Tag Archives: 78 rpm

IN RECORD TIME: A VISIT, ALL TOO-BRIEF, TO THE VINTAGE MUSIC COMPANY OF MINNEAPOLIS

I had the good fortune to visit my long-time dear friends Lisa DuRose and Susan Peters at their St. Paul, Minnesota home this summer.  I’d like to think of myself as a passable guest, so once I knew we would have plenty of time to talk and laugh and muse, I kept my requests manageable: interesting things to eat (pride of place went to Cheng Heng, a wonderful Cambodian restaurant (448 University Avenue), visits to thrift shops, a delightful bookstore, Midway Used and Rare Books (1579 University Avenue W.).

I made one Special Request.

I’d heard of a magical place where 78 RPM records and machines to play them flourished, so I asked Lisa and Susan to take me here:

I was worried that I would go down into the depths and never surface, so I asked them to pick me up in an hour, which was an atypical kind of restraint on my part.  Lisa and Susan were curious about this museum of sounds and shapes that they’d never entered, so they came in with me.

Scott, the owner, stopped what he was doing and greeted us.  I have an odd sense of comedy, so I said that I was a jazz blogger from New York, a collector of records, and that I had brought two friends who lived locally, that Lisa was my probation officer and Susan was my psychotherapist.  Perhaps because of Scott’s clientele, he only allowed his eyes to widen a bit, but did not boggle at this news.  I started to laugh, gave him my card and a Louis button, and we were off and running into hilarious instant friendship.  Here — just so you know I am not describing some time-machine dream — is the store’s Facebook page.

Here is a six-minute film portrait of Scott in his element, blissfully honest, doing what he was meant to do:

And here is a very short film of Scott, playing a cylinder on an Edison “Gem” machine:

Scott and I fell into conversation about Joe Sullivan.  That in itself should tell you a great deal — in this century, how many people can talk with depth about Joe?  I tore myself away — he is hilarious, erudite, and entertaining — to look at records.  Of course there was a Louis section, an Ellington section, but (as you can see from above) there was a Bob Pope section and one devoted to Don Redman, one to Clarence Williams.

I no longer do well with extreme sensory stimulus, and I was grateful that I could find a mere eight records: Joe Sullivan on Sunset (!) and Conqueror (the 1939 Cafe Society Orchestra);  Henry “Red” Allen on Banner;  the UHCA issue of JAZZ ME BLUES with Tesch and BARREL HOUSE STOMP with the Cellar Boys; a sunburst Decca of Louis’ ON A COCOANUT ISLAND; a beautiful Variety of Chauncey Morehouse and Swing Six (no “his”) of ON THE ALAMO.  In the name of realism, I will also point out that the days of finding N- Paramounts at the Salvation Army for a nickel apiece are long gone.  With tax, these records cost slightly less than eighty dollars, and I went away feeling gloriously gratified.

Two other record-collecting sidelights.  Scott knows a great many kinds of music well and deeply, so the shop offers opera, “roots music,” and many other things that I didn’t have time to explore.  If I remember correctly, he has three-quarters of a million records, both on the ground floor and in a well-organized basement. And more machines on which to play them than several large houses could accommodate.

And while I was there, the phone rang and Scott had an extraordinarily courteous gentle conversation with a man of a certain vintage who wanted to bring his beloved and for-sure valuable collection of late-Forties black label Bing Crosby Deccas for Scott to buy.  I was touched by the kind seriousness with which Scott handled the man on the phone, never condescending to him or being scornful, while telling him the truth, that it would not be worth his while to bring the Crosbys down in hopes of a splendid payoff.

I admire Scott’s enterprise greatly — where on earth are you going to see a 78 record shop with its own Red Norvo section?  Yes, I know a few other stores exist, and I’ve had self-indulgent fun in the 78 section of Amoeba Music — I think the one on Haight Street, but Scott’s store is a paradise of rare music and rare artifacts.  You won’t find Oliver’s THAT SWEET SOMETHING DEAR there, but if you visit and go out empty-handed, and you love this music, I marvel at you, and not necessarily in an admiring way.

He is a man of stubborn devotion to his own ideal, and that is a beautiful thing.  I will go even deeper and say that if everyone who loves older music — and the way in which it was heard — bought a seven-dollar record from Scott, or, better, a working vintage phonograph, the world we know would be improved.  I wish that he and his passionate vision prosper and continue.

May your happiness increase!

Advertisements

QUIRKY, CURIOUS, WISE: “DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE: THE WILD, OBSESSIVE HUNT FOR THE WORLD’S RAREST 78 RPM RECORDS,” by AMANDA PETRUSICH

About one-third of the way through Amanda Petrusich’s new book, I became convinced that its author was, as the British say, daft. Mildly unhinged. Charmingly irrational.  I say this as a badge of honor, not an insult.  It was in the middle of the chapter where Petrusich (normal-looking, quite attractive in the author’s photo) had gone through scuba training to dive into the river in Grafton, Wisconsin, near the Paramount Records factory — defunct for eighty years — in search of the rare records and Paramount ephemera that legend has it the employees had tossed into the waters.

DO NOT SELL

Although no record in the world would ever entice me into a wetsuit, I thought, “This is a kind of devotion to the cause that makes great — if slightly unstable — art.”

I had already been entranced by Petrusich’s book while she was on dry land.  I am not an stereotypical record collector — I prefer to encounter jazz recordings serendiptiously — but I liked Petrusich’s manner and approach from the first pages.  For one thing, she steadfastly refuses to satirize, to stand back at a mocking distance from the subject or from the figures she chronicles.  She does comment on the stereotype — overly pale men who spend their lives indoors and often below ground level, but Petrusich not only treats her subjects with interest and deference, but with affectionate respect . . . and becomes one of them in her own fashion. Her writing is lively, and the book rarely lingers for long on one obsession or the next (at times, it had the snap of a series of New Yorker mini-profiles).

The book is never a slow-moving history of the field (although she does touch on some of its legendary figures, such as James McKune and Big Joe Clauberg, Harry Smith and his Anthology) but its whimsical expansiveness leaves a reader feeling elated rather than deprived.  I wish I could have time-traveled Petrusich back to the mid-Seventies gatherings of collectors at the Prince George Hotel in New York City, but she has been to the New Jersey Jazz Record Collectors’ Bash, so that will do. At more than one point, I thought, “I could certainly tell her stories of collectors,” but I suspect that my reaction is far from unusual.

I should alert JAZZ LIVES readers that Petrusich’s fascination has almost nothing to do with the objects of the jazz lover’s sacred quest. ZULUS BALL does not rate a mention here, nor do the Bix Old Gold broadcast acetates, or the “little silver record” of Lester Young that Jo Jones talked about.

Petrusich is captivated by rural blues — of the sort recorded by Paramount before the company folded in 1932 — and she has her first epiphany listening to Mississippi John Hurt’s BIG LEG BLUES with collector John Heneghan.  But what saves this endearingly wandering narrative from being One Woman’s Descent Into The Maelstrom is both Petrusich’s light touch and her willingness to ask deeper philosophical questions about collecting, music, and our perceptions of both.

For all its amiability, DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE is a deeply serious book that — sometimes indirectly, other times head-on — asks hard questions about what makes an object valuable, and what drives certain people to amass such objects, both in what we see of them and what they see of themselves.

Anyone reading this book who is new to record collecting will find it impossible to look at a 78 rpm record the same way again — even the dullest one — without sensing its almost mystical electrical power to entice. (I write this, fully aware that I already knew how a blandly labeled RECORDS paper folio in a shelf at Goodwill may contain objects that would increase my pulse rate.)

A pause, so that you can hear Petrusich’s own voice, while she muses over the gap between the music and the artifact, the sound and the shellac disc with its memorized matrix number, and tried to figure out where our feverish excitement comes from:

That chasm–between a studied response and a gut-borne one–seemed even more palpable in the specific context of prewar blues music, where the hunt for (and especially the subsequent analysis of) the records appeared to run directly counter to the lawless spirit of the work. With a few notable exceptions, blues music was rowdy and social, and its creators led brash, lustful lives. They drank and roamed and had reckless sex and occasionally stabbed each other in the throat. There was something incongruous about sitting in a dimly lit room, meticulously wiping dust and mold off a blues 78 and noting the serial number in an antique log book. Why not dance or sob or get wasted and kick something over?  Some collectors, I knew, did exactly that, but for others, the experience of a rare blues record involved a kind of isolated studiousness, which of course was fine–there’s no wrong way to enjoy music, and I understood that certain contextual details could help crystallize a bigger,richer picture of a song. But I continued to believe that the pathway that allowed human beings to appreciate and require music probably began in a more instinctual place (the heart, the stomach, the nether regions). Context was important, but it was never as essential–as compelling–to me as the way my entire central nervous system convulsed whenever Skip James opened his mouth.

Balancing such vividly evocative meditations — which open out into lovely elusive speculations — are the concrete, often hilarious markers in Petrusich’s quest: buying records with collector Chris King at a flea market in Hillsville, Virginia; visiting Pete Whelan amidst his rare palm trees and rarer records in Florida, talking with John Tefteller over lunch in Brooklyn, being admitted to Joe Bussard’s basement shrine to hear Black Patti 8030; looking through Don Wahle’s papers with Nathan Salsburg; talking about collectors with Ian Nagoski and with Bear Family’s Richard Weize.

As the book winds down — through “ethnic music” and cowboy throat-singing, a visit to the Southern Folklife Collection, a detour into SKOKIAAN, a few pages where Petrusich muses on the relations between autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and collecting, and finally visits from two people active in the contemporary New York City world, phonograph collector / expert exhibitor Michael Cunella and musician / collector Jerron Paxton — I confess my jazz self became slightly restless.  “Couldn’t you have written about just one person who collects Leon Roppolo?” I muttered to myself.  But Petrusich’s many narratives are so sweetly compelling — vivid in their understated way — that I forgave her that omission.  And the book ends with yet another epiphany, when Petrusich encounters the “new” set of Paramount Records issues:

I felt suddenly and fiercely protective of a subculture I had no real claim to. I wanted 78s to continue offering me–and all the people I’d met–a private antidote to an accelerated, carnivorous world. I didn’t want them to become another part of that world. I wanted them to stay ours.

I do not know if Petrusich’s fierce protectiveness is possible or plausible, or even desirable. I understand it completely: so much of the lure of collecting these artifacts is the secret, even snobbish delight one can take in moving so far outside the mainstream as to require subtitles, a translator. But I wonder if the world would be happier if everyone could listen to Charley Patton 78s while making breakfast.

And I wonder if Petrusich will check in with us in ten years. Has she purchased a turntable on which to play her recent beloved acquisitions? I hope so. It would sadden me immensely if I learned, through whatever avenue one learns such things, that she had thrown it all over for a smartphone with a larger memory for music and a new delight in, say, swizzle sticks or first editions of Yeats.  But I think this won’t happen. Among its other virtues, and they are numerous, DO NOT SELL AT ANY PRICE is the journal of a spiritual enlightenment, a finding of a series of personal truths. And that is always fascinating to read.

Much, if not all, of the music Petrusich falls in love with in this book is either outside my sphere of pleasure or I am ignorant of it. But before I had read thirty pages of this book, I was already recommending it to people who love the music and the records. I recommend it to you as a deep, elegantly quirky pleasure, whose music reverberates long after one has finished reading it.

May your happiness increase!

SPINNING PLENITUDES

A few weeks ago, a young couple came to my apartment to buy a piece of furniture I’d hardly used.  (Now there’s more space for dancing.)  The young woman earnestly asked me about turntables — thinking of being able to play her mother’s beloved 1970 record collection.  I showed her both a modern one (and played her a track from a Marty Grosz Stomp Off record, which absolutely floored her with its bounce and warm sound).

Then I decided to become a true eccentric, a genuine suburban antiquarian and descended even deeper into history by playing her a 78 (Keynote, J.C. Heard, ALL MY LIFE) on another turntable.

I don’t think this was a transformational experience for her (and her boyfriend was pleasantly impassive through the whole thing) but it was clear she had never seen anything like it.

“How do you know where to put that thing [the stylus]?”  “What happens when it comes to the end?”  “Is that sound [the surface noise] part of the thing, the record?”  “Does that have only one song?”  And so on.

I don’t want to rehearse the discussion of iPod and MP3 downloads / compact discs / vinyl records / 78s / live performance — too many acres to plow! — but I did revert to my childhood in two sweetly nostalgic acts this morning.

One, I played a 78 record — LOW DOWN DIRTY SHAME / SOLITUDE (Vocalion 5531, rim chip, V) by Joe Sullivan and his Cafe Society Orchestra.  Lovely.  Two, I stared at the revolving disc and the diminishing circles described by the needle as the music came out of the speaker.

And I thought, not for the first time, of the beautiful paradoxes.

When the needle is lowered into the first groove, listeners enter into that musical world — new or familiar.  All experience lies before us, all possibility!  (Jack Purvis might explode in the last chorus.)  But we are always conscious of the finite limits of that world.  Listening to a live performance, we can tell when the band is near the end — although there always might be two more choruses!  A record, a disc lying on the platter, is visually bounded — its beginning and end marked out for us to see.

So as the needle follows its path, I feel the joy of hearing what’s there, perhaps the anticipatory sensation of “I can’t wait for the good part that I know is coming,” yet there’s the sad awareness of knowing the end is near.  Another sixteen bars, another thirty seconds, perhaps another two inches of black grooves.  “Oh, no, it’s going to be over!”

Everything comes to an end, we know.

But with records we have the wonderful opportunity to pick up the needle from its mindless elliptical orbits in the run-off groove and have the experience again.  Imagine being able to eat another meal in the same restaurant without monotony, without satiety.  It’s not the first kiss repeated, of course.  But second and third kisses are seriously pleasurable, too.

For those who cannot play a record today, I offer a video simulacrum — I think of it as a natural antidepressant, with no side effects:

SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, or PICNIC WITH ME

A little jeu d’esprit for today:

To be precise, this is a 78 rpm “picture record” on the Vogue label, circa 1945.  Musically it is probably far removed from hot jazz, but it’s the playful Forties cheesecake that caught my eye.  This young woman, attired in clothing that manages to be both tight and short, is reclining — after a fashion — on a blanket in the middle of an undefined meadow.  Although picnics are usually informal occasions, she has on alarmingly high heels and seems to be levitating from the blanket.  (Perhaps she is lifting her legs so she doesn’t collide with the pasted-in image of bandleader Kassel, grinning somewhere under her knees.)

To her left (although she is not registering it in her field of vision) conveniently there is a small portable phonograph . . . and a large anonymous hand (parodying the Sistine Chapel ceiling?) is offering her a phonograph record-replica of the larger scene, complete with lovely young woman and generous hand. 

The mind reels, and the recording isn’t even spinning.

DOODLE DOO DOO indeed.

“DULCE LORENA” y “NO ES ELLA DULCE?”

To people who have never collected jazz records, what follows might seem both trivial and inexplicable.  But while searching for recordings by the sublime trumpeter and singer Henry “Red” Allen, I came across these oddities on eBay — two sides from his 1957 RCA Victor RIDE, RED, RIDE IN HI-FI . . . issued as a 78 rpm record in Argentina, their titles logically translated into Spanish.

and . . .

Sweet, no?

JAZZ PAGES WORTH READING

Through the magic of Google Alerts, I was directed to two new jazz-related blogs, both of which are worth a serious look, for different reasons.

Jon McCaslin’s FOUR ON THE FLOOR came to my attention because of a recent feature on Papa Jo Jones — irreplaceable, perhaps inscrutable, certainly uncontrollable.  Here Jon has collected a number of video clips that shine the spotlight on Jo.  And his blog is full of other intriguing stories!  Visit it at http://jonmccaslinjazzdrummer.blogspot.com/ .  By the way, “Four on the floor” doesn’t only refer to manual transmission: it refers to the life-enhancing practice, among drummers of another generation (as well as Hal Smith, Kevin Dorn, Chris Tyle, Nick Ward, and Jeff Hamilton) to use the bass drum to keep the rhythm going. 

Through a rather circuitous route, I found myself rapt, staring at one beautifully-designed record label after another on Ted Staunton’s website.  Ted modestly says that he doesn’t own all the records, but he has assembled them in logical order and told a bit about the history of each label.  And the labels themselves are often lavish Art Deco miniatures:

Because the Beloved and I are now on Maui, I thought this label was particularly appropriate:

Ted’s site can be found at http://www.tedstaunton.com/.  You’ll be astonished!

COPYRIGHT, MICHAEL STEINMAN AND JAZZ LIVES, 2009
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Steinman and Jazz Lives with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

RARE DISCS FOR SALE

I find it soothing to visit eBay on a regular basis to see what’s for sale and to muse about it. 

Our topic for today is 78 rpm jazz records, which used to be the only kind until the early Fifties.  I was somewhat overwhelmed the profusion of them on eBay — 1,183 items!  Of course, some of them had no business being in that category — a Dutch hand organ record, Clyde McCoy picture discs, records by Dinah Shore, Xavier Cugat . . . but there were more than enough authentic jazz rarities to make my head spin.  Here are some remarkable ones:

78 1

The combination of the Gennett label and Earl Hines is a potent one.

78 3

When was the last time you saw a Jack Purvis 78 for sale?

78 6

Squirrel Ashcraft and the boys, when they were very youthful.

78 9

Eddie sang on this one and apologized later . . . but it has Tesch, Sullivan, and Krupa, too.

78 11

I think this is a song from an otherwise forgotten musical production; if memory serves, the other side is YOU HAVE MONEY, DON’T YOU? — a song title that doesn’t make my heart leap with anticipation.  I want to know what the record under this one is!

78 12

Early Barry Harris and Frank Foster in Detroit, on the NEW SONG label.

78 14

The other side of this Wardell Gray record is called THE TOUP, no kidding.

78 16

I believe, although perhaps incorrectly, that this record has an early Jess Stacy solo passage; at least he remembered playing with this band.  (The leader would say, “Are you ready, Kittens?”  And they would have to answer “Meow!”  The life of a working musician.)

78 Fats Japan

And finally . . . an eBay seller is offering a dozen Japanese Victor Fats Waller and his Rhythm records . . . for some exorbitant price.  Who knew that Fats had such a reputation in Japan?  Did that country enter the Second World War because they wanted Fats to play for them?  It’s a theory no one, as far as I know, has yet explored.

The larger social significance of this list might be summarized quickly.  78s are unplayable artifacts for almost everyone in this iPod era and they look like valuable antiques that will fetch pleasing prices.  But the economy has made many people look for things to sell that they would otherwise have held on to.  Better that these records get sold on eBay to enthusiasts who can play them, so the music doesn’t vanish entirely.  Who knows how many wonderful 78s get thrown out when collectors die?  “Provide, provide,” as Robert Frost wrote.