More on Vinyl

Collecting vinyl is a disease, according to a few women I’ve known. (Most women don’t tolerate music played loud either—but you knew that.) In quantities vinyl is heavy, it’s fussy to play, and it scratches easily. Trying to move a big collection takes strong backs, a lot of boxes, and a truck. Vinyl fanciers do have to admit to these charges.

These attributes plus the advent of streaming music killed off vinyl for a long time. Now it’s having a renaissance as witnessed by growing sales numbers and lots of Kumbaya cyber celebration. Google News tells me in the morning about new vinyl pressing plants going online.

So what’s the appeal? I wrote earlier about the better sound of vinyl and how, for me, that makes all the fussiness worthwhile. With the advent of fairly cheap plug-and-play turntables, vinyl becomes accessible to a growing audience of mostly younger fans who relish its kind of tactile connectedness to their music.

But the physicality of picking up a record and placing it on a platter—and the need to get out of my chair to flip it when it hits the run-out groove on side A—has me appreciating each song all the more. Plus, the wonder of seeing a spinning disc with grooves producing harmonic sound never fades.

I’m too old and long in the tooth with vinyl to get a rush like that. For me it’s the warm sound, plus the psycho-physical need to focus on the music, as if you were in a concert hall. Streaming audio (even with expensive high-resolution downloads) forces music to fit into the mental background of what you are doing. The writer of the above quote gets this, and it’s a big factor: “The music isn’t hiding in the background, as it is when I’m streaming digitally. Instead, it’s front and center.”

London’s Financial Times, an unusual source, tells us that vinyl sales for 2021 went over a billion dollars, the highest level in 30 years. Investors rush to acquire music catalogs and copyrights. The calculus of payoffs to all artists (not just the superstars) changes for the better, and that’s been a long time coming.

A band with 1mn fans, each streaming their new album 100 times in a single month, need only get 20,000 of them to buy the vinyl record to gross the same amount. For consumers, vinyl albums resuscitate a culture of gifting and compilations that used to drive a fifth of all transactions.

So it’s not just the big stars but all the scuffling musicians who make out better with vinyl. And so do the listeners.

Mingus at 100

As Duke Ellington said about the people and music he loved, Charles Mingus was “beyond category.” Now there’s been a flood of media recognition honoring Mingus’s centennial, and he may be more famous now than when he was alive. Yet the man was so prolific and complex that it’s impossible to do him justice in any short tribute. Nate Chinen gave that a good effort on NPR.

Since I spent a lot of time with Mingus and wrote a book about him, let me give you a few excerpts that reflect something of the true flavor of the man. In 1972, I taped him on one of his favorite subjects, the hoax of electronic music. He was talking with an Italian journalist who inadvertently evoked a lot of Mingus’s aversions.

Electronics are doing the same thing in music as elsewhere: They’re replacing people. Push a button, it sounds like an oboe, but not a good oboe player; another button, sounds like a French horn. The guy who plays this stuff is a nigger because he can’t afford to get a violin player or a French horn or oboe player. He might like to have the oboe—I would—but will go to the commercial extreme because it’s popular to use electric instruments.

And the great men like Charlie Parker and men who played legitimate instruments would laugh at these guys because they’re not in it for the love of music but because they think they’re going to make a lot of money—like Miles Davis did. Miles didn’t even need to make any money; he was already rich, or his daddy was rich. . . . But I know he’s an electronic man, and eventually somebody like me is going to make him come back and start playing again, put that bullshit down and play his horn. He’s gonna have to because [otherwise] he’ll be laughed out. Because you can get a little kid to push a button, and with these machines they got now, it’ll sound like they’re right.

Of course I fell in with that, as I did with many of Mingus’s opinions. Jazz lovers are often purists to a fault. We also spent much time talking about classical music. Mingus was deeply into that, as I found out later in our talks on Beethoven.

Kids should be educated to music, man, [classical is] not bad music. Our society should be listening to operas and everything else by now. It’s just noise to them, they can’t relax for a minute, it makes them sick. If a guy came in and played a beautiful violin for two-three minutes, they’d go crazy—over an ordinary microphone or no microphone.

Don’t you think they could appreciate Pablo Casals if he was young today? Sure they could, man, if this damn country would push it. I don’t know why they don’t want the kids to hear good music. Is it because it would make them healthy? They might throw their pot away. They might, man. You going to print that? And the young Casals, they’re stopping them.

And of course he hit on the avant-garde, another source of his strong opinions:

If Bird were here today, he wouldn’t be still playing bebop. You think he’d let Albert Ayler or somebody like that cut him? He’d do the squeek-squawk too but only a few bars of it. He wouldn’t do every tune like that. He would be avant-garde at the end of the composition or in the middle as a laugh and then go back to playing the music. . . .

You don’t just eliminate the beat. Music is everything—the beat and the no-beat; jazz wants to beat, emphasize the beat, so you don’t cancel it entirely. Especially if you call yourself black, because African people ain’t gonna never stop dancing. Puerto Ricans, the gypsies, Hungarians, they all have a dance music. You know? But they also have mood music that don’t have a beat to it sometimes, Indians don’t have a beat to it, but when they dance to it, they got a beat to it. I don’t see why these cats are ashamed to have a beat to their music.

Mingus was about so much more than angry protest, though I would finally type him as a turbulent man who saw through the many follies of our culture, and not just in music. But his music is what made him great if not famous. We’ll talk about that another time.

My Vinyl, and Why I Collect It

I started picking up on this stuff when I was old enough to buy records, maybe 14 or 15. There were one or two record stores in Highland Park, the Chicago suburb where I grew up. I learned the joys of browsing and being picky about surfaces. I was in love with jazz (recounted in a memoir here), and the LP (long-playing record) had just come out to displace the 78-rpm shellacs that my father had stacks of.

Vinyl LPs gave you lots of music on one disc and much better sound, though the first discs were recorded in mono, not stereo. To appreciate that sound, however, you had to have good audio equipment which, then as now, was not cheap. In high school and college I got my father involved in hi-fi, and we had some pretty elaborate setups, including reel-to-reel tape.

I bought a lot of New Orleans jazz in the early ‘50s, then got into Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and bebop, and then Monk and Mingus, who introduced me to the “modern” sounds I still treasure. My hoard grew and later incorporated many classical sides. My father dumped the LPs from his collection when the CD came out in the early ‘80s. Big mistake on his part.

When I began to review music as a critic for Playboy and others, my assemblage of albums grew apace. I continued buying records, mostly jazz, while I was reviewing classical and rock for the magazine in the ‘70s. And, yes, I kept some good ‘70s rock. The collection now consists of about 1,500 LPs and maybe 1,000 CDs. I’ve moved it too many times to count.

Which means, I guess, that I can’t do without it. The appeal of vinyl for me is not sentimental or faddish. It’s the medium I depend on for my musical fix. It’s also, given the vagaries of my collection, one person’s version of the history of music and, certainly, a history of my taste.

As to the sound, CDs have gotten generally better in the last few years, but vinyl still has the edge in terms of warmth and fullness. It’s closer to the sound of live music, and that after all is the goal of musical reproduction. As to streaming and most online music, well, one writer put it this way: “Streaming is much like fast food, it’s not the greatest but the convenience is really nice. Records are more like cooking a really nice meal at home, you enjoy the whole experience.” I do cook a lot at home.

People ask about the pops, clicks and scratches. I’ve always handled records with great care and kept them clean, and I have a vacuum machine for the scruffy ones. Clean sound is worth the effort.

A friend who owns a multi-CD player asked, “Isn’t it a drag to turn the record over every twenty minutes?” My answer was that in the days of 78s, you turned the record every three minutes. So it’s what you’re used to—and how much you value clear and full sound.

The great days of music can be reheard if you take the trouble. Likewise, your own great days of music can be brought back to you, and that’s worth a lot.

Nothing Succeeds Like Excess

 

Oscar Wilde said this. To which he added, “Moderation is a fatal thing.” I’ve always been a big fan of Oscar’s and once used that quote to justify inordinate drinking and recklessness in college, which in turn led to a year’s suspension and a subsequent turnaround in my life. Oscar’s life ended badly; mine is happily still in progress.

Born in Dublin, he came from a fortunate family and evolved into the major spokesperson for the aesthetic movement in late Victorian England. The aesthetes were a noisy but watered-down offshoot of the French Symbolists, whom I wrote about in a doctoral thesis. Through his pen and his wit, Oscar became known throughout the educated world.

I’ve never made any claim to wit or been part of a movement. I did come from a fortunate family and have written about that elsewhere. Part of growing up in the 1950s as I did was, however, to be seen as educated and clever, and I attempted to fill that bill through love of music and art. As Oscar did, this was an effort to move out of the pedestrian world of business and the common culture that grated on such elegant souls.

But it was important to make this move without much pretension or hype. The last thing you wanted was to be looked at as a pansy or, god forbid, a homo. Since my social tendencies lay in the other direction, I generally fitted in, had lots of friends, male and female, and made the arts the focal part of my “other life.”

Wilde, on the other hand, went out of his way to promote and display his otherness, disdaining convention, writing well, and paradoxically pleasing and even capturing society. His popularity even extended beyond the smart set. Excess does sometimes win out.

The phrase, “nothing succeeds like success” is still current and still accepted. But it’s part of the old culture, particularly the moneyed culture. The common culture today makes it a virtue to have come up the hard way. If you are a politician or an entertainer, the last thing you want to do is admit you came from wealth. Being successful typically means working your way up from being poor or middle class. The classic example is Joe Biden. John Kerry is still mocked.

I smell a lot of hypocrisy in this. Coming up the hard way means you likely had to spend a lot of energy on learning accepted behaviors, on pleasing the powerful, on survival skills. The more fortunate, on the other hand, can (theoretically) earn their success more easily. Yet privilege and success are publicly disdained because our culture continues to value the familiar, the commonplace and the old work ethic.

Oscar knew better. He also said, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”

Music When All Else Fails

I’m lucky enough to have collected and enjoyed some 1,500 records (vinyl LPs) and kept them with me all these years, plus about 1,000 CDs. Most are classical and jazz. Hearing them played back over a good sound system gets you emotionally in tune again. It completes who you are.

I have been living intimately with music all my life. Some of that history is recounted here, but the true story is that I can’t do without it. As a means to counter the fog and depression of war, for me music is unmatched. Everyone needs a break from the violence.

So much TV coverage of the Ukraine war becomes an assault on one’s capability to absorb violence. In our desire to learn more about the war we are surfeited with pictures and accounts that deny the reality of being human. Yet maybe you saw this video of the delightful German guy who came to Ukraine with his piano to play for the refugees.

Or the young girl who sang a song from Disney to refugees in a bomb shelter. It’s a commonplace that music de-stresses people but it is often judged in a political context. In the classical world, think of what Shostakovich went through under Stalin, from popularity to persecution. Or Prokofiev before him. Music under the Nazis was a travesty of art and a triumph of propaganda and kitsch. An estimated 1,500 musicians fled to England and the United States, among them Rudolf Serkin and Arnold Schönberg.

I have a great preponderance of German and Russian music in my collection. Should I give up listening to that as a protest to what Putin is doing in Ukraine (or what the Nazis did)? Of course not. Artworks should always be exempt from politics, even though their authors and practitioners unfortunately are not. Renouncing music, painting and literature for political concerns would be like renouncing our human connection.

In the world of commerce, we have reports of Stolichnaya vodka being poured down the sink. The company is now changing its name to “Stoli,” as if that will fool anybody. Protests only bite when there is a human connection involved.

Culturally, we are now seeing famous Russian conductors under pressure to renounce their homeland or quit music. Tugan Sokhiev “said on Sunday that he would resign from his positions with two orchestras—at the storied Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and in Toulouse, France—after facing intense pressure to condemn President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. . . . ‘I am being asked to choose one cultural tradition over another,’ Mr. Sokhiev said in the statement.”

Artists have often faced dilemmas of this kind: think of Beethoven and his benefactors, or Béla Bártok, the Hungarian genius who fled the Nazis for poverty and exile in the U.S. And there were so many others.

Music is and has always been the highest expression of our common humanity. We need that refuge now more than ever.

Coltrane the Cultural Icon

I’m moved to write about the Great Jazz Messiah after reading what Ben Ratliff wrote in the Washington Post the other day. Ben, a good critic now somewhat retired from journalism, pokes and probes around the cultural goings-on of the early ‘60s to explain Coltrane’s evolution, from 1961 to be exact.

It’s a kind of “rambling, unfocused piece,” as one commenter put it. And it makes the usual generalizations about the era that can ring false to those who lived through it, as I did. His piece also testifies to why I don’t write jazz criticism anymore.

Ratliff focuses on 1961 because it was the time of Coltrane’s pathbreaking Live at the Village Vanguard recordings. Here’s part of his negative take on the culture of that time:

From my standpoint—I wasn’t born until seven years later—the culture of that period seems marked by tension, diffusion, doubt, repetition, foreboding, lengthiness, savviness, taut aggression, wary knowledge, inspired dread, disciplined joy. The music sounds post-heroic and pre-cynical; interestingly free from grandiosity; full of room for the listener to find a place within it and make up their own mind. I want to live in it—not necessarily in its material evidence (I am looking forward to the next Playboi Carti record, just like you), but in its sensitivity, its skepticism and refusals. I think I can.

(Whew! Some tortured language here. Just like you, I had to Google “Playboi Carti.”) Ben finds all this as a cornerstone to Coltrane’s music of the period. I heard it rather differently. As a college kid I had spent an evening hearing Coltrane live with the first Miles Davis Quintet, as recounted in Jive-Colored Glasses. In 1956-57 that marked a whole new sound from the hard bop noises we were used to.

When I came to New York in 1965 to teach at NYU I also found a quasi-career as a jazz writer. Coltrane’s music by then had moved on to its final phase, a sound of total feeling—formless, powerful, and to a degree ineffable. Ben Ratliff, it turns out, wrote one of the best critical books about this development—in Coltrane: The Story of a Sound).

If you came at the later Coltrane from a more analytical (and less cultural) point of view as I did, you’d find the music hard to get into, hard to move you musically. After A Love Supreme he just lost me. Ben’s book quotes trumpeter Don Ellis’s criticisms (p. 163). Here are a couple of things Ellis points up that also bothered me. One is Coltrane’s sense of time:

That is, he never really gets “inside” the pulse, but rather plays over it. He now has his whole group playing with this same feeling! This is a good device, but it would be even more effective if balanced by strong “inside time” sections. In fact contrast in general is one of the weaknesses of this group.

 . . . In the great bulk of Coltrane’s work we get a good deal of filigree or decoration (in the form of continuous scales and arpeggios performed at a rapid velocity) but very little “meat” or positive strong statements or ideas. It is like he is playing chorus after chorus, solo after solo on only one idea—that of continually varying scale patterns and arpeggios.

That is valid technical criticism, but it really got under the skin of all those who wanted to find echoes of Africa in all that Coltrane did, to the exclusion of other influences. A kind of reverse racism, it seemed to me, and I wrote a piece about it that generated some commentary.

There has been so much written about the ‘60s, the white-black polarizations, the push for new Black Art, the musical cries of cultural pain. Coltrane’s late music, especially in Meditations and after, values feeling over form and rapidly became part of how American culture came to view jazz as a whole.

In that sense Saint John was certainly a revolutionary. But, like so much in our cultural life, his late music was not really open to replication. For all its angry devotional power, I think its closed, hermetic appeal was one reason why jazz lost its way and became a music only for the committed few.

Old Jazz Posts Never Die

Some of you will remember jazzinsideandout.com, my old blogging hangout and the ancestor of Goodmanspeaks.com. I’m now reposting several of JI&O’s better pieces on All About Jazz, one of the longest lasting and most comprehensive jazz websites. This, courtesy of AAJ founder/publisher Michael Ricci.

The posts cover everything from a Louis Armstrong party to Miguel Zenón and can be read here. I hope you jazz lovers will check them out and, if the spirit moves you, leave a comment or two.