logo  Recording Jazz: A Questionable Practice? (or, A Call for Re-examination)
  by Stu Vandermark

The title of this essay requires some explanation. I hope I will provide you with various kinds of explanations before you finish reading. But for now, Charlie Parker may help.

When I was a teenager I read about the Myth of the Dean Benedetti recordings. I’m sure even many casual jazz fans knew about the Charlie Parker fan (i.e., in the true sense, fanatic) who showed up at the alto giant’s gigs and supposedly recorded only Charlie Parker’s solos. The story took on true Mythical proportions. Even the references in articles to Benedetti and his efforts seemed to be written in some typographical whisper. I emphasize the (capital M) Mythical status of Benedetti and his recordings because over time I had come to assume that it was all just a marvelous story with little or no fact behind it.

Oh, there may have been a Dean Benedetti who was a nut and who recorded Charlie Parker’s gigs. But he didn’t record just the solos. And, if something like that did take place, probably he was a lousy sound engineer and the recordings were so poorly done that they were not worth listening to. Or, if some portions of the Myth were true, all the masters were eaten by wolfen in Central Park. Something like that.

Eventually (I’m almost embarrassed to admit) I forgot about the Dean Benedetti recordings. Then I received a Mosaic Records promo piece telling me about the discovery and release (by Mosaic, of course) of the Dean Benedetti recordings. The news stunned me. After all these years of jogging through life, carrying out business as usual, I come to find out that the Flat Earthers were right. It was Impossible, but I sent them my check, and in a few days the seven-CD set was staring me in the face.

“OK,” I can see you saying to yourself, “It’s time for the punch line. This is where Vandermark tells us what a disappointing air pocket that CD set turned out to be.” Not yet. There may be a few “punch lines” before I’m done here. But not quite yet. The set was more than a pleasant surprise.

I expected that the recordings would not live up to my image of them. After all — even during the years when I “forgot” about them — there was the image of that sound catalog of amazing Charlie Parker solos night after night. But it did live up to the image, and in some ways it surpassed that image. There were those wonderful solos, unburdened by heads or other people’s lesser improvisations. They stood quite well in isolation, typically revealing the vehicle theme (by implication) and other “essentials” that really were not necessary, as Parker demonstrated. But there was more. There were some outstanding complete sets of music and an unexpected bonus of “bad” Parker. It was good to learn that Charlie Parker was human after all. The recordings demonstrated that, given enough drugs (or perhaps withholding them), Charlie Parker could sound downright mortal. I consider that set of recordings to be truly a treasure.

Now here’s the punch line: Having said all those wonderful things about the Dean Benedetti set (and most of my other Parker recordings for that matter), I do not presume to know the music of Charlie Parker. I’m not being cute about this. I’m not suggesting (although it may well be true) that Parker’s inventions on those recordings are so profound that “I cannot understand this music that is so beyond my ken.” No. The problem is rooted in sound recording technology and the very essence of jazz.

Jazz is a living, breathing sonic art form — not merely “of the moment” but of a moment. A crucial moment in an ongoing life process of the improvising artist. Yes, Eric Dolphy was right, righter than most fans acknowledge. Even when someone captures some of the sounds of a gig or studio session, the essence of the art of that moment is not captured.

Perhaps I should interject the fact that what I say applies to some extent to other musics as well. For example, the interpretation of a work by Bach or Carter in some ways may be considered as important as the composition itself. More than once I have heard — live or on record — a performance in which the composer would have been better served if the musician had not chosen to share his interpretive incompetence. Even in the case of so-called “classical” music, there are factors of time and place that disappear on record.

The “problem” of recorded sound raises a number of questions about the meaning of sonic documentation when the art form — jazz in this case — can be realized only in the flesh. The questions need to be confronted head-on if we are to produce meaningful answers. The questions best can be understood in terms of practical examples.

Because so much of the jazz experience involves senses other than hearing, if all we record is sound, something important is missing. There is no question that the non-sonic aspect of jazz performance is more important in the case of some musicians than others. For example, can one really know Sun Ra without being witness to the “show”? People unfamiliar with post-Ayler music almost invariably will reject the sounds that come out of the stereo system speakers if you put a solo Cecil Taylor record on. But you can have a reasonably high hit ratio if you take such people to a concert of the sonoluminescent master in action.

But such obvious visual impact does not have to be a component of the performance for the recorded legacy to be lacking in a major way. For example, Fletcher Henderson Band members complained about their recordings from the 1920s and 1930s, claiming that the discs never came close to capturing the magic of the band. And such problems are not merely matters of engineering and technology. I remember how stunned I was when I finally heard Joe Albany (at Lulu White’s in Boston). His music was far beyond anything I had heard by him on record. A couple years later I caught him with a bass player several times during a two-week stint at the Copley Plaza. Again, I was stunned by the magic. I took family and friends to witness what was going on. Invariably their reaction was similar to my own. Before and since those experiences I’ve listened to Joe Albany recordings in libraries and bought various LPs myself. The only record that I’ve heard that is even remotely like what I witnessed is Portrait of an Artist (Elektra Musician 60161-1). And that doesn’t do it.

Part of the problem is the technical limitations of sound recordings themselves. The various sounds within a note comprise one of the key elements of the jazz experience. The lack of accuracy of sound reproduction in sound recordings is one of the contributing factors to the limitations of sound documents. These reproduction limitations have various implications. At the most basic level, the problem may be understood as a type of failure to reproduce the sound as it was heard by people present in the recording studio or club. But the psychological effects of these often subtle distinctions can drive musicians and engineers “crazy”. One recording engineer I know has a small sign above the board: “Make everything louder than everything else.”

For example, I remember one trio recording session I attended which in playback sounded terrific; it sounded “just like” the music I heard the musicians play in person a few minutes previously. When the session was over, I said to myself that the recording would be a fine release. Unfortunately the musician whose session it was decided that his instrument did not sound right. The timbre or something else about the reproduced sound was not right. The record as it was released sounded nothing like the session or the playback of the session on that date. The leader’s instrument still sounded fine to my ears, but the second instrument sounded farther away from the microphone and the third instrument sounded as if it were being played in another room. This example is not a commentary on the ego of the leader. I am sure that he did not modify the sonic landscape of that recording to make his contributions sound better (i.e., louder) than those of the other two people. There was no evil or selfish intent. He just fiddled with the engineering until his instrument sounded right. And because of that fiddling the recording was ruined. The technical limitations of sound reproduction simply drive people “crazy”.

Another issue is the irony of the lie of the evidence. More and more we find jazz critics living in (for all practical purposes) closets, mostly or completely without consistent access to live jazz performance by major improvisors. These folks do record reviews. And that’s all they are doing, “record reviews”. Such people are given the responsibility of assessing the quality of sonic documents, and all they know — all they can call upon — is recordings. For many critics it is a matter of comparing one sonic document with another sonic document. For these critics no longer is jazz performance — the living, breathing music — the true measure of the music.

It certainly is not an original criticism on my part, nevertheless it is a valid complaint that Gunther Schuller’s jazz history books really are not much more than an evaluative history of recorded jazz performance. As such the books have a value. Unfortunately the author and the publisher fail to identify the books as no more than that. Ironically, although recordings may be useful tools in helping us to understand and assess jazz performance, they function as roadblocks to understanding. How are we to know Fletcher Henderson’s bands or Joe Albany’s performances if all we have to work with are their recordings (or reviews of their recordings)? The problem of assessment is not merely a matter of special cases. Anyone who witnesses the music of a wide range of jazz musicians on a consistent and long-term basis knows that recordings are not valid measures of improvisors in general. The lack of validity applies to some extent to recordings by virtually all jazz musicians. And the distortion is extreme when it comes to such important musicians as Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer, Alan Dawson, Erroll Garner, Buddy Tate, Sam Price, and others. (Note: I don’t assume any great influence on reader purchases. Nevertheless, these musicians were chosen as examples in part because my “negative” comments about their recordings will not hurt their livelihoods.)

The faulty evidence of sound recordings is compounded by the fact that jazz as an art form is an ongoing process. While it is true that a person who owns more than one recording of music by a jazz musician has some type of cross-section of sounds produced by that musician, such documents in no way compensate for the living experience. And I’m talking about an ongoing living experience. To witness a performance by a musician once is to open a great door of understanding potentially. However, witnessing music — and non-music experiences — by that improvisor repeatedly is how one obtains the greatest insight into art as process. The information received is broad and deep potentially. Sometimes it is subtle, as in the case of the insight into Sonny Rollins the artist from performances of “Three Little Words” on at least a half dozen different occasions. Or it may be simply the wonder of witnessing the consistency of quality of Sam Price in action countless times over a span of years.

Or it may be the contextual insight into the process provided by witnessing dozens of Johnny Griffin performances and how that applies when I catch the master invisibly and magically probe the strengths and weaknesses of a pick-up drummer during the first set of a gig. The results were so stunning in that particular instance that even a superb drummer who dropped in to catch the second set failed to notice that the outstanding set of music included not a single medium-tempo vehicle.

Or it may be the knowledge that every time I walk into a club to witness the work of a certain saxophonist it is a crapshoot. Although the musician may be stumbling in a stupor of alcohol and drugs, the chance that he may be enough in control to light up the room brings me out. But at least I know what I’m up against.

In the same way, there is such an extraordinary difference between Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers on record and in person. The records are some kind of variation on “The Sonic Best of the Jazz Messengers” or “Record Company of the Year (or of the Week)”. The live performances one eventually learns (after witnessing different groups over a span of years) are a very different experience, almost unique among jazz ensembles. Sometimes it was very explicitly an open classroom. Sometimes on a given night it was the best band in the world. And always it was worth witnessing simply to discover which kind of leader Blakey would be on a given night. And in some ways — for those of us who loved Art Blakey the drummer — his best bands were his worst. During the last decade of its lifetime the band that you were most likely to catch was not the greatest edition of the band. And, on particularly bad nights Mr. Blakey was forced to carry the music. I remember one such evening at Sweet Basil in New York when the band was almost embarrassingly bad. Besides the leader the only person in the ensemble who had a clue as to what was going on was Donald Brown (who already had left the band but returned that night to help out). It wasn’t simply that we lucky witnesses got to catch a lot of drums. We got to witness the Blakey trap set as orchestra. These things don’t come across out of context, squeezed onto some au courant disc.

The experience of witnessing a much larger part of process than merely a sonic document alone is all of the above and more. Jazz is about humanity, and the range of that humanity as found and expressed in performances is beyond what is expressed in a sine wave. Jazz is life-relevant sonic activity that happens when the life experiences of the musicians and the audience come together in the moment. The fan or music reviewer who sits in a closet listening to recordings is carrying out a futile attempt at knowing the experience of improvised sonic art.

Evidence suggests that the impact of sound recording on the development of jazz generally has been negative — not because sound recordings are inherently negative products but because we have allowed or caused them to be negative. Shovels are used to dig holes. In that capacity, they are useful tools. If people primarily used shovels as weapons, we would have different feelings about shovels. And so it is regarding my feelings about sound documents of jazz performance. Of course, it is difficult to assess the extent of the damage done to jazz by sound recordings.

The problem of assessment is due to the fact that both the improvised art form and sound recording were born and grew up together. Only during the very earliest years of jazz do we have any experience in witnessing the music in the absence of recorded of jazz. By 1917 the era of undocumented jazz was over. By the mid-1920s every serious jazz fan (with sufficient resources) could hear examples of the best jazz ensembles on record. One might make an argument on behalf of the unsurpassed greatness of the untainted earliest jazz musicians. For example, do the earliest jazz musicians that we are familiar with — such as Benny Waters, Johnny Hodges, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke — have more distinctive personal voices than perhaps those musicians born after 1917? But such an argument (however appealing it may be) is filled with booby traps.

However there may be some non-jazz evidence that can give us a clue to the nature and extent of the damage. Not without booby traps, but maybe fewer. The only evidence (that approaches hard evidence) we have is so-called classical music. Although nothing seems to impair the development of some exceptional interpretive artists (e.g., Glenn Gould), the largest number of great interpreters during the twentieth century had their earliest development before 1920 (i.e., before the 78 RPM record explosion). Among those giants are Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Edwin Fischer, Arturo Toscanini, Pablo Casals, and Jascha Heifetz. This list is merely a start, and already it is longer than a list of musicians I could name of comparable interpretive stature who were born after 1915. The folks born after 1915 for the most part are influenced by recordings.

I have more than a half dozen recordings of Mozart’s Requiem, a wonderful work of sonic art. I’m sure the scholars have examined dozens of different recorded interpretations of the work. But I cannot listen to my recordings of it without feeling that conductors are running out of gas creatively. In the same way the young piano student, for example, is buried in recorded interpretive options — provided by pianists of previous generations — of the entire standard repertoire. From the standpoint of interpretation, one can understand a young student asking, “What is left for me to say?”

And the poor young improvisors of today who have all those jazz “masters” on record to contend with. What a disaster the retrojazz movement has been. But “everything” is affected. One cannot help but wonder, for example, what the development of European improvised music might have been like without recorded sound. Would they have seen the “rejection of American jazz” (and certainly few of them today are without great love for the music of the jazz continuum) as their only or best path?

One of the great ironies in attempting to assess the impact of recordings on musicians is that so many young improvisors in the U.S. and abroad today do not know the roots of contemporary improvisation, within or outside the recorded literature. They may know Aerosmith and Sonic Youth, but they do not know Don Byas and Paul Lovens. The result is that there is an awful lot of re-inventing of the wheel and lame music in the name of “experimental sonic art” (when all the experimenting — if there ever was any — had been done in the 1960s and 1970s). This fact raises the question of whether it is worse to suffer the effects of sound documents or the effects of no contact at all with the ground breakers. It is true that some young improvisors out of the European mold are promising or even outstanding, but they seem to be the rare young musicians who know where their music comes from and seek out in-person performances by Paul Rutherford, Lol Coxhill, Paul Lytton, Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, and the other pioneers.

In one sense, it all looks so bleak. But, of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with sound recordings of jazz performances. The problem is what we have done with them. Because we have misunderstood the meaning of sound recordings we have given them a role in the jazz performance landscape that is not merely wrong or misguided. It is worse than that. And what a shame it is. Because I do love my Dean Benedetti recordings of Charlie Parker and so many other recordings. If recordings are to fulfill their potential for jazz fans, they must be accepted for what they are. Buying records is like bringing home a copy of the exhibit book from a showing of works by visual artists. It is nice to have photos of the works to help jog fine memories, but the book is not a substitute for the exhibit. Analogously jazz is more like the work of certain types of “tactile” artists, such as painter Vincent van Gogh and sculptor David Smith. Those artists have produced works in which it is impossible to perceive and measure the shift between the total, larger impact and the three-dimensional vitality of the detail. In such cases the artifacts — photos on the one hand and sound recordings on the other — fall far short of the jolting reality.

All of this leaves us with the thought that jazz is a human music of the moment. But, beyond that, we must consider the role of recorded sound in the context of that very human, in-person music. We may ask: As far as jazz is concerned, what good are recordings? Are they even valid as “play along” training tools for the young or otherwise inept? (How many times can a student play “Star Eyes” with “major heavyweights” before the repetition of the exact notes and time destroy that student’s ability to act spontaneously?) Do they have a role as part of the contextual landscape of jazz and — if so — what is that role? Is it possible to enjoy sound recordings of jazz performance without sacrificing our ability to enjoy the REAL thing fully in person? (I sometimes wonder how much more people centuries ago heard when they encountered troubadours or showed up at roadhouses than we are capable of. After all, radio and recordings helped kill the piano in the parlor.) These and other questions need to be answered — or at least grappled with — if we are to discover a way to take advantage of the benefits of sound recording while finding ways to open the door to hearing among those who might otherwise go no farther than what has become a digital wall.

Photography perhaps provides a useful analogy. My in-laws, parents, and all grandparents are deceased, and I have cherished photographs of those people. The reality of those people is in the “air” as Eric Dolphy’s music is. However much I treasure those photographs, I do not mistake them for the actual people. And yet, that is the type of transformation that has taken place generally for sound recordings of jazz performances.

On the other hand, because I knew and loved those people, the photographs have meaning. The snapshots help me to remember specific moments we shared. There is even a brown photograph of my grandfather with his pant legs rolled up, walking in the surf probably at Coney Island. It is not of a moment that I remember specifically, but it helps me recall what I remember of him and even hints at a part of him that I would have liked to have known better. Even the posed studio photographs reveal something of the people in the picture, often with the suggestion that “this is how I want to be remembered” or “this is the me that I want people to see.” One such photo on a shelf in my living room is of my parents, smiling at eternity. I don’t know whether they knew that would be their last studio photo (at least consciously), but they never went back to a studio. Maybe they felt, “This is as good as we’re going to look, so let’s not try another shoot.”

And if we do not find another — or better — purpose for sound recordings we can take the example of photography to heart. The “live” club performances on record are somewhat analogous to the family snapshots. When they work well they capture something of the moment I remember. Anthony Braxton at Killian Hall, Stan Getz at Boston University, The Fringe in Terceira. But, as in the case of the photo of my grandfather, the recording does not have to be of an event that I witnessed. Such is the case of the Peter Brötzmann Tentet recordings of “Stonewater” On May 15, 1999 I was privileged to witness and take photographs at a Tentet rehearsal of “Stonewater,” and then witness the public performance of it the next night. Having the photos in an envelope and the memories in my head is wonderful. In addition, I have access to the unreleased and less than perfect recording of the May 16 performance and the Okka (OD12032) release of the Victoriaville performance from May 23, 1999. This combination of priceless experience plus photos and recordings helps bring back those moments and gives me some information about the early development of the piece. But it doesn’t stop there. Many people caught the 2000 tour of the Tentet which featured a significant transformation of “Stonewater.” I was fortunate enough to witness the final in-person performance of the piece in Chicago before the band went into the studio to record the still-transforming “Stonewater” in early July (OD12043). The reality is priceless and the recording in the context of experience comes close.

To put another angle on it, I never witnessed Evan Parker present a solo tenor sax performance. But I have seen him play tenor. And I have witnessed the raconteur recall the music and antics of such British “heroes” of his as Tubby Hayes and Phil Seamen. And so his sole solo tenor release (OD12017) resonates even more powerfully when it spins in my CD player. And then there is the anticipation — also generated in part by Mr. Parker — for a “sound photo” that has yet to be released. A few of us were crammed into Airwave Studios for what we knew would be an historic event. The duo session of Evan Parker and Joe McPhee was filled with surprises, most of which could not be attributed simply to “accommodation”. There was a break, and Joe could not control himself. He just had to share his memory of Evan’s first invasion of the U.S. and what it was like for Joe to catch the British reedmeister in person for the first time. The enthusiasm carried over as the recording session continued. And that experience is at the heart of the problem and its resolution. There is no substitute for Joe McPhee’s memory of witnessing Evan Parker for the first time in person. And I can’t wait for the Okka folks to release the Parker-McPhee duo session.


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