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Q&A

What the jazz discographers knew

Bruce Epperson on the list-making amateurs who shaped how we understand the music

For anyone interested in jazz, there’s the live music, there’s the recordings, and—if you want to go way deeper—there are thousands of pages of books documenting early jazz recordings, lovingly cataloged.

The existence of these books is no small thing. In its early days, the jazz recording business was disorganized bordering on piratical: Copyright law was poorly enforced; a small label that got its hands on someone else’s master tapes might just pass off the music of one artist as that of another. A listener could be hearing a small-town dance hall band on a record purporting to be the latest from Louis Armstrong.

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Enter a small group of obsessives: amateur jazz discographers. Working mainly in England and France after World War II, this small cadre of men would hunt through used record shops, scanning serial numbers and examining tiny details to figure out when the record was recorded and which musicians were really playing on it. They produced immense catalogs of jazz records that for the first time authoritatively sorted genuine from false.

"Gimme A Pigfoot" by Bessie Wilson.

"Gimme A Pigfoot" by Bessie Wilson.

Jazz has garnered plenty of attention from scholars, but until now, the story of these researchers has been neglected. Bruce P. Epperson, a lawyer in Florida, has devoted the last five years to unearthing the story of these discographers—“men who are interested not so much in the music, but in the actual, tangible output of the music industry,” as he puts it.

His new book “More Important than the Music: A History of Jazz Discography” is the first full-length study of their story. While they started out as record collectors writing exclusively for other collectors, he argues, they ended up not only enabling the serious study of jazz recording, but also changing the economics of the industry itself. This interview was edited from two phone conversations.

IDEAS: Why should the casual jazz listener care about a group of obsessive record collectors who basically made lists?

“He’s A darn good man” by Alberta Hunter.

“He’s A darn good man” by Alberta Hunter.

EPPERSON: In many cases, the major companies or even some of the minor companies, they had stuff, but they didn’t even realize what it was. So by putting the information together, they were able to realize that in their vaults was stuff that 50 years later was releasable, commercial, valuable material....[Today] if you look on a CD, you can see where it was recorded, when it was recorded, who was playing on it. And that’s because some discographer dug that up.

IDEAS: Almost all of the early discographers in your book aren’t American. What drew them to jazz so obsessively?

EPPERSON: The answer is not universal. To the French, Charles Delaunay, for example, they were in pursuit of an ideal of a pre-modern primitivism found in African-Americans. They were concerned about the inroads of global Anglo-American capitalistic culture. The English, they were looking for an alternative to the really rather insipid band music of the era.

IDEAS: It sounds like some of them were real characters—like British discographer and magazine editor Albert McCarthy.

EPPERSON: McCarthy was a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, and the press he printed on, The Delphic Press, mostly printed anarchist and socialist materials. He was a draft dodger during the whole of World War II, and he spent almost every night sleeping in a different location to avoid his draft notice.

“My Old Ramshackle Shack” by Bailey’s Lucky Seven.

IDEAS: Some of these guys made some real discoveries, like the French discographer Michel Ruppli.

EPPERSON: By going in and taking a label like, say, Chess or Blue Note or Aladdin Imperial, and quite literally identifying everything that was ever recorded by that label—even if it was a polka record or a spoken language Ukrainian record—he found stuff that nobody imagined could be there. Now, a lot of that stuff would only be of interest to a real specialist, because a lot of it was quite frankly awful sounding stuff. But some of that stuff is very valuable to the scholar.

IDEAS: Why were these guys so drawn to jazz specifically, as opposed to other genres like classical or folk?

EPPERSON: For the more mainstream people who made a difference, it was, I really hate to use it, but I can’t escape it, jazz was their middle-brow music, of an emerging middle class in a society that was rapidly becoming wealthier. These were mostly young men who were listening to jazz as a step up from the vernacular union hall folk music of their parents. Their parents were listening to regional music from whatever part of the United Kingdom they happened to come from. But these were young men and women who were on their way up the socioeconomic ladder. They were listening to jazz at the same time they were listening to Copland or Kern, and also the moderate modernists. But not the high art, European modernists like a Schoenberg or a Shostakovich.

“Autumn Leaves” by Cannonball Adderly.

IDEAS: How did these discographies change our understanding of jazz?

EPPERSON: The revolutionary discovery was that jazz was created in these discrete units, these quanta, called recording sessions. And that you could not understand jazz, record by record, or group by group, or season by season. Your quantum of jazz is the recording session.

IDEAS: You also suggest that their work helped elevate the cultural status of jazz.

EPPERSON: They were probably more important than anyone else in turning jazz from a sideline music for record companies, a “race record” line, into art music. You may think that’s good, you may think that’s bad, but these guys did more than anyone else to turn this from the bottom of the heap of popular music into art music. They institutionalized it. They said, “This stuff is worth knowing about. This stuff is worth sitting in front of a typewriter, writing in a book, and then publishing. This guy who played trumpet on this song on July 1st, 1926, is worth knowing.”

Noah Guiney is a freelance journalist currently working for The Boston Globe’s Opinion section. He can be reached at noah.guiney@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NoahGuiney.
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