The Holy Grails of Jazz

It’s been my experience that when they go, they don’t come back. People depart this mortal coil, we cry and mourn their departure, and we try to laugh and console ourselves with the memories and reminders of what they left behind. That is the pattern, irrevocable and unwavering. So it is when relatives pass, when friends move on, and when cultural icons die as well.

The difference is that what our icons leave behind is often for public consumption, not a private experience or a personal anecdote. Our icons leave bodies of work, historic achievements, and lessons in textbooks. We tell ourselves that they are gone but their example remains, and as long as we continue to use the example of their lives for inspiration in ours, those beloved icons will never really be away from us completely. And as we’ve done this year with the passing of Ossie Davis, John H. Johnson, August Wilson, and Rosa Parks, we also say that someone else must now pick up where they left off.

But every now and then, we’re afforded a chance to learn something new about those who’ve passed, something that may not have been part of the remembrance when they passed. A new piece of scholarship, some sort of buried treasure, or a crucial link in the life’s chain emerges, and our knowledge and appreciation broadens just a bit more. There’s no better place to observe that phenomenon than the world of jazz, and the jazz record business in particular, a field where the past is not only prologue: it’s also a profit center.

Even before the digital age, record companies routinely reissued old material for the benefit of new audiences. Much of my jazz education in the late ’70s came from budget-priced, two-LP “twofers” of classic music dating back to the ’20s and ’30s. Reissuing old music took on additional significance once compact discs became popular in the ’80s. Labels touted their advancements in capacity, sonic quality and convenience, and record buyers were heavily encouraged to “upgrade” their collections of vinyl albums and cassette tapes. All manner of old wine was poured into shiny new digital bottles, often including stuff that hadn’t been released the first time around to sweeten the pot.

This turned out to be good news for everyone, at least for a little while. Listeners were able to appreciate sounds from the past in a whole new light, and tuned into long-gone performances they never knew before. The labels turned assets sitting in vaults doing nothing into low-cost engines of found profit, making new money from decades-old work. Thus did the reissue arm of major record companies become a source of commerce and prestige, and thus did other companies emerge to specialize in continued musical excavation. We’re now at the point where many recordings have been reissued and repackaged seven ways ’till Sunday; over the years I’ve owned three different digital iterations of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), to keep pace with advancements in digital technology and our knowledge of that timeless work.

It’s tempting to speculate that by now the vaults have been swept clean, and that after all these years of repackaging and re-repackaging seemingly every stray scrap of sound, anything that might be left just isn’t worth the bother. One could even imagine that for all intents and purposes, the entire history of the music is now available to us: if we can’t find a CD of some obscure performer in the stores, there might be a downloadable track somewhere; if not there’s always eBay.

But that’s not the case. One, everything old hasn’t been made new again. There’s a lot of jazz, from long-forgotten swing and bop sessions to ’70s avant-garde stuff on tiny indie labels, that hasn’t seen the light of digital day. Two, it turns out that the known, note-by-note history of jazz music is not yet finite.

The archeological element within the jazz world does not confine itself to what the record labels have in their catalogues. Jazz is an art form of performance in the moment, of call and response between artist and audience. One of the music’s creation myths is that at any given moment, on any given stage, magic might take flight. So, since the post-WWII advent of home recording technology, devoted fans have committed live jazz performances to tape — above and beyond record labels recording their artists for “official” live albums — in hopes of trapping such lightning in a bottle.

Some of these recordings were made by amateurs — as in those who do it for love, setting up bulky reel-to-reel tape recorders off to the side of the bandstand. Some were made professionally for radio broadcast, back when jazz commanded something more than its current sliver of the mass entertainment audience (or taped straight off the radio). We have no way of knowing how many such recordings are out there, how many of them survived the years wherever they were, and what new stories they might tell.

But no matter the backstory, previously unknown recordings bear a powerful mystique. They open up doors we never knew were there, giving us a glimpse into a moment we could only have imagined before. That mystique works on both the mildly curious who’s heard of the performer in question but doesn’t know where to dive into his/her canon, and the hardcore completist who lives to acquire every note the artist ever played.

Since the summer, three such new releases of old recordings — holy grails of jazz, in their respective ways — were made available to the masses. Each of them adds new detail to the story of our musical heritage, which is always a beautiful thing for fans and listeners. And for the respective record companies, they’re just as much found money as the seemingly endless reissue stream. The only major expense is in acquiring the rights to release the music, since the labels don’t have to spend a whole lot of money on explaining who these people are and why they matter. Plus, because these performances have never been commercially available, the labels get to trumpet the releases as “new” music, not another ho-hum reissue from the archives — even if the most recent of the batch happened 40 years ago.

The oldest of the batch, and the first to hit the marketplace, is the earliest known recording of bebop in concert. Acetates of a June 1945 concert at Town Hall in New York City featuring many of jazz’s young lions du jour had been discovered at a record show. They had been professionally recorded on the facility’s own equipment, but had never been commercially released. The first half of the concert included some of bebop’s founding tunes, which had been recorded for the first time only within the previous few months.

Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945 (Uptown) is revelatory as much for the liner art as for the music. The photos, taken from a Town Hall concert one month prior to the recording show the young titans clear-eyed and focused. Dizzy’s trumpet is straight (his trademark skyward-bent horn would not happen for a few years), and Parker is slender and sharp, not the bloated junkie he would become by the time of his death 10 years later. The concert setting gives them a chance to stretch the tunes out past the three-minute maximum 78 RPM records could hold, so this gives us a chance to hear how well they could develop the themes and spin extended solos.

This recording helps flesh out the amazingly fertile period in which Gillespie, Parker, and their fellow bop revolutionaries made the first records of the style they’d been developing in late-night jam sessions over the previous few years, a style that would astound the world and come to mark the starting point of modern jazz. It’s also a snapshot of what turned out to be a fleeting moment in jazz history. Bird and Diz, a front line that seemed joined at the hip in mind and sound, fractured due to contrasting temperaments (read: Bird’s drug use); within a year the tandem would split, not to be reunited for five years.

One of their fellow boppers was Thelonius Monk, whose importance wouldn’t be felt until years after bebop’s heyday. By 1957, he was setting the New York scene alight with his residency at the Five Spot, leading a quartet that included John Coltrane on tenor sax. Coltrane was in the midst of two major transformations: he had left Miles Davis’ quintet to begin his own musical odyssey, and he had quit using heroin and begun his spiritual quest.

The nine months of ’57 he spent with Monk were critical to his development; he also proved to be a wonderful foil for Monk’s angular tunes. But the Monk-Trane partnership was never recorded at the club, and recorded only three tracks in their lone studio session (in 1993, a 1958 recording of Trane with Monk’s new Five Spot quarter surfaced, but Trane had gone back to working with Davis by then, and this was just a one-night visit). So imagine the thrill of hearing that a 1957 Monk-Trane performance actually had been recorded, and in a setting easily better than the nightclub, to boot.

Thelonius Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note) captures both Monk-Trane sets from a star-studded benefit concert in November 1957, recorded by the Voice of America and unearthed from Library of Congress archives. Whereas the studio sessions seemed stiff and unsure, these performances are simultaneously loose and intricate. Coltrane sounds like he’s been playing Monk’s music all his life; Trane’s solos offer some of the earliest clues where his playing would be heading in just a matter of months. The ensemble swings and bounces from start to finish; Monk’s joy is evident in every note.

As it turned out, this would only be one stop — an important one, though — along Coltrane’s path. He had just recorded Blue Train (Blue Note), his first major session as a leader, weeks before the Carnegie Hall gig. His future seemed bright. Needless to say, no one anticipated where he’d end up taking music with his “classic quartet” of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones from 1961 to 1965.

One Down, One Up Live at the Half Note (Impulse!) shows just how far they’d gone, and how much further Coltrane was straining to go. The package contains two sets broadcast live from the tiny New York club by a radio station in 1965. The centerpiece is the 28-minute performance of the title tune, basically a Coltrane tour-de-force of legendary intensity. His bandmates match his ferocity, even at the expense of drummer Jones’ bass pedal; that he manages to keep pace with just snare and cymbals is pretty remarkable. Coltrane is playing at the limits of what his horn, the quartet, and maybe the venue can contain; it’s not much of a surprise that within a year, Coltrane would expand his working band to include a second horn and drummer. The rest of the set seems tame and conventional by comparison, at least by the band’s own Herculean standards. One Down, One Up, long circulated via bootlegs and dubs among tenor players and Coltrane acolytes, captures one of black music’s most important ensembles ever just before the end of its line.

Now, it’s not like the music of Bird, Diz, Monk and Trane had never been available prior to these releases. They’re among the jazz legends whose work has remained in print for years, in formats ranging from cheap licensed product to lavish box sets. One could easily argue that the jazz labels have paid more attention to the music’s past than its future, if the number of releases by current performers is compared to the number of reissues from previous eras. Imagine being a jazz musician today, struggling to make ends meet between club gigs, teaching, doing sideman work and whatever else, only to discover that music buyers can now pick up not one but two new John Coltrane CDs.

And this trio of discoveries is not necessarily essential to any basic appreciation of the musicians. The Monk-Trane CD comes closest in that regard, as it captures an otherwise never-recorded ensemble at the height of its potency. The Bird-Diz concert has a present-at-the-creation air to it, but we know they sounded great together from the studio work they did, which has been available in numerous combinations. And while the 1965 Coltrane package hints at how his muse would come to eclipse his classic quartet, most Coltrane students and fans already know that; liner notes written by his son Ravi suggest that the set’s greatest value might be to aid the uninitiated in approaching Coltrane’s work from the end of the quartet to his death in 1967 (much of which, needless to say, has been reissued once or twice already).

But we are talking about some of our greatest and best loved artists, and every available example of their genius will forever be of interest to many around the world. Plus, the panache of the discoveries (not to mention their respectable sales figures) rewards the impulse to seek out the unknown, and sparks even more questions. Who else did the Voice of America record that night along with Monk and Trane, seeing as how Billie Holiday, Ray Charles, and Sonny Rollins were also on the bill? How many more revelations are stashed somewhere in Coltrane’s attic, or someone else’s? How much other great jazz was recorded, how many other gigs were photographed, and can we capture any of it before it’s lost forever?

Moreover, in a year in which we’ve lost some legendary figures of our culture and heritage, the emergence of this “new” music reminds us that just because our icons die doesn’t mean they stop making history.