Confessions of a Vintage Jazz Record Collector

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, I couldn’t help but admit that I preferred the digital copy of an album. 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 often 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. Tape damage is usually easy to notice, but sometimes it’s more subtle and only affects the high frequencies. Though I have encountered several reissues that were clearly made with an inferior master tape, I’d say 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 evidence being in modern reissues that clearly contain the full frequency spectrum of the original master tape.

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 original pressings can fit in one milk crate. (In 2020, this is still true!) 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. 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?

8. 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.