Sunday, April 8, 2012

What Do You Do With a Lester Young Collection?
The Prez Ain't the President No More
The first time I heard the Prez was when I bought an LP, not because Prez was on it, I'd never heard Prez that I knew of, I was just a stupid kid, but the LP had a cool cover that caught my attention. A human dude was standing under a light pole smoking a cigarette and carrying an overcoat while walking past him went this real cat walking upright, smoking a cigarette, and carrying a trumpet under his left foreleg. It was an Epic album titled "Lester Leaps In," an album that after I bought it I realized it featured Lester Young, the Prez, with the early-day (mid-to-late 1930s) Kansas City smokin' Count Basie Orchestra.
Item image
Here's the LP...
I knew who Count Basie was. In my brother's record collection was a 78 rpm Decca album of Count Basie with the All-American Rhythm Section: Walter Page, bass; Freddie Greene, guitar; and Papa Jo Jones on drums. An album that showcased Basie in a laid-back mood playing some cool blues, like "The Dozens," "How Long, How Long," "Boogie-Woogie," "Your Red Wagon," etc. And I had heard of the Basie Kansas City band he had taken over from Bennie Moten in the mid-1930s, but I'd never heard the band and certainly I'd never heard Prez, though I knew slightly of Prez through his relationship with Billie Holiday.

Listening to this LP blew my mind. I couldn't believe what I heard. The damndest tenor saxophone blowin' I'd ever heard in my life. I knew Coleman Hawkins as the king of the saxophone but honestly I'd never really gotten that deep into Hawk. Yes, the sides he had made in France with Django Rinehart and a French pick-up band had blown me away--and listening to those sides even today amazes me--they swing so hard Django has to let out a "yeah" yell during one of them! But with Prez--I mean, Prez was so different from Hawk. So much cooler. So much more sweet in his approach to the tenor, and yet so swingin', so right on the money with his punctuations and lines, drivin' along right on the beat--and, yes, he was leapin' in at just the right time. "Lady Be Good" drove me crazy, man, crazy, and I played it over and over--but also "12th Street Rag" and "Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie" and "Boogie-Woogie"--I mean I wore that LP out in no time.

From then on I was hung up on Prez. I buried my ears in that LP and then any other LPs I could afford, including the Jazz at the Philharmonic volumes Norman Granz issued in the early fifties, especially the volume with Prez and Bird on the same stage. By then, too, I was solidly into the Bird; Bird and Diz; especially that Norman Granz Mercury issue titled "Bird and Diz" with Thelonious Monk, Red Callendar, and Buddy Rich backing them up.

Down through the years I bought as many of Prez's LPs as I could get my hand on. Then came the cassette era--and I got better acquainted with Prez. Then came the CD era. And now I have a whole lot of Prez CDs. In the late 1990s, I got a job where I had my own computer, an iMac Blueberry, and soon I discovered eBay. I started buying stuff on eBay by the hundreds. That was the only way I could save money, and I was making good bucks in those days. I couldn't save money except by immediately turning my excess monies into items I started buying on eBay. One day, I just happened to search for "Lester Young" items and lo and behold, I found something I'd always dreamed of owning, Lester Young's original 78 rpm recordings, starting with all the Philo issues--Philo being Norman Granz's 78 rpm recording company that he later due to the Philco Corporation forcing him to had to change the name to Aladdin records. I began to buy as many of these eBay-listed Lester Young Philos and Aladdins as I could, eventually ending up with a collection that has about 40 of these early Prez recordings in it, plus 40 or more other artists's 78 rpms, too, like Chu Berry; and, yes, Coleman Hawkins; Duke Ellington's Mercer label recordings; the recordings of one of my other fav tenor players, the obscure Julian Dash; the recordings of Teddy Bunn the amazing guitar player; the recordings of Sammy Bentson; the recordings of Mercy Dee Walton; the recordings of Hazel Scott, et al., to the point where now I have this huge collection of 78 rpm recordings covering one whole corner of a room in my apartment. And, yes, I bought a Califone record player that plays 78 rpms as well as 16 rpms, 33 1/3 rpms, and 45 rpms. I was very proud of my 78 rpm collection, but especially my Prez collection. I had paid upwards of $25 for some of my Prez's but usually I could get them for say $15.99. At the same time I also began buying Prez collectibles like old JATP concert programs, like original Prez promo photographs, like Down Beat magazines with articles on Prez, especially the one with Prez's Blind-fold Test, those wonderful old Down Beat pages run by Leonard Feather where he played records for jazz stars and asked them if they knew who the performers were. As a result, I now own a huge collection of Prez 78s and collectibles--the most expensive being some old Gale Agency flyers for Prez's records and one Kansas City concert poster where Prez is featured on a bill with R&B star Ruth Brown and boxing great Joe Lewis.

One day I'm on my way to a paper show with one of my good friends and blues record collectors and I happened to mention my Prez collection. He laughed at me. I got a little pissed and asked him what he meant by so snide a laugh. "Cause, you know, today, those 78s are worthless. I remember when a Philo 'DB Blues' [Prez's first record released under his own name--right after he came out of the army] sold for as much as $400; now you can't get dick shit for them."

And now I realize what my friend was saying. I've noticed now on eBay Lester Young 78s do not sell at any price.

The modern world cares nothing about 78 rpm records anymore. Even when I explain that 78s are as close as you can get to performers actually blowing--78s were mastered directly from the studio blowing--performers blowing into an old RCA mic directly into the mastering groove cutter--then the actual 78s pressed directly off that master. Today, there is a current market for Prez's LPs, but soon that market will dry up, too. Young collectors are now going for these Mosaic CD packages, all these remixed and reengineered rerecordings--and yes they are coolly free of scratches and clicks and things, but the actual artist blowing into the original mic is now miles away from those original sounds--he's remastered into another world.

I just was given a Mosaic set of all the Lionel Hampton RCA Victor recordings from 1937 to 1941--a truly wonderful bunch of recordings where Hamp uses musicians from the Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington Orks in small-group settings. Included in this Mosaic set is a recording Hamp made with the Nat "King" Cole Trio--"Central Avenue Breakdown" on one side and "Jack the Bellboy" on the other. I just happen to have the original 78 and I got it out and compared it to the Mosaic reengineered version. There's a difference--the original 78 is more LIVE, more in your face like you are right there in the studio with the boys whereas the Mosaic remakes are clean and the sound is good, but--hey, you don't hear the instruments as clearly as you do on the 78s.

So here I am stuck with a great collection of Lester Young recordings and collectibles--and now, Prez is pretty much forgotten in the world of new-kids-on-the-block jazz, a jazz that to me, as I've said before, is dominated by White kids--White kids who play according to what their teachers in music schools and colleges have taught them how to play jazz and read jazz--and they don't have very good ears and they aren't very improvisational--even hip-hoppers seem more improvisational than modern-day jazz performers. I can tell when a guy or gal has learned to play from reading a score. Yes, the old cats, like Prez, could read, but what they read were like head charts, quickly sketched out sketches of what the session leader wanted them to play.

So here I sit with my wonderful collection of Prez items watching as their values diminish with every passing era. And now, even these 78 rpms are available to download all over the Internet and on YouTube...

And I suppose that's what I should do, put my collection on YouTube, but shit, that's no way to listen to these wonderful old things.

The Obsolete Jazz Enthusiast

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