THE VERY dirty and dusty young fellow who had driven his car all the way from the West Coast drew up in front of a second-hand store in a small Middle Western town. He surveyed its drab exterior with a discerning eye and entered. Carefully treading his way through the maze of stoves, bureaus, and bric-a-brak, he found the proprietor and asked:
"Have you any phonograph records?"
The proprietor moved listlessly behind the counter and rummaged down behind some piles of junk that had not been moved in years. He brought forth a stack of fifty old records. As he placed them on the counter, the young fellow's eyes took on a feverish gleam. He reached eagerly for them and began to turn them over carefully, one by one, as though looking for hidden treasure. When he was about halfway through the pile, the proprietor, who had been watching him, moved forward:
"So you're looking for special ones, eh? Well," he said, snatching them all from before the young fellow's eyes, ". . . we ain't got none."
This very individualistic hillbilly, furious at not selling the entire pile, had evidently never before seen in action that strange species, today quite common, the hot collector.
That collecting hot is today a recognized hobby, with books dedicated to the subject, is not a matter of chance. It has been a gradual development in which collectors themselves have played a leading part.
How it all began nobody knows. It is fairly safe to say, however, that in the beginning, hot records were collected mainly by musicians and their small-sized brethren, the so-called amateur or non-union musicians. They had various reasons for buying these records, besides a pathological urge to collect something. They recognized the potentialities of the music and had the added interest of studying it technically for their own uses. Of course, they did not go to the trouble that the latter day collectors do to procure records, for they simply bought them as they came out.
Three Princeton University students and one faculty member were the first known collectors who followed this hobby for appreciation and enjoyment only. Their mutual interest in jazz had them storing up collections of prized items against the day when the music they liked would no longer be played. These four, Albion Patterson, Albert McVitty, "Squirrel" Ashcraft, and Augusto Centeno, are responsible for sending the rest of the collecting gentry into junk shops and Black districts in search of recorded jazz.
It was Patterson and Centeno, who, about 1927, wrote what was probably the first jazz play, "Boy in a Tuxedo," a rather surrealistic drama in which each character was introduced by a hot theme supplied by a phonograph record off stage. The lines were spoken in a seemingly disjointed fashion, with one character leading off and another coming on in a complementary manner, without following the line of thought expressed by the first character. In other words, it was similar to an arranged jam session, except that words took the place of notes. The play was turned down by the Theatre Intime in preference to one by Shakespeare.
Meanwhile, Yale had its collectors, Wilder Hobson, John Henry Hammond, Jr., and others, but the two groups didn't get together for years. If a Yale man and a Princeton man entered a junk shop simultaneously in those days there was no danger of collision. The Yale man would almost invariably collect Elingtonia and a smattering of Fletcher Henderson, and the Princetonian would burrow through the dust for the Red Heads, Bix, especially Bix, and Rappolo on Gennett records. One of the aforementioned Princeton gang felt that the Wolverine Gennetts were so rare and valuable that he kept each one packed in a box of cotton batting.
A year or so later, the jinx was broken. Fred Mangold, then a student at Princeton, found the first records of Louis Armstrong, compared his collection with that of Langston Hughes, and supplemented it accordingly. Thereafter collecting became something of an art and, because of the lack of publicity attending it, an esoteric one.
Among the people that came under the influence of the Princeton group was Charles Edward Smith. Patterson initiated him into the fascinations of hot music and urged him to use his talents for the cause. Esquire printed Smith's article, "Collecting Hot," in February, 1934; the stampede was on. It served notice to widely scattered individuals that there were others who liked the same kind of music, and extended to the public at large the invitation to take up a hobby which was relatively cheap sport. Cheap, because when the radio displaced the phonograph as the beautiful piece of furniture in the front rooms of the nation, the second-hand dealer always bought the records along with the phonograph. Thus, all second-hand stores were over-supplied with records which they considered a poor investment and which they were anxious to sell, the prices ranging from one to five cents, top price.
Collecting hot, while it refers to the collecting of hot records, has many ramifications and its devotees have split into many factions. These fall mainly into four groups.
There are those who will have nothing but the original label, and who will turn down a clean copy of a record in preference to one in bad condition because the latter has what is known to be an earlier label. They spend most of their time checking and re-checking master numbers, personnels, dates of recording, and dates of issue on all makes of records. When two of this type get together, it is not long before the entire conversation is revolving around such label, master, and personnel data, no matter where the conversation happens to be taking place, whether in a night club, restaurant, or private residence. Out come their little black books. Soon they are oblivious to everything except the information they may have to exchange. I know of one collector who has a roomful of charts, showing all sorts of record data in historical sequence, and who keeps these all in order, when he is not making up catalogues of records he has or wishes he had.
All this, of course, is done when he is not looking in out-of-the-way places for more records. I sometimes wonder when there is time for listening to the music.
While this group must be given credit for the advance that has been made in the knowledge of the subject, at the same time it is responsible for all the misinformation and erroneous rumors which are spread due to their hasty and enthusiastic judgment. The collectors in this group collect everything that has the faintest resemblance to hot music, keeping records which are of no importance other than the fact that Louis Armstrong was in the studio at the time and can be heard to play a two bar coda as the needle clicks off at the end of the record.
At the opposite extreme are those who will have only records by one man or band. Some want nothing but Bix, or Ellington, or Armstrong, or Nichols, or Venuti. The strangest and most frightening experience of my career was when one of these maniacs burst into my house, walked to the center of the room, and interrupting Pee Wee Russell who was talking to several other collectors, announced in a determined voices "I am a Joe Venuti collector. What have you got by him?" gust to keep him quiet, we played him a record which had several fine choruses by others than Joe, but of course he was completely bored until Venuti took his little break in the middle of the record. Then he went wild. He was sent. It is not safe to get into a conversation with this violent type, because to him everything revolves around his pet. These fanatics are the loneliest people in the world, shunned by other collectors who regard them as not fit to talk to.
The majority of hot collectors are quite normal human beings who do not go to extremes. They look mainly for the classics of hot, for the thrill of possession and enjoyment. They, too, keep up the search for rare records, but solely in the hope of finding something satisfying to the ear, as well as something they consider to be of historical significance.
A small group which raises a lot of hell are those collectors who have heard that the value of hot records is steadily mounting. They profess an interest in the music and in the records, only hoping that in the end they can sell the records they found at enormous profits. That they never do this is some retribution for the trouble they cause all concerned.
The beginner-collector is the deadliest of the lot, even out-doing the common garden variety of jitterbug in his enthusiasm. There is some peculiar fascination in the collecting of hot which causes the beginner to become violently excited about the whole thing. I have never met a beginner who was not going out immediately to educate public to the benefits of a music which he himself knew nothing about, and to warn it against the greatly overrated musicians who were "too commercial." The novice is usually introduced to music by way of Bix Beiderbecke. Beiderbecke has probably received more than any other jazzman lying or dead; since the beginner is so enthusiastic, this keeps the ball rolling. There is something about the music of Bix which appeals to the initiate. His purity of tone, his evasion of dirty notes, the logic of his phrasing, all this is more easily comprehended than that of other hot players. Duke Ellington is also largely responsible for starting people on the road to hot appreciation.
It may be a strange Paradox that they appreciate Bix because he is a white man, playing in a white style for white people, and Ellington because he plays a highly sophisticated jungle style of music which has its fascination in its strangeness to them.
The second-hand dealers were the first to become aware that more and more people were listening to old jazz music. When early collectors started out on their rounds of these places, prices for these records were as low as one cent each. More often than not, the dealer tried to sell the whole lot at a sum resembling an even figure, 1ike one dollar. At present the dealers are aware that they are cheating themselves to go below fifteen cents and usually ask more. With the influx of the public into the field of hot, the junk shops have dried up as a good source of hot items. But of course, just when it begins to look as though there were no more records to be found, some diligent hunter locates a good stock right under the noses of his fellow seekers.
The latest wrinkle which has been in use by collectors is the canvassing from house to house in the Black districts of the larger cities. New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, New Orleans, and Kansas for City have yielded large hauls the collectors with the energy and fortitude to try it. One highly enterprising record scout know in New York has even refined the house-to-house process to the extent that he simply leaves his calling card with all the janitors in Harlem and they notify him when they have records which he might be interested in. In Chicago there is a dealer who sends out several men on this work. He always has a fine stock of rare records on hand to sell collectors. The condition of the records which are procured in this fashion is not all that could be wished for, however.
It was not purely in the interests of thrift that the early collectors were wont to frequent such dusty places as the Salvation Army warehouses and the second-hand stores in search of records that they wanted. During the period from 1930 to 1934, there were few music dealers who carried representative stocks of hot records. In the search, of course, music stores were not passed by, but the main source of rarities were the junk shops. The early collector, who had no catalogue to go by or any other information, was forced to buy about five times as many records as he needed, since he was always searching for this trumpet or that clarinet which he could recognize as one of the great, and always hoping that an obscure name would reveal a well-known hot band.
The most frequent question asked by the non-collector is "how do you fellows tell a rare record?" The answer is simple. You either look it up in a book or you find it out from a collector who has more knowledge of the subject than you do. There is no other way.
In the beginning, collectors could not depend on books and other collectors were few and far between. They soon became aware of the shortcomings of recording companies' catalogues, since so many items were continually turning up which were not even listed. This was often caused by the fact that the record could have been released after the issuance of one catalogue and cut out quickly before the next catalogue was published.
One thing that makes records extremely rare is that due to the absence of listing in catalogues, they are not even looked for and it is not until some collector recognizes the artist and passes the word along that the record is known to exist. The rarest Bix record known at the present time, for instance, is the third side of the Chicago Loopers, which through the whim of some recording company official was released under the name of Willard Robison and His Orchestra. Collectors for many years had been searching for this third side of the Chicago Loopers session, which had always existed in rumor.
George Beall, a Detroit collector, was the first to become aware of the fact that the record was labeled Willard Robison. This he discovered simply by listening to the record. For many months he kept this a secret, hoping to find a duplicate copy. Finally William Russell, the David Harum of hot collectors, talked him into divulging the information by pointing out to him that if he kept the information to himself long enough, all the records of Willard Robison might disappear and another copy might never turn up. When Russell got back to New York and told me about it, we immediately made wagers with our friends that by the next afternoon we would have a copy of this rare record, for we realized that sitting on the shelves of the Salvation Army warehouses of New York City were a sufficient quantity by this orchestra which had been passed up by all other collectors to insure us, on the law of averages, that this title was among them - as it was.
My basis for judging the rarity of a record would be the number of copies existing in the hands of collectors today. For instance, if Earl Hines' piano solos on Q.R.S. or the Charles Pierce Paramount records are not to be found in great numbers in the collections of the older members of the collecting fraternity, certainly then they will not appear frequently in the collections of those who take it up in the future. This would indicate then that the records are extremely rare.
The reason why the records of Earl Hines on Q.R.S. are scarce is due to the fact that all four Q.R.S. records were released by the company on the same day, and since piano solos are never in the greatest demand by the public, they were not in the big seller class. When the company went into bankruptcy, the receiver for the company broke at' all the existing stock, which helped a great deal to make the records rare, although his intentions, I am sure, were not in that direction.
Naturally, a record is rare if it is rare at the source, like the Charles Pierce records on Paramount. This company did not press many Copies, since it was small, had few dealers' outlets, and the records themselves did not sell Well.
The Charles Pierce records became exceedingly rare due to great demand, whereas the W.C. Handy records on OKeh, which could easily become rarities on the basis of supply alone, are not in great demand and therefore do not come under the heading of rare collectors' items.
The rarest copies in existence are those which were never, in the strictest sense of the word, released for the public, the studio test copies, which usually never came into the hands of collectors. Recently three records of this nature have been released for the benefit of hot collectors, two of them featuring Frank Teschmaker playing "Windy City Stomp" and "Jazz Me Blues", and a third featuring an all-star mixed group under the title of Billy Banks' Rhythmakers playing "Take It Slow and Easy."
Many of the collectors' items were originally issued purely for Black consumption and consequently were sold only in sections of the country which had a demand for them. Copies which found their way into private homes were usually not given the best of care since many of the Blackes, for their own reasons, did not care to change the needle frequently enough to save the record surface. Most records were completely worn out in this way. New copies have been available from certain dealers, but they have been very few and far Between. Most of the early Armstrong accompaniments, King Oliver, and other OKeh artists of the earlier period fall into this class.
The trouble with most collectors is that they don't know what they want. The unfortunate Part of the collecting business is that the dealer in collectors' items dares not help the collector With information on the subject. As a student of the situation, working on it on a full time basis, I have been in the position many times to give collectors information which could be of value to them. Unfortunately, it has not always been safe to do so, since a little information to certain collectors is enough to set them up in business across the street. This is merely to explain why information on the subject of hot collecting is sometimes very hard to obtain from either the collector or the dealer.
Early record scouts who took it upon themselves to become dealers in collectors' items, who needed cash and could not afford to take the time to build up a good reputation, have caused much hard feeling and taken in many a collector when it came to stating the true condition of records. This, of course, will be ironed out in time as the collecting of hot records becomes a more established interest.
The rarity of many items soon made it necessary for such organizations as the Commodore and the Hot Record Society to pioneer in the field of reissues. It was only recently that the older recording companies paid tribute to the efforts of these organizations and started to reissue many of the old masters which have come to be regarded as collectors' items. Armstrong, Beiderbecke, and Bessie Smith have been about as far as the strictly businesslike companies have really cared to go. However, the special Bluebird series of RCA-Victor and the plans of American Record Corporation for a general hot catalogue are signs of improvement from this direction.
When the first reissue appeared, consternation was rife among the collectors who had spent a lot of time, energy, and cash in getting together their collections, because they felt that this was a threat to the value of the original records. It may be that the reissue causes a falling off in the demand for the original, but since the demand for these items has always been greater than the supply, I doubt if in the end the original copies will lose in value. I believe that the reissue merely publicizes and acquaints the public with the artist and the quality of his music and will eventually enhance the value of the original. Were it not for the reissue, the public, and especially that portion of the public which will eventually collect hot, would be unable to hear any of the music whatever, and until heard and liked, there is no demand.
The price of original copies has risen to such a point that it makes the collecting of them a very expensive hobby for the beginner. The reissue serves to keep his interest at a point where he is demanded willing to pay the higher prices or original labels.
The process of dubbing is necessary in most cases in reissuing the rare records, and while there have been great advances made by recording engineers in this technique, it is not as satisfactory as the original record, for both high and low frequencies are lost in the process. This fact alone makes the acquisition of original copies more alluring.
The value of collectors' items in hot music, like everything else, obeys the law of supply and demand. But collectors, in dealing with one another, always place too high a value on what they own and try to get what they need as cheaply as possible. This, while perfectly natural, leads to a great of confusion concerning the actual value of hot records. I have had offered to me a copy of an Original Dixieland Jazz Band record by a perfectly serious young gentleman who said it was worth at least one hundred dollars. He was not quite so sure of it when I pointed out to him that I had a box of 0ver a hundred copies of these Dixieland records sitting in my closet. In the book and stamp-collecting business, values are easily ascertained by the prices for which they sell at auction.
The Hot Record Exchange has been running auctions for nearly two years, even so, auctions are not yet a true picture of the value of the records; the majority of collectors prefer to scout around on their own hook and in many cases have been successful in locating the items sought. Time, however, will set up the auction as the true delineator of record values.
A comparison of the various catalogues which are put out by dealers in rare collectors' items shows a trend towards standardization of prices. When the Hot Record Exchange published the first mimeographed list of hot collectors' items ever to be made, the prices asked were based solely on rarity and not on condition of records, and it is surprising, in looking over that original catalogue, to find how accurate, in a relative way, these prices were. Other dealers who followed the example of the Hot Record Exchange in various parts of the country had different ideas of what they thought the records were worth, but slowly these dealers have disappeared and as others have taken their places, with more knowledge of the past to go on, the prices of rare records, as listed in the various catalogues, have become more or less uniform.
The recent swing craze no doubt has many psychological and economical factors behind it, but, nevertheless, the noise that a small handful of hot record collectors were making played a large part in bringing swing to the attention of the public. It was their journals, Hot Jazz, Swing Music, and later, Down Beat and Tempo, which continually drummed the subject of swing into the ears of the public. In this process, the hot collecting fraternity, as a whole, has been blamed by the musician for every sin on the calendar. jitterbugs who think you are a collector if you have all the latest Larry Clinton records (both masters), are lumped into the same class with the serious collector who is making a sincere endeavor to study the history of Jazz that has been put on wax. Since the advent of the jitterbug type of music, newspaper feature stories, the Life photographic section, people who do not even own phonographs have been bothering musicians on every pretext under the sun. Musicians call them all collectors.
It is a well-known fact that all collectors bother musicians. But in the beginning serious collectors had no other source of information, and musicians should realize this. I have heard them griping about collectors When the people they described didn't know one end of a phonograph pick-up from another.
Charles Delaunay's Hot Discography has probably been the most useful book on jazz for hot collectors. The first edition appeared in 1936 and was as accurate as was humanly possible at the time, listing all the records made by the hot artists, giving the labels, titles, record and master numbers of the collectors' items. The new edition, put out in 1938, greatly augments the previous work and is far more accurate in its information. However, it is to be hoped that in the future discographies of a more limited nature will be written on the great artists of hot music, in which the pattern follows the book bibliographies, giving a short description of the music, titles, labels, personnels, master numbers, date of recording and issue. Then, my fellow collectors, we will be something.