two records from his collection. It isn’t exaggeration to say that they made me catch my breath.
That would be enough — that it happens to be a magnificent record is not at all incidental. But here’s something much more remarkable:
The whole notion of “getting an autograph” is reasonably strange but I’ve always found it irresistible. Why should we stand in line or wait shyly, reverently for One of Our Heroes to write his or her name on something — be it an index card, a menu, a record label or jacket, even now a CD’s liner notes?
Comes the day everything exists only in cyber-space without any tangible reality, what will we ask someone to sign? “Oh, Mr. Jazzman! Would you autograph my mp3 download, which neither of us can see?” But I digress.
I waited for Joe Thomas, Louis, Bobby Hackett, Doc Cheatham, Vic Dickenson, Teddy Wilson, Buck Clayton, Ruby Braff, Jo Jones, Zoot Sims, Bob Wilber, and a half-dozen others to sign their names for me, and I recall each instance. From this distance, it seems as if I was asking the musician to acknowledge me and take notice of me, a worshipful hearer holding out a rare record, some treasured music. That signing his name for a stranger was an odd ritual that did not mean a great deal to the musician didn’t matter at the moment.
Acquiring an autograph has a great deal to do with the urge we all have to give our memories physical shape; an autograph gave me something I could pretend was unique to take home as well as the sounds captured in my memory and my cassette recorder. Occasionally, my hero would say, “What’s your name?” and inscribe the record jacket to me — a small sweet polite moment which made me feel seen.
For the musicians, the act of signing autographs had long since become a task to be performed between sets when they would much rather have been left in peace to chat with their peers, a responsibility they had to take care of before going home. Cultivating their audience, perhaps.
But to have something that Sidney Catlett or George Wettling touched! To me, these two record labels are miraculous relics of our own saints.