Confessions of a Vintage Jazz Record Collector

October 4, 2015 /

Vintage jazz record collecting…ah, the highs, the lows, the insanity of it all. A lot has changed since I started collecting, but the biggest change is probably that I don’t feel the desire to maintain any sort of image for the sake of respect or credibility anymore. The following post should provide a glimpse at where this compelling yet complex pastime has taken me over the course of the past few years. This is me unfiltered. Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.

– Rich Capeless

1. I’m not a real jazz fan. If ‘real’ jazz fans listen to jazz exclusively or have been listening to jazz since they were a kid, I’m not a real jazz fan. I’m especially not a real jazz fan if they don’t associate with ‘lower’ forms of music like hip hop because I grew up listening almost exclusively to hip hop. Once I learned of the historical significance of jazz though, I saw fascinating parallels between the cultures surrounding both jazz and hip hop (I propose that jazz and hip hop have even more in common than jazz and rhythm and blues due to the ‘rebel’ spirit shared by both jazz and hip hop cultures). When I first began listening to jazz, I saw it as this sort of cryptic revolutionary language, and I was originally drawn to it by a simple desire to understand it. Though I’ve learned much about jazz’s rich, deep tradition since then, I know there’s still a lot more for me to learn — I feel like there will always be more for me to learn — which I think makes jazz a very special art form indeed.

2. I’m not a big fan of jazz made before 1940. I recognize the brilliance of artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, but it all sounds kind of hokey and old-fashioned to me.

3. I like very little jazz made after 1965. I feel like jazz reached the boundaries of its definition in the 1960s with free jazz, and to move forward it had to fuse together with other styles of music like soul, funk, and rock, which in a way means it wasn’t just ‘jazz’ anymore. I guess that makes me a purist, perhaps unrightfully so since I’m not even a real jazz fan in the first place.

4. I don’t think vintage jazz records sound ‘better’ than CDs. As much as I love vintage records, in my time collecting I have unfortunately found that vintage jazz LPs rarely rival the low distortion and low noise of digital playback. In most of the side-by-side comparisons I have done over the past few years, I couldn’t help but admit that I preferred the digital copy of an album for the simple fact that it didn’t have all the problems with distortion and noise that the record had. True, this may have a lot to do with the fact that most of the vintage jazz LPs I’ve come across haven’t been in truly near mint condition (when they were I’d say they gave their digital counterparts a run for the money), but at the very least I think this is a testament to how difficult it is to find clean, unworn copies of vintage jazz records at ‘reasonable’ prices (see my article on groove wear).

In the event that the master tape has degraded over the years though, a reissue won’t sound as good as a vintage pressing in this regard, and though I have encountered several reissues that were clearly made with an inferior master tape, the majority I’ve heard sounded like the master tape was still in pretty good shape.

Furthermore, as much as I denied it when I first got into this hobby, I’ve found the claims made by many audiophiles that the oldest LPs weren’t mastered for playback on high fidelity systems to be true from time to time. High frequency drop-off on a vintage record can certainly be caused by groove wear, but on a handful of occasions where a record sounded relatively dark despite being pretty clean, I had to conclude that the dampened high-end response was the result of EQ moves made during mastering. (The good news is that in many of these instances the master tape had nonetheless managed to capture the full frequency spectrum, and that sound can be heard on many modern reissues).

I do know from a number of experiences that vintage jazz records have the potential to sound great, it just seems like most record collectors aren’t nearly as picky as me and are quite happy with the sound of old records. Why then do I like vintage jazz records, you ask?

5. I’m a sucker for cool album art, thick cardboard jackets, laminated covers and heavy vinyl. I’m well aware that it’s a cardinal sin to put anything above ‘the music’ when it comes to record collecting, but the simple act of holding a fifty year-old record is a surprisingly thrilling experience, and the truth is I think I end up pursuing a lot of vintage jazz records just as much for their gorgeous cover art and impressive packaging as I do for the music contained within.

6. My collection can fit in one milk crate. There seems to be a certain machismo associated with collections tallying in the thousands, but I have always been a quality-over-quantity type of person, and my record collection is a prime example of that. If the sound quality of a record isn’t up to my standards — especially if it doesn’t reflect what I paid for it — that record’s gotta go. I also can’t afford to hold on to records I never listen to. Some records come, some records go, and the size of my collection always ends up staying about the same.

7. The majority of my records aren’t first pressings. A lot of collectors say that originals sound better than reissues. Yes, the master tape is fresher when originals are made (though sometimes early reissues are made with the same master lacquer as originals), and yes, the mastering and manufacturing of originals is often at a higher quality than reissues. But this is a complex topic for someone like myself who is both picky and broke: I’m never happy with the sound of VG+ records, but I can’t afford near mint originals. So I can either save for an original or settle for a reissue, and since well-made reissues usually sound pretty darn good to me, settling for a reissue is usually a no-brainer.

8. I am yet to hear an ‘expensive’ record where I felt the quality of the listening experience justified the cost. I’ll leave the use of the word ‘expensive’ here to the reader’s imagination. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something special about the first time you hear an original mono pressing of an album you’ve been listening to in 16-bit stereo your entire life. But I’ve had several opportunities to hear records with pretty steep price tags, and sadly, none of them lived up to my expectations. Would I ever pay $2,000 for a record, you ask?

9. I’m jealous of collectors who can afford $2,000 original pressings of my favorite albums. That’s right: I don’t own any $2,000 records…wow, that was hard to admit. It would be nice though someday to hear near mint original pressings of my favorite albums, which I’m aware could cost me a pretty penny. If that day ever comes, who knows? Maybe I’ll think the records are worth keeping, maybe I won’t, but it would be nice to at least have the option.

There you have it. Go ahead, tell me what a poser I am. But seriously, is there anything you can relate to (that you’re willing to admit)? Do you have any confessions yourself? I promise to forgive you for your sins.

  • DaveS

    Don’t be ashamed my son. I agree / don’t disagree with everything you wrote. I think that this pursuit attracts lots of different people for different reasons all of which you touched upon. I would offer that jazz music purists are very different than jazz vinyl collectors, and digital is probably the best medium for them provided availability of the song exists. I myself collect as much as for the music as the thrill of the hunt. I might be able to afford to buy a few $1000 records before my wife divorces me, but I prefer to find these scores in obscure places rather than paying top eBay dollar. Given I live in the U.S. and my job provides me the opportunity to travel, I love nothing more than finding the odd Prestige NYC in small town USA and wondering how the hell it got there. Plus I feel obliged to adopt it and give it a good home.

    I also love going to see live jazz in great clubs which is much different than hearing it on record or CD. Yet I almost never encounter a jazz vinyl head in a club. Just different groups.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  • BronxBoy58

    I don’t think that you have to listen exclusively to jazz to be a jazz fan. I can relate to the “parallels between jazz and hip-hop” that you mention. The attraction of album covers is certainly an aspect of record collecting that can’t be denied.

  • Shaft

    You are quite right about the SQ of originals. It is very seldom better than a CD och a well made Mp3/AAC file. It is still fun to collect but sometimes the noise on old LPs drives me crazy.

  • Eduard Linshalm

    Hi Rich,

    I couldn’t agree more with everything you are saying about vinyl/CD technology, but I have said this time and again, on another blog.

    I didn’t grow up with hip-hop, but I fully understand what you mean by the parallels you are drawing with jazz. That’s why I dig some (few) of the things Miles did after the quintet dissolved.

    Talking about record collecting, I am much more reluctant than you are about getting rid of things I never listen to. But it’s music I am collecting, not $ 2000 stuff.

    • Eduard

      (Forgot to log in – so here I am again)
      Don’t get me wrong on that final statement. I am fully aware you aren’t collecting $2000 stuff either …

  • Riverman

    Enjoyed reading the articles, feel a certain kinship with many of your thoughts on Jazz records. I’ve always bought records since i had my own cash in the 80s and inherited my dad’s scratchy collection.For me, It’ll always be a mix of remembering my dad, the artistic qualities of record sleeves and the physical act and sound of a needle hitting the groove. Combine a great system with a clean first press, particularly RVG and you have one of the finest experiences life can give.
    Started collecting Jazz seriously a couple of years ago and have built up what I like to think is a good quality collection with many original pressing for a relatively modest budget. I love Blue Note of course, but also collect Riverside, ECM, and the UK first pressings which are a sonic rival in many ways to the US pressings on the likes of HMV and London Atlantic.
    Also love seeing live Jazz, it really is an incredible experience seeing and hearing great players improvising. I’d recommend getting out and about in New York and catching some of the amazing players i’m sure there are every night in the Jazz clubs.
    Hope to read some more of your postings in the future, keep going with the collection and never settle for poor condition!

    • Hello Riverman and welcome 🙂 Truth be told, I’m a huge geek for recorded music, but I still find live performances immensely entertaining and worthwhile. I’ve been to several live jazz performances since I moved here about 18 months ago, though to be honest, I find that contemporary artists are often too ‘cerebral’ for me in their style and their playing…I might also use the word ‘progressive’. I like the straight-ahead nature of hard bop, and for whatever reason I find it somewhat difficult to find hard bop bands, which is why when I do go to a performance it’s usually because it’s a tribute of a bopper or because some bop legend is playing.