Heavyweights of Instagram: Interview with @spencers_spins

For our next installment of Heavyweights of Instagram, I thought I’d switch things up by throwing in a collector who has managed to put together an impressive collection in a rather short period of time. Though Spencer a.k.a. @spencers_spins has only been serious about collecting vintage jazz records for a few years now, his collection tells a different story, demonstrating the knowledge and skill of a dedicated veteran. In this time, Spencer has assembled a sizeable collection of first pressings while proving himself a master of cover restoration and hunting down subsequent pressings of albums that still embody the authentic sound of first editions. He has managed to quickly check pretty much every hard bop classic off his list in original form, and he also sports a catalog of hard-to-get Blue Notes including Lee Morgan’s The Cooker, Paul Chambers’ Whims of Chambers, Hank Mobley’s Soul Station, and Freddie Hubbard’s Open Sesame. Read on to learn more about the successes and challenges facing this resilient collector.

Spencer’s copy of The Cooker

DGM: How long have you been collecting records and jazz records specifically?

Spencer: It all started when I moved to New York City for college in the late 2000s. A couple of years into school, my friends and I moved into a six-floor walk-up in the East Village. We used to go to a flea market that was in a church parking lot on East 11th Street, which is now occupied by two large luxury buildings. It was a Saturday morning ritual to head to the market and dig for cheap classic records, especially as broke college kids who didn’t have money to drop on modern reissues.

The very first record I ever bought was The Doors’ L.A. Woman, a bit different from what I’m listening to these days, but it’s an album I still admire and have on my shelf. Four years later, I graduated from college, moved out of the city, and my cheap, old vintage gear stopped functioning, leaving my very modest collection of records to gather dust. Years passed and I found myself missing music. I got a new turntable for Christmas a little over two years ago and the rest is history, as they say.

DGM: How did you get started collecting jazz records?

Spencer: As cliché as it sounds, I had read a lot about Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue when I started researching “must have” albums. I saw a reissue copy at a record store and picked it up. The clerk also recommended John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, so I took that too. Needless to say, when I played them, I never looked at music the same way. When it came to vintage records, I wasn’t buying into the hype. Someone had told me about the online source London Jazz Collector. When I pulled the page up, I couldn’t believe how many variations of vintage pressings there could be — it was overwhelming.

Months later, I found myself at the Jazz Record Center in New York City speaking with owner Fred Cohen. He pulled out an original autographed stereo copy of Lou Donaldson’s Blues Walk that he had for sale and went over each different pressing indication with me. He assured me that despite the scratches, it would sound great. When I got home and threw it on, it sounded like nothing I had heard before — so warm, rich and full of depth. It was the Rudy Van Gelder mastering touch and the quality build that set me on the vintage jazz-collecting track specifically.

DGM: How did you amass your collection and what’s your process for finding new records?

Spencer: I think the difference between me and many other collectors is that this current climate is the only one I’ve ever known for buying jazz records. I’ve learned it’s essential to utilize all of your resources: local shops, Instagram, eBay, Discogs and fellow collectors. Part of the reason I’ve been able to acquire some great records in such a short period of time is because I keep my eye on all outlets. It’s so important to use everything at your disposal.

DGM: How many jazz records do you have in your collection?

Spencer: I have around 400 records in total, more than 200 of which are jazz. The rest are a mix of soul, funk, rock and folk.

DGM: Do you collect originals, reissues, or both?

Spencer: I live in New Jersey and work in Manhattan, so because of my proximity and accessibility to great record stores, I try to seek out originals. There’s just something about listening to music in its most original form. First pressings are pieces of history — you wonder about all the places they’ve been and how they’ve made their way to you. I also have a few reissues from King Records and Mobile Fidelity, which undeniably sound wonderful as well.

DGM: Do you prefer mono, stereo, or neither?

Spencer: Both are great to be honest — if it sounds good, it sounds good. I have an original mono pressing of A Love Supreme, where the mix sounds sublime. On the other hand, I have an original stereo of one of my favorite records, Cannonball Adderley’s Somethin’ Else, and it does nothing but blow me away every single time I listen to it. I’ve come across a first press mono and subsequently put it down because I didn’t think sonically it was any better than my stereo at home. Mono may edge stereo out if I had the choice though because my recently acquired mono switch works magic on reducing surface noise on well-loved records.

DGM: What equipment do you use for playback?

Spencer: I use modern equipment to avoid the maintenance and headache that comes with vintage equipment. My setup includes: a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon SB turntable with an Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge, a Yamaha A-S301 amplifier, a Parks Audio Budgie Tube pre-amp with Electro-Harmonix 6922 tubes, KEF Q-150 bookshelf speakers and a custom mono/stereo switch.

Spencer’s Parks Audio tube preamplifier and custom stereo-mono switch

DGM: Who are some of your favorite artists and labels?

Spencer: While it’s clear who the giants of jazz are (Miles, Coltrane, Lee Morgan etc.), there is one artist who doesn’t get enough recognition and is among my favorites: Ike Quebec. Ike came on the scene in the 1940s during the big band era, recording 78s with various labels including Blue Note. He had a great eye for spotting talent and even advised Blue Note’s Alfred Lion to record Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. When big band began to fade, Ike fell out of prominence, slipped into drug addiction and even had a short stint as a taxi driver. In the late ‘50s, Lion brought Ike back to record for the label and to scout talent. The four albums he led — Heavy Soul, It Might As Well Be Spring, Blue & Sentimental and Soul Samba — are some of my favorites on the entire label. He was incredibly talented and, in my opinion, extremely underappreciated.

When it comes to labels, the big two for me are Blue Note and Riverside, closely followed by Impulse and Prestige.

Spencer’s copy of Heavy Soul

DGM: What’s your favorite jazz record in your collection?

Spencer: It has to be Herbie Hancock’s Inventions & Dimensions (which, by the way, I’m listening to as I type this). Herbie’s career rivals just about any jazz musician there ever was. Although many may gravitate toward his better known Blue Note titles Empyrean Isles and Maiden Voyage, Inventions & Dimensions is like no other record I’ve heard before. Way ahead of its time, this session is a rhythmic interplay of modal jazz with a latin flair, thanks to the conga and bongos. There are no horns, just piano, bass and percussion. According to the liner notes, Hancock, who said he was inspired by Eric Dolphy and Tony Williams, released himself from what he called customary jazz “assumptions”, encouraging the quartet to improvise spontaneous melodies and chords throughout. The unpredictability of the music makes each listening experience a new one. Every listen is like getting in the car, not knowing exactly where you’re going and just enjoying the ride.

Spencer’s copy of Inventions & Dimensions

DGM: What is one of your most memorable acquisition stories?

Spencer: I think one of my best pickups was at a local record store, when I was sifting through the alphabetized jazz and stumbled across a copy of Wayne Shorter’s Juju. It had a sticker on it that read “ROUGH” and below that, what looked like a $30 price tag. I pulled it from its sleeve and saw a bunch of hairline marks and one small white blemish. All the indications showed it was an original mono pressing, so I thought I’d just see how it sounded. I threw it on the listening station turntable, and Wayne’s sax and Elvin’s drums had never sounded better. As with most original Blue Notes, the sound shined through any superficial wear. The cover had seen better days, but when I looked at the sticker again, I noticed it read $3, not $30! At that moment, I basically ran to the register to check out. That was definitely a highlight, and I’ve rarely see that record since, even in online auctions.

Spencer’s copy of Juju

DGM: How do you feel about eBay’s influence on the collecting experience?

Spencer: As a whole, I see the effect eBay has had as both positive and negative. In the big picture, eBay makes records available to collectors all over the world. I’ve acquired albums on eBay that I’ve never seen in brick-and-mortar stores and for half or a quarter of what they’re worth. On the other hand, do I see some records go for three, four, or even five times what they’re worth? Sure. But am I paying that? No. The only negative experiences I’ve had, as many in the community have had, is seller overgrading. I’ve never had a problem with the few returns I’ve had to make though, and I usually only buy from trusted and highly-reviewed sellers.

DGM: What are your thoughts on the past, present, and future of the jazz record market?

Spencer: I’ve definitely noticed a difference from the time I started a little more than two years ago. It’s far more competitive with online auctions than it was even compared to just last year. In brick-and-mortar stores, I’ve seen more and more vintage jazz records hitting the walls and with ever-growing prices at that. It’s clear that more people are becoming interested in this niche hobby, and I don’t anticipate it slowing down any time soon. For the future, I’m intrigued at the prospect of record labels pulling never-before-heard tapes from their vaults to be pressed for the very first time (just like Coltrane’s Impulse session coming soon).

DGM: Do you have any advice for other collectors?

Spencer: Research, patience, and community. Always do your research. Online resources like London Jazz Collector provide a plethora of information to sift through. Knowledge helps you appreciate the find. Always have patience. Don’t pull the trigger on something you’re unsure about or that you feel you’re overspending on. Countless times I’ve let records go that I really wanted, never thinking I’d see them again, only to later find them for a quarter of the price I would have paid and usually in better condition. Never did I think I would own originals of Lee Morgan’s The Cooker or Bill Evans’s Portrait in Jazz. Most records can be had with time and patience. Lastly, and this goes for collectors of all genres, utilize your community. I would never have the collection I have today in such a short span of time without this community. Establish a relationship with your local record store owner and make friends with other collectors. There are a lot of really awesome people out there doing the same thing you’re doing. Herbie Hancock sums it up well: “It’s not exclusive, but inclusive, which is the whole spirit of jazz.”