19. Piano Starts Here

Tatum1Record: Piano Starts Here
Artist: Art Tatum
Released: Columbia Records, 1968

I had heard of Art Tatum, and I knew he was a jazz musician, but I'm sad to admit that I knew nothing more than that. I didn't even know what instrument he played until I picked this record from my father's collection. As it turns out, Mr. Tatum was a piano player, and by many accounts, the greatest jazz pianist in history.

This record, released in 1968, is a compilation of sorts. It isn't a greatest hits collection, but more of a retrospective. Side one opens with the first four songs Tatum recorded, back in 1933, and the rest of the tracks were recorded live at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in May of 1949. If he were posting on Instagram, he'd have tagged this album with "How it started, how it's going."

I took piano lessons for a time when I was in the sixth or seventh grade, but it was a failed venture. The problem, I think, was one of interior design. The piano was situated in the living room opposite of wide windows that looked out into the front yard. The player needed only to look over his shoulder to see his friends playing football in the street, and none of the sheet music I had could hold my interest as I sat at the bench. Like so many failed musicians, I didn't practice enough. Since I didn't practice enough, I wasn't very good, and since I wasn't very good, the piano wasn't very fun.

And it's a shame. Sure, the football games were fun, but I'd give anything to be able to sit down at a piano now and play a song. No instrument is easier to produce music on than a piano, but actually playing is something completely different. And Tatum does more than just play; it is as if he and the piano are one. 

None of these tracks feature any accompaniment, but the tunes are so rich and so layered, that it often appears to be more than one musician playing. There's a story about Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards hearing a recording of the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson for the first time and refusing to believe there was only one guitarist playing. And so it was with those listening to Tatum. Even the greats who followed him -- Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson -- understood that Tatum was on another level. (Take a look at this great conversation between Peterson and Count Basie discussing Tatum; they both speak of how intimidated they were by his greatness.)

As I listen to this record, drawing on perhaps eighteen months of piano playing experience four decades ago, I'm no less amazed than the experts. On some of the tracks the notes come flying so fast that it's hard to imagine human hands and fingers playing so precisely. On others, like the Gershwin standard "Someone to Watch Over Me," Tatum reminds us that he can be smooth and majestic, with long lyrical improvisations punctuating each of the recognizable phrases. It's a joy to listen to, and I can't believe it took me fifty-three years to discover his genius.

Tatum2

Side 1
Tea for Two
St. Louis Blues
Tiger Rag
Sophisticated Lady
How High the Moon
Humoresque
Someone to Watch Over Me

Side 2
Yesterdays
I Know That You Know
Willow Weep for Me
Tatum Pole Boogie
The Kerry Dance
The Man I Love


18. Chico Hamilton Quintet

Chico1Record: Chico Hamilton Quintet
Artist: Chico Hamilton Quintet
Released: Pacific Jazz Records, 1956

The Chico Hamilton Quintet is different, and it's immediately clear why this was one of my father's favorites. Hamilton was born and raised in Los Angeles, and he became one of the pioneers of a more relaxed style sometimes referred to as cool jazz, or even West Coast jazz.

I'm guessing there wasn't an East Coast-West Coast rivalry like Biggie and Pac, but things are different out here, even now. Back then? California might well have been an island floating in the Pacific Ocean.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to interview sportswriter Arnold Hano who had been born and raised in the Bronx before eventually moving out west to California, where he continued writing in the 1950s and '60s. (Here's the full interview: Part I/Part II.)We talked about how the West was viewed back then.

Hano:  When I was back in New York I did whatever was around there. But when I was on the west coast, you know, that’s an insular attitude. I was sent from Laguna Beach to Seattle to cover a basketball scandal at Seattle University!

Waddles:  Because it’s the west coast, it’s all the west coast.

Hano:  “Oh, Hano’s out there. He’s on the west coast, he can do that.” They would never send anybody from New York to Cleveland, but this is a greater distance, much greater distance. So yeah, you’re right. It was geographic. It was wonderful. 

I can only imagine that the geographic isolation of the time allowed for, or at least contributed to, the creation of a sound that was dramatically different from the big band and bepop styles percolating on the East Coast. What this record preserves is a form of jazz that sometimes includes elements of classical music, combining my father's two loves. (Had Sinatra showed up to sing a few bars, we'd have had the trifecta.)

The opening notes of the record come from Fred Katz's cello, bowed not plucked, instantly establishing the classical feel. The rest of that first side, recorded in a Hollywood studio with Hamilton on the drums behind the rest of the quintet, certainly puts the cool in cool jazz, but I prefer side two. Not only is the style closer to the traditional jazz that I prefer, it was recorded live. In between tracks we hear polite applause from a small crowd, and during the songs, most noticeably during Carson Smith's bass solo on "Spectacular," we can hear the band members cackling with delight. The joy is palpable.

But here's the most interesting part. The live tracks were recorded at a nightclub called Harry Rubin's Strollers in Long Beach, California, just a short drive from my house. Some quick research gave me an address, but I wasn't surprised to find that there were no signs of a jazz club when I arrived on the scene. That stretch of the street has long since been closed to cars and renamed "Promenade" as part of the city's downtown revitalization project. As near as I can tell, the spot where the club must've stood is now occupied by the Renaissance Hotel.

It would've been nice to be able to walk into a darkened night club and imagine a scene from sixty-seven years ago, but instead I stood blinking in the California sun as bikers sped past and young couples pushed babies in strollers. It didn't matter. The connection was still there. On August 4, 1955, the Chico Hamilton Quintet recorded a few tracks in a long forgotten club in California. Not long after that my father bought the resulting record in Detroit and, judging by the wear and tear on the album jacket, came to love it. On a November afternoon in 2022, I brought the record back to where it had started. The circle was closed.

Chico3

Side 1
A Nice Day
Funny Valentine
Blue Sands
The Sage
The Morning After

Side 2
I Want to Be Happy
Spectacular
Free Form
Walking Carson Blues
Buddy Boo

Chico2


17. Big New Herd at the Monterey Jazz Festival

WoodyMonterey1Record: Big New Herd at the Monterey Jazz Festival
Artist: Woody Herman
Released: Atlantic Records, 1960

For the second week in a row I'm writing about a live performance recorded at a jazz festival. Last week it was Duke Ellington at Newport, and this week it's Woody Herman at Monterey. The Newport and Monterey Jazz Festivals are unquestionably the biggest and most storied music festivals in America, so it's no surprise that so many of the greats have released recordings of their performances at one event or the other, and also no surprise that so many of those recordings are in my father's collection.

There's essentially zero chance that I'll ever make it to Newport, Rhode Island, and even though it's possible that I could head up the coast one summer to Monterey, the event I'd truly love to check out is the Detroit Jazz Festival, held annually on Labor Day Weekend. I've even got a cousin who sometimes performs there, so there's really no excuse not to make the trip. Someday. 

But back to Woody and his band. Herman had taken to referring to his orchestra as a "herd" rather than a band, due in part to the fluidity of such groups. For this festival the herd included many of its usual members, but they also added a few guests from the nearby San Francisco Symphony. According to Ralph J. Gleason's liner notes, Herman remarked, "I wish I could take this band on the road!"

The result is some of the most listenable jazz you could ever find. It's not bland background music -- there's plenty of substance here -- but it isn't challenging. That's hardly a criticism. 

We choose our music with a purpose in mind, creating a soundtrack to fit the moment. In my early twenties, when I was regularly making the six hour drive between L.A. and the Bay Area, for example, I had a playlist of CDs designed to keep the energy up during an otherwise monotonous trek. Some genres work well as the background for a study session, while something else might fit for an evening with friends. 

There are even differences within genres. Charles Mingus demands your attention; Woody Herman says, "Don't mind us. We'll just be over here having fun if you want to listen." And it's the fun that shines through in this live recording. As one solo is passed to another, all the expected instruments have their moments -- a trumpet here, a saxophone there. But there's also Woody's clarinet as well as Vic Feldman's vibraharp, a warmer relative of the xylophone. Because it's a live performance -- and not just remixed versions of what was played that afternoon and evening in Monterey -- we can often hear the band members shouting encouragement to one another. (Gleason also writes that we can even hear a plane buzzing the crowd at various points, but I can't quite make that out.)

Gleason closes his notes by explaining that "Monterey was a gas for musicians and fans alike." We spend the time and money to go and see our favorite bands in concert precisely because "it's a gas." Cuing up the music and singing along at home to our favorite tracks is one thing, but being part of a crowd waiting for something unexpected to happen is something completely different.

Sometimes the venue matters. My wife and I went to see one of her favorite bands, the Shins, in a small club several years ago. There might've been five hundred people there, and the setting was so intimate that we could hear conversations between the bandmates between songs and comments from some of the superfans who predicted upcoming numbers based on which guitar the lead singer grabbed before heading back to the mic. I remember seeing the English Beat with a friend in an even smaller venue on the Sunset Strip; the crowd was so small that frontman Dave Wakeling opened the stage for any of the women, soccer moms all, to come up and dance as he played "Tenderness." 

But somehow that joy of the performance isn't lost when the venue gets larger, it only changes. There's nothing like the collective explosion as an arena crowd hears the opening chords of a favorite song or sings along with the chorus. I saw U2 at the Rose Bowl several years ago, and even though our seats were roughly 200 yards from the stage, there was still a connection as one hundred thousand of us shared our voices with Bono as we sang the songs we'd been singing alone in our cars for the past twenty-five years. It was magic.

There might not have been any dancing on the stage on October 3, 1959, in Monterey, but there's no doubt the crowd that afternoon and evening arrived with the same expectations of concert and festival goers anywhere. Perhaps that's why we see only Woody Herman's silhouette on an album cover that's dominated by the crowd, row upon row of fans that say something significant about the era. Many of the men are wearing dress shirts and ties, and a few are even in suit jackets. There are hats everywhere with a few programs serving as makeshift visors, and those who aren't wearing sunglasses are squinting into the sun. If it were Woodstock or Lollapalooza or Coachella there'd likely be a lot more skin showing, but on some level a festival is still a festival. 

The panorama of the crowd does bring up another issue that I've written about before. There might be two hundred faces in the photo, but only four of them appear to be Black. Granted, this was Monterey, California, and a picture like this taken in Chicago or New York or Detroit might've looked a bit different, but this was still 1959, a time when jazz musicians, both Black and white, were playing for predominantly white audiences like this one. So maybe this was more like Coachella than we might think.

WoodyMonterey2

Side 1
Four Brothers
Like Some Blues Man
Skoobeedoobee

Side 2
Monterey Apple Tree
Skylark
The Magpie


16. Ellington at Newport

Ellington1Record: Ellington at Newport
Artist: Duke Ellington
Released: Columbia Records, 1956

For the second time I find myself writing here about a Duke Ellington performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. The first time was Newport 1958, but this record was from two summers earlier, in 1956, a recording that many still see as one of the most important in Ellington's career.

Ellington's performing career spanned from the 1920s until his death in 1974 and included dozens and dozens (hundreds?) of recordings. He is, without question, not only one of the most important and most influential jazz musicians of all time, but one of the greatest American musicians of any genre. Given that, it should be no surprise that his work is well represented in my father's collection.

One way in which jazz differs from more modern genres of music is in the importance of performance. It isn't uncommon today for the most popular artists and bands to eschew touring altogether in the later stages of their careers even as they continue to produce new music in studio sessions. Some bands may develop reputations as being outstanding showmen, but even in those cases the studio work takes precedence. 

For many jazz performers, however, this wasn't the case. As the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival approached, Duke Ellington's career appeared to have been waning. It was his performance on July 7 -- not a stunning new studio album -- that revitalized his career and gave him the momentum to continue for another two decades. This record is ostensibly the documentation of that evening (which stretched into morning), and it eventually became the best selling album of Ellington's career.

Why was performance so important? Jazz is an ephemeral art form, due in part to the improvisational nature of the genre but also to the limitations of vinyl records. With only about twenty-two minutes available on one side, there often wasn't room for longer studio compositions or live performances that stretched beyond those limits. (As a result, the CD era saw an explosion of releases of older material that couldn't have been released in previous formats.)

As alluded to above, this recording isn't completely live as suggested. Columbia Records did indeed record Ellington and his band that evening, but there were problems. Saxophonist Paul Gonsalves apparently played into the wrong microphone for long stretches and was completely inaudible, for example, and some of the crowd noise we hear on the record is artificial.

But when you're discussing a landmark record like this there's no point in quibbling over details of perceived authenticity. George Avakian's rich liner notes ignore all of this and instead focus on the impact of the live performance. His description upends any image the reader might have of a jazz concert, more specifically a jazz audience, in 1956. 

The most important moment is preserved on side two during the fifteen-minute masterpiece "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue," which featured a lengthy tenor sax solo by Gonsalves. Ellington had told him to blow as long as he felt like blowing, and the result was a near ten-minute solo that brought the house down. We imagine row upon row of dignified listeners, perhaps tapping their toes but nothing more. But reading Avakian's description of the night, it might've been closer to the Rolling Stones at Altamont, if not as tragic.

As Gonsalves continued to wail away, the energy in the audience began to build. "A platinum-blonde girl in a black dress began dancing in one of the boxes (the last place you'd expect that in Newport!) and," writes Avakian, "a moment later somebody else started in another part of the audience." (There's a photo of the blonde on the back of the album and although she was anonymous at the time of the album's release, she was eventually identified as Elaine Anderson. You can read more about her and her recollections of that night here.)

Those dancers, the energy of Gonsalves's long solo, the driving rhythm of Ellington's band, and, no doubt, the lateness of the hour all combined to bring much of the crowd to its feet. They filled the aisles and pushed closer to the stage, at points leading police and festival security to consider shutting the show down. But Ellington, perhaps sensing the magnitude of the moment, would have none of it. The record ends after "Diminuendo and Crescendo," but the band played on into the night. And Ellington played on for another twenty years, thanks to this performance.

Ellington2

Side 1
Festival Junction
Blues to Be There
Newport Up

Side 2
Jeep's Blues
Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue


15. Mingus Revisited

Mingus1Record: Mingus Revisited
Artist: Charles Mingus
Released: Limelight Records, 1965

The cover of this record tells you everything you need to know. To steal a phrase from the modern parlance, back in the 1960s Charles Mingus was playing chess while everyone else played checkers. Look at him as he sits comfortably before the board, fingers intertwined, eyes closed as he contemplates his next move.

His move with this record was to be experimental, to push the boundaries of jazz forward. This was originally recorded in 1960 and released the following year by Mercury Records with the title Pre-Bird. (That title reflects the idea that Mingus hadn't yet listened to Charlie "Bird" Parker, who would become a great influence.) Producer Leonard Feather writes in the liner notes, "Unavailable for many years, it is herein reissued because of its historical importance."

It's important because it's unlike anything almost anyone else was doing at the time. John Coltrane and Miles Davis, both separately and together, would push jazz into challenging directions, but even they weren't doing what Mingus was. 

Mingus had already made his mark as a bassist, and now he was composing. Most of the tracks on this record are compositions of his own for a band that is big, if not a "big band." In addition to Mingus's bass, there are five trumpets, four trombones, six saxophones, three percussionists, a tuba, a flute, a cello, a piano, and even an oboe. Most of those unexpected instruments contribute to the Mingus originals, the final four tracks on side one, and the final two on the reverse. 

Mingus sets up an interesting contrast on each side as he begins with traditional tunes, including a tribute to one of his greatest influences, Duke Ellington (more on that coming), then finishes with his own songs which are anything but traditional. Mingus spoke often about his love of classical music and composers like Ravel and Debussy, and those influences are heard in these compositions which are jazz numbers, certainly, but are also orchestral in nature. 

On two songs he even enlists the services of a vocalist, Lorraine Cousins, uncredited except in Feather's notes, and her haunting vocals paired with the unorthodox feel of those tracks produce songs which are as unsettling as they are brilliant. I was listening to them one evening in the dining room when my phone pinged with a text from my wife who was writing in the adjacent office. 

"Do you mind using headphones? The music is kinda stressing me out... It sounds like a scary movie or something."

She wasn't wrong, and I'm guessing many listeners in 1961 (or 1965) must've had similar reactions. It's different, to say the least.

But let's go back to the opening tracks from each side. The record begins with "Take the 'A' Train," a Billy Strayhorn classic that I remember playing in middle school jazz band. Side two opens with an Ellington number, "Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me."

It all seems fairly straight forward until you look deeper at the track listing and put the needle on the record. Each opening track is actually an interpolation of two songs. Mingus has overlapped two songs on one track. On side one that means in addition to "Take the 'A' Train," you're also listening to "Exactly Like You." Mingus's arrangement overlaps the two songs, with the melody from one on the left channel (in your left ear if you're using headphones) and the second melody on the right channel. It isn't just genius, it's mad-scientist-genius. And the best part? For listeners who aren't aware of what's going on, it's just a song.

Considering all this, Mingus Revisited isn't just a record. It's the preservation of a moment in time when an artist pushed the boundaries of his chosen medium. Like any artwork described as avant garde, it can be disconcerting at first listen, but after spinning it almost every day for the past week, I've come to appreciate the challenging sections as much as the melodic interludes. It's all fairly amazing.

Finally, there was a surprise. On the back of the album jacket in the upper righthand corner, a message is written with a blue ballpoint pen in my father's elegant handwriting: "Demo for Sylvia." I don't know who Sylvia was, nor do I need to know. Those three words trigger the imagination and conjure a scene of my father sharing this music with someone else. Music, after all, is meant to be shared.

Mingus3

Side 1
Take the "A" Train/Exactly Like You
Prayer for Passive Resistance
Eclipse
Mingus Fingus No. 2
Weird Nightmare

Side 2
Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me/I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart
Bemoanable Lady
Half-Mast Inhibition

Mingus2


14. Woody's Winners

WoodyFrontRecord: Woody's Winners
Artist: Woody Herman
Released: Columbia Records, 1966

I have thoughts about the clarinet, so I hadn't been looking forward to this record. I started playing the alto saxophone in the fourth grade and continued through high school with two notable detours. I played baritone sax for a bit during the eleventh grade, but back in elementary school I tried clarinet. 

I had been playing saxophone for two years at that point, and I was beginning to think of myself as more than just a sax player; I wanted to be a "musician." It's amusing to think about the level of delusion necessary for a ten-year-old to think such thoughts, but there I was. I knew that true musicians played multiple instruments, so I couldn't just focus on the saxophone. I needed to diversify my skill set. I'm not sure why I chose the clarinet, nor am I sure how I convinced my parents to buy me a new instrument when an old one was already sitting in my room, but somehow I managed the trick. That year I even auditioned (twice) for the district honor band. I missed the cut with my clarinet, but made it with my sax, so I actually played both instruments that year.

It's a cruel thing to put a clarinet into a child's hands. First, it isn't very cool. If my wife is reading this, she likely just spit her coffee all over the screen; I understand that "cool" is a very relative term. But there is a clear hierarchy in the world of elementary and middle school band. What's always been interesting to me is that while the band kids are typically on the fringe of the overall school society, the social structure of the band often mimics what's going on in the larger school. The trumpet, flute, and percussion sections are filled with the cool kids. The clarinet section? Not so much. (Quick but important side note: band kids are some of the nicest kids you'll ever meet. That was true then, and it's still true now.)

Beyond the coolness issue, the clarinet is a technically demanding instrument. Not only must the player navigate a maze of twisting, interlocking levers and keys running the length of the clarinet, there are also holes which must be covered with finger tips. And if you've ever had an aspiring clarinetist in your house (I have), you know that it's an instrument that's notorious for its squeaks -- immediate but painful feedback that the player is doing something wrong.

And so when I pulled this record out of my father's collection and looked at the cover, I had all of these thoughts and more. I'd heard of Woody Herman, so I knew he'd had a long and distinguished career, but it was a long career playing the clarinet. And the design of the cover seemed like such a transparent attempt to compensate for a poor choice he had made years earlier. I felt sorry for him. There he sits with his clarinet surrounded by the cool kids -- fifteen young women who had clearly just come from their audition for That Girl, which would debut only months after this photo was taken. Sure, they lost out to Marlo Thomas, but I'm certain they all went on to garner walk-on roles in Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. The cool kids always end up on top.

So I had low expectations for this record. Very low. But I couldn't have been more wrong.

I can't quite believe I'm writing this, but this record is incredibly cool. I had scoffed at a description of the opening track, "23 Red," as a "blistering swinger," but that's exactly what it is. Herman's band is phenomenal. He wisely filled it with all the cool kids from band class -- five trumpets, four saxophones, and three trombones. I should also note that Woody plays clarinet and alto sax here, just like I did once upon a time.

As I've written here before, I'm a sucker for horns in all genres, and I especially love them here. Each song has its own flow, but typically they play like this: big horns for a few bars, then a quieter interlude to allow for a saxophone or clarinet solo, followed by more big horns. Blistering, indeed.

There's probably nothing more cliché than judging a book by its cover, but I'm guilty here. I had thought about skipping this one altogether, and probably the only reason I even listened to it was because it would give me a chance to write about my dalliance with the clarinet. As it turns out, I can't stop listening. This is definitely a record I'll come back to.

When I started this project I expected that I'd be listening to a lot of good music and thinking a lot about my father. What I didn't expect were the tangents each record would inspire and the things I'd learn as I pulled on one thread or another. The album notes, for example, have almost always been treasures of information about the artists, the recordings, and the era. It truly is a distinct art form, and the Recording Academy has awarded a Grammy for Best Album Notes each year since 1964.

The notes are always credited, and when I finished reading about Woody's Winners and saw the credit at the end -- Herb Wong, KJAZ-FM, San Francisco -- I wondered about the obviously Asian name, so I investigated. It turns out that Herb Wong was a long-time jazz expert and deejay in the Bay Area. He fell in love with jazz as a boy when a package of classic jazz records was incorrectly delivered to his house, and he went on to live a life full of jazz, among other pursuits.

I think that says something about the inclusivity of jazz as a musical genre. We can talk about cultural appropriation -- take another look at the cover of this record -- or the fact that this medium, the first true American art form, was largely created by Black Americans and then performed by Black Americans for primarily white audiences. That dynamic led to the stories which may or may not be true about why Miles Davis famously played with his back to the crowd.

Like it or not, the issue of race is a part of the history of jazz, but there's also something more. I like the image of a young, Chinese-American boy serendipitously discovering a few Count Basie and Duke Ellington records and becoming enamored with an art form that couldn't have been further removed from his own family's history. It seems incongruous at first, but then it makes perfect sense. Jazz, after all, is all of our history.

WoodyBack

Side 1
23 Red
My Funny Valentine
Northwest Passage
Poor Butterfly
Greasy Sack Blues

Side 2
Woody's Whistle
Red Roses for a Blue Lady
Opus de Funk and Theme (Blue Flame)


13. Basie

BasieFrontRecord: Basie
Artist: Count Basie
Released: Clef Records, 1955

This is the third time that Count Basie has shown up here, a sure sign that he was one of my father's favorites. On this record -- another one that's well-worn and well-loved, with scratches and all -- Basie is again fronting his band as they run through ten tracks, each a stage for one of the members to roam free for a bit.

The result is an album that could be played almost anywhere. From Norman Granz's liner notes:

In the past we've labelled Count Basie's albums either as "Dance Session" or "Jazz," but actually Basie's music goes either way depending on your inclination at the time. You can dance and listen, or you can sit and listen; it's the same either way. It, therefore, seemed far simpler to merely say "BASIE" and let it go at that. The chances are you'll listen for a long time to Basie.

For me, it's a sit and listen kind of record, something that could be playing in the background while making dinner or washing dishes. Basie's band consists of the Count himself on piano along with five saxophones, a few trombones, and a percussion session. Granz is right when he writes about the difficult of classifying this album, and that's because it changes from one song to the next. One track will be smooth and reserved, perhaps to feature Basie's piano playing, the next will be upbeat, to allow two saxophonists to take the spotlight, and finally will be a song featuring call and response between a trumpet and a trombone. 

It's nice, and it's comfortable, and maybe that's why it doesn't really grab me. One thing that does grab me is the cover, which features more artwork from David Stone Martin. It won't be the last time he shows up here, so stay tuned.

BasieBack

Side 1
Blues Backstage
Down for the Count
Eventide
Ain't Misbehavin'

Side 2
Perdido
Ska-Di-Die-Dee-Bee-Doo
Two Franks
Rails


12. Nice 'n' Easy

Sinatra1Record: Nice 'n' Easy
Artist: Frank Sinatra
Released: Capitol Records, 1960

I was only a few weeks into this project when I began thinking about upgrading to a new turntable. The record player I've been using only occasionally for the past fifteen years is one of the nostalgia driven models you typically see in your local big box retailer. It looks like a small suitcase, complete with a suitcase handle so you can carry it from room to room. It's fine for spinning a record a few times a year, but as I've begun to listen more regularly, I've realized the limitations, specifically of the built-in speakers.

And so I've been researching for the past month or so, trying to find a turntable that would fit my needs. First and foremost, since I don't have a full stereo system anymore, I needed a turntable with Bluetooth capabilities so that I could listen with either my wireless speakers or my headphones, but I didn't want it to be ridiculously expensive. (As you can imagine, you can spend whatever you want to spend, well into the thousands of dollars.)

After reading a dozen or so "best Bluetooth turntable" articles and several detailed reviews of a few different models, I settled on one from Audio-Technica, then spent another couple weeks wondering about it. Did I really need it? Would I really notice a difference? And then last week we were out shopping in Santa Monica, and we wandered into Urban Outfitters, a store that caters to fashion-conscious hipsters.

When we walked out and headed to dinner, I casually mentioned to my daughter that Urban Outfitters had had the turntable I was thinking about buying.

"Is it the Audio-Technica?"

As she explained, all the cool kids (TikTokkers) were buying Audio-Technica turntables. When vintage vinyl started becoming popular again, mainstream artists -- Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and all the rest -- began releasing new albums (and their back catalog) on vinyl. In 2021 there were actually more records sold in the United States than CDs, the first time in thirty years that vinyl outsold plastic, and it was a trend driven not by nostalgic baby boomers but by precocious kids who wanted to be able to hold their music.

"I just think it's cool that music can be permanent, that it can be yours," said my daughter. As someone once said -- on vinyl -- the kids are alright. And so when those social media influencers outgrew their entry level record players, they turned to Audio-Technica, just like I did. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but there it is.

My new turntable arrived this week, which meant that I had a serious decision to make. I still remember the first disc I played in my car stereo, a Sony pullout that I absolutely adored. It wasn't accidental. I chose Ghost in the Machine by the Police because it was the first CD I had ever bought and they were one of my favorite bands. It felt right.

So the first spin here had to have some significance. I thought about thumbing through the entire collection and finding a record that felt significant, something that would match the significance of the occasion, but since the order of the journey thus far has been left to chance, I decided to see which record was on deck -- and it was the right choice.

I think there are at least twenty Frank Sinatra records in my father's collection, and I've always known that he held Sinatra in the highest regard, filing him in the classical section as an indication of the timeless nature of his vocal talent. Sinatra is also my mother's favorite, so it all made perfect sense.

If I'm being honest, I have to say that this particular record isn't my favorite of his. As the title suggests, it feels like soothing background music. There's nothing dynamic here unless you count Sinatra's legendary voice. He's backed by an orchestra, not a big band, and both Sinatra and conductor Nelson Riddle are comfortable with the situation. Neither pushes the other, and maybe that's okay.

It's obvious, however, that my father did love this album. The slip case is worn, and masking tape holds it together on the top and the bottom, making it clear that the record was in heavy rotation. Even better than that, the record is worn. The hissing, popping, and crackling that people get so romantic about when remembering the favorite records of their youth? It's all here. The first sixty seconds of the opening track are slightly obscured by static so strong that Sinatra's voice fades in and out a bit. And for the first time, an actual skip! I called my daughter into the room to listen as the closing verse of "Dream" repeated itself over and over. "When the day is through... is through... is through..." When I told her that it would keep going like this forever if I didn't lift the needle over the skip, she looked at me blankly as if I were speaking a foreign language. In a way, I was. An archaic language from the distant past.

But she was right when she talked earlier about the lure of physical music. There's a note from Capitol Records on the back of the album cover: "This monophonic microgroove recording is playable on monophonic and stereo phonographs. It cannot become obsolete. It will continue to be a source of outstanding sound reproduction, providing the finest monophonic performance from any phonograph."

It really is quite amazing. I'm sure all of that seemed true back in 1960 when my father bought this record, but who would have believed it in the 1970s when 8-track tapes burst on the scene? What about when cassette tapes dominated the '80s? When I complained to an employee at Wherehouse Records in 1986 or '87 that the CD section was getting bigger as the LP section was shrinking, he told me that soon the records would be gone.

"But what if I don't even have a CD player?" I asked.

"Well, you better get one."

They told us that CDs would be forever. They were the perfect format for storing music because they would never degrade, but they only seemed perfect because none of us could imagine a time when every song ever recorded could be ours in an instant, just with the tap of a button on phones we'd carry in our pockets.

But the folks at Capitol Records were right about this record after all. "It cannot become obsolete." Even though records disappeared and became hopelessly archaic decades ago, they've survived, and they still sound beautiful.

Sinatra2

Side 1
Nice 'n' Easy
That Old Feeling
How Deep Is the Ocean
I've Got a Crush on You
You Go to My Head
Fools Rush In

Side 2
Nevertheless
She's Funny That Way
Try a Little Tenderness
Embraceable You
Mam'selle
Dream


11. Dance to the Bands!

Band1Record: Dance to the Bands!
Artist: Various Artists
Released: Capitol Records, 1956

Back in October of 1998, Sony Music and Universal Music released a CD called Now That's What I Call Music!, a collection of current pop hits. The format was already successful in England, so it was no surprise when millions of units sold, nor when subsequent volumes were released every few months or so. (Volume 83, believe it or not, dropped last August.)

Music lovers of my generation will remember a company called K-Tel records doing much the same thing in the 1970s and '80s, though on a much smaller scale. In fact, one of my saddest childhood memories involves a K-Tel record, Wings of Sound, a collection released in 1980 featuring hits from Michael Jackson, Kool & the Gang, and Blondie, among others. It was one of the first records I ever bought, and I played it all the time. But because I was only eleven years old, I left it on the turntable after listening to it one day, not realizing that it mattered that the record player would be bathed in sunlight all afternoon. When I went back to listen to it the next day, the vinyl had warped and buckled. I can still see the hills and valleys in my mind's eye, and I can feel my eleven-year-old heart breaking all over again. It was a sad day.

This wasn't the first time record companies released compilations like these. There are any number of them in my father's collection, and this collection of big band tracks is the first one I've come across. The blurb on the back of the album jacket explains it better than I ever could, so I'll include the whole thing here...

Americans are flocking to the dance floors. 39 million of them at last count, according to a national magazine. And of all the places where people dance, one is a sure winner for the least crowding and most informality. That, of course, is home itself, whether it's a penthouse apartment, college dormitory, or suburban living room where dancing's done.

Capitol makes a whopping contribution to the trend toward do-it-yourself dance parties with this album that is trend-setting in its own right. For here in a two-record package is enough music to brighten an entire at-home dance. What's more, the music is wonderful enough to keep couples dancing all evening. The bands play in top form and their program is ideally balanced. Altogether, it's an irresistible Invitation to the Dance, styled for today!

It's impossible to read that without imagining such a gathering -- maybe a neighborhood dinner party that finishes with drinks and dancing, or a group of pretentious college students pretending to be grown as they couple up and dance the night away on campus. Nothing could be more 1950s.

The record features six different band leaders and their orchestras, but only two of them are familiar to me -- Les Brown (and his Band of Renown) and Woody Herman. I'll have to trust the producers that Stan Kenton, Harry James, Billy May, and Ray Anthony also belong.

Double albums were always fun. I remember being eager to open them up and see what waited inside the fold. This jacket features pictures and short bios of the six band leaders, as well as track info, but the most interesting thing about the physical album are the records themselves. When I first pulled the vinyl out of the protective sleeves, I noticed something odd. One record was labelled with sides 1 and 4, the other with sides 2 and 3. I assumed there'd been a printing error until I remembered something about my father's turntable, the one that I grew up with.

We're used to seeing a small metal rod protruding from the center of the turntable that fits the hole in a record. On my father's turntable, however, there was a stem that extended three or four inches, and it was designed to hold a stack of records while one was playing. Once the first was finished, the tonearm would automatically lift from the record and swing back out of the way, then the next record would drop to be played. In this way, an automatic record player -- an ancestor of the 5-disc CD changer I once had -- would allow a host to listen to several album sides in a row without having to fiddle with the records. (If that doesn't make sense, here's a short video clip.)

And so if you wanted to play Dance to the Bands! at your evening soiree, the odd 1-4 and 2-3 orientation of the sides would allow you to use your automatic record player to play sides 1 and 2 consecutively before flipping them both over for sides 3 and 4. Genius.

Bands2

Side 1
Tangerine (Les Brown)
April in Paris (Harry James)
You and the Night and the Music (Ray Anthony)
Suddenly (Billy May)
Square Circle (Woody Herman)

Side 2
Opus in Turquoise (Stan Kenton)
Fascinating Rhythm (Billy May)
Walkin' Home (Harry James)
Lover (Les Brown)

Side 3
Big Band Boogie (Ray Anthony)
Dream (Woody Herman)
Spring Is Here (Stan Kenton)
On the Alamo (Les Brown)
Mad About the Boy (Billy May)

Side 4
I Hadn't Anyone Till You (Woody Herman)
I'm Glad There Is You (Stan Kenton)
Smogbound (Harry James)
Cheek to Cheek (Ray Anthony)

Bands3


10. All of You

JamalRecord: All of You
Artist: Ahmad Jamal
Released: Argo Records, 1962

I had never heard of Ahmad Jamal before flipping through these records a few months ago as I started thinking about this project, and this record stood out, not just because the artist was unfamiliar.

Look at young Mr. Jamal gracing the cover of the album, sitting confidently in a mid-century modern chair that my wife would die for, nattily dressed with a tie I wouldn't mind wearing to work. There's something striking, not just about his pose, but the entire composition of the photo. Jamal couldn't be more self-assured, but he seems to be holding something back. His eyes don't quite meet ours, and the blurred foliage in the foreground seems to be keeping us at a bit of a distance. "Give me all of you," he seems to be saying, "but you can only have some of me." Some is enough.

As with a lot of these albums, I had never heard All of You before dropping the needle on the record this afternoon, so I had no idea what to expect. It took me about three or four bars before I fell in love.

This isn't usually the case for me. Typically I have to immerse myself in a new album, and plenty of my favorites grew on my over time. It's hard for me to imagine now, but the first time I listened to the Cure's Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me it felt a little abrasive, as did Nirvana's Nevermind. Not until I had studied the lyrics of Springsteen's Nebraska did I fully appreciate its genius, and it took several listens to wrap my head around Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Sometimes listening has to be intentional, not casual.

But once in a while a record will meet you right where you are, whether it's at a particular time in your life or a moment in time. For me, some of these were Led Zeppelin's first album, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and even a self-titled debut album from an obscure Scottish band, Glasvegas. 

There's no explaining why, but it was like that with All of You. It turns out Jamal is only the headliner, the pianist in the Ahmad Jamal Trio, and the opening track, "Time on My Hands," highlights his skills on the keyboard in the most beautiful way. I was only a minute or two in before I was reminded of a similar jazz pianist I had discovered on my own when I was in college. Marcus Roberts burst on the jazz scene in 1989 with his debut album, The Truth Is Spoken Here, at the age of just 26. (Here's my favorite track from that album, a Duke Ellington cover, "Single Petal of a Rose.") He had already been playing with some of the greats at an even younger age. (When I first heard him he was playing with Wynton Marsalis.)

Roberts has always been known for his appreciation of traditional jazz and the greats who came before him. His third record, Alone with Three Giants, features his interpretations of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Jelly Roll Morton, and he later recorded tributes to George Gershwin, Scott Joplin, and Nat "King" Cole. It shouldn't have been a surprise that I heard similarities between Jamal and Roberts, but I was still pleased (and admittedly proud) when a Google search for "Ahmad Jamal and Marcus Roberts" returned several articles. In 2009, for example, the Village Voice declared that Roberts "has more than a little Ahmad Jamal in him." So I wasn't the only one who heard it. It was validation for my ear.

I've just flipped the record again, listening to the second side for at least the third or fourth time, and I'm struck again by the emotional aspect of the quest I've been on. Certainly I enjoy listening to the music, whether it's familiar or new, and I love the unpredictable paths I wander as I learn about each record, thinking about things as surprising as mix tapes one week and cover art the next, a demolished department store last Sunday, and today a band from Scotland. 

But all of that is diversionary. At its heart, this project will always be about my father. I pull him closer with each Sunday that passes, with each record I play. I learn something about who he was by listening to the music he treasured. Sadly, it's like catching smoke in your hands. It's temporary. Every wisp of truth brings along pangs of regret. I so wish that I could have had this conversation with him, that he and I could have listened first to All of You and followed it with something from Roberts. That we could have shared interpretations or argued about opinions. Or just sat together and listened.

Jamal2

Side 1
Time on My Hands
Angel Eyes
You Go to My Head

Side 2
Star Eyes
All of You
You're Blasé
What Is This Thing Called Love