Let me begin with a jubilant piece of music from the 1929 McKinney’s Cotton Pickers — featuring a wistful vocal by Don Redman, rousing solos from Coleman Hawkins and Fats Waller and beautiful ensemble playing from Joe Smith, Leonard Davis, Sidney De Paris, Claude Jones, Benny Carter, Ted McCord, Dave Wilborn, Billy Taylor, Kaiser Marshall:
That cheerful recording will seem an odd introduction to my topic, which is Death.
I think about that subject a great deal — not in a terrified way — because I am surrounded by reminders of those dear ones who have moved on (or away) and the Things that people leave behind.
When I go to an estate sale and I learn that the beautiful shirt I am wearing belonged to a man who is now dead, it is a spiritual lesson — intense and to the point. When I go to Amoeba Music or the Down Home Music Store and find a dozen records all autographed to the same person — let us call him Dewey — I can safely guess that Dewey is no longer here, listening to those discs.
I feel grateful to be the recipient of objects that people cherished so when they were alive, yet sad that they are no longer here to enjoy them, and of course it makes me think of the finite shape of our lives.
So let us assume you have — as many jazz-lovers have — amassed a hoard, large or small, of objects related to the music you love. Maybe they are records (cylinder to CD), autographs, photographs, ephemera (DOWN BEAT from 1939, a necktie that once belonged to _____): there are a thousand possibilities.
I wish no one of my readers of JAZZ LIVES to vanish, but I must ask them, collectively and singly, to imagine the possibility, and then to ask the question, “What will happen to my Treasures when I’m not here?”
For those who are prepared, the answer is easy. “I’ve made a will. I have an executor. I have another name should that executor not be able to do what I’ve asked. My executors have copies of the will; we have discussed what I have asked them to do. The will is recent; it was witnessed, notarized, and is properly done. I do not like to think of my own death, but I have Taken Care of Business.”
Others say, “Oh, this is such a dreadful topic. I don’t want to think about it today [this month, this year, ever, ever]. I know I should do something but I find it so depressing. Besides, I have great plans for my collection of Tiny Parham Victors. And I think my infant grandchild Parham will want them when she grows up. I’ll take care of it.”
I understand this. It is very difficult for some of us to imagine the universe without us. But it will happen.
In my most kind voice, may I suggest that this pretending it will not happen is not wise. When the jazz collector dies, if (s)he dies without a will, the collection and all the deceased’s possessions have to be appraised — which costs money — before an item can be given away, disposed of, sold. This process isn’t quick, and establishing the value of anyone’s things — unless the dead person was a true minimalist — takes time and costs money.
If you have a partner or children, do you wish to add to their grief the burden of this legal and economic maze? Or, if you have no one close to you, what will happen to your precious collection of deep-groove blue label Riversides? My guess is that the landlord will haul them out to the curb or perhaps sell them to the local record store (not the worst thing).
Let me suggest an alternative, although I am not a lawyer nor do I pretend to be offering legal advice. One can find an online form to create one’s own will. Make it as specific as possible. If you want your magazines to go to Clement, your 78s to go to Marjorie, and so on, put it in writing. Such directions will not take the place of a will, but wills themselves need not be complicated, and I believe you can name someone (preferably somewhat younger and in good health) to be your executor, and then give that person a clear idea of what you would like. “When I die, please check my email to see whom I have corresponded most frequently about the music. Since we have spoken, you know the names of the people involved in jazz of whom I am most fond. Invite them to the house; let them take home what they want. Have a little party in my honor. Save a thousand dollars from my savings. Hire my favorite band. Have they play FLEE AS A BIRD TO THE MOUNTAIN . . . and then DIDN’T HE RAMBLE.”
Of late, I am observing the partners of several friends who did not write wills, and their troubles are truly painful. I am not talking about, “My goodness, I hear that all of Joe’s Paramounts went to Goodwill! It was horrific!” I am talking about the bereaved partner who not only has to deal with loss, but has to deal with The Stuff.
It is all too easy to say, “Oh, I think it should all go to this jazz institution or the other. They will want my Harry James and Benny Goodman 78s.” Don’t be too sure. Libraries and institutions do not have infinitely expanding budgets, and to collect your beloved records, catalog them, store them in the proper fashion . . . all of this requires money and a staff. Be sure to be sure — before saying, “I’d like my collection to go to ______,” that they really want it and will want it in some time in the future.
All this will sound too grim to some readers, and I apologize.
It was not easy for me to write a will, nor is it pleasant dinner conversation to discuss such things with the Beloved.
But benign neglect is a terrible — even a selfish — burden on the people who live on, and if you care about them, if you care about your Things, you might want to take what I am writing seriously. (For me, my concern is with the people: once I am dead, I hope that my cherished objects go away in the most easy manner — ideally in to the hands of people I love and admire, but if my records go to Goodwill, it’s no disaster, since I bought many of them there.)
And I’m not just writing this to jazz collectors. Please pass this blogpost on to anyone you know who has more than a few of Anything — whether it’s copies of MARTHA STEWART LIVING in MSL binders or first editions or swizzle sticks.
Please do consider this yourself, though, and act on it, promptly. I write these paternalistic nagging words with love.
May your happiness increase!