I have been trying to put all my compact discs away neatly in alphabetical order, and the very dullness of doing this made me think . . .
When I was collecting records in my late teens (before CDs and cyber-space) the music I could obtain was narrowly defined by fixed circumstances: money was one, availability another. Originally what I heard and could possess was limited to what was played on the radio; what records were available from department stores and the Salvation Army; the records my friends had, and not much more.
Eventually my horizons (but not necessarily my fortune) blossomed: there were wonderfully enticing record stores on and near Eighth Street in New York City; I could send money off to “Tony’s” in the UK for treasures unheard and unimagined.
But it was nearly impossible to get more than a sampling of the work of an artist or band, so that when I was able to buy a copy of Brian Rust’s two-volume JAZZ RECORDS, I began checking off the performances I had copies of. I still have those books nearby, their bindings worn through being handled and loved and held.
So underneath listening and acquiring was The Quest. Occasionally there would be a jazz rescuer on the horizon — say, the late Jerry Valburn, who put out record after record containing performances that had been marked “rejected” in Rust and performances no one knew existed. And it moved listeners like myself closer to the elusive goal of “having it all.”
“Having it all” became easier through vinyl box sets and European issues — for instance the French CBS Ellington two-record sets or the French Victors, which I bought earnestly.
Oddly, though, although the music was delicious, I would often play those records once or twice and put them on my shelf, where their spines were very fulfilling to look at: I was that much closer to having it all, complete!
If I woke up seized with the desire to hear the two takes of STARS, to pick the most esoteric example I can now think of, they were there, on the shelves, ready to be played. That was comforting, although I can’t think of playing STARS more than once or twice.
With box sets, as well, I knew but didn’t want to admit to myself that the allure of completeness was different from listening to the music. Would I ever sit down and work my way through (note the language of obligation) the entire output of Fats Waller and his Rhythm, although I loved Fats? Not likely, because the sheer imposing bulk of that collection quickly began to feel like homework. “Uh oh, I’ve been bad and neglected my aesthetic responsibilities; I’ve got to listen to 1939 before nightfall or I won’t get any supper.”
Forward to 2010, where CD collections and internet access are both so taken-for-granted that the idea of not being able to hear a particular performance for twenty years seems fascinatingly, weirdly antiquated . . . . when we are able to buy all the recordings of Louis or Django at one expensive shelf-filling gulp, do we listen to them completely? Or are we perversely overawed by the completeness, the profusion?
I love the Mosaic box sets I’ve bought and would fight to keep them, but the experience of having them, gazing on their spines, and listening to them is somehow different than the Quest of my teens, where hearing on the radio one three-minute track I did not know about was an illuminating experience.
The extension of this idea, of course, is the spiritual balancing act: in one hand you hold Everything; in the other Just One Thing — and I am reminded of my conversation with a musician who is now eighty, who talked about being able to buy one 78 record a week, so it had better be perfect. I am sure that had he, in 1944, been able to visualize the Complete Art Tatum Solo Performances in one package, he would have seen it as a wondrous mirage. How does it make us feel, I wonder. When our wants are gratified, will we be happier?