Jazz Collectors of Instagram: Interview with @tallswami

With summer drawing to a close, so does this initial run of Deep Groove Mono’s Jazz Collectors of Instagram. It seems fitting to conclude the series with an established veteran, Clifford Allen a.k.a. @tallswami. I originally came to know of Clifford through his comments and contributions to JazzCollector.com. From there, I furthered my electronic exchanges with him both on the London Jazz Collector website and that site’s forum. After moving to New York City, I met Clifford at a mutual friend’s party and we have been friends ever since.

Clifford is a “second cousin” of sorts to me when it comes to our taste in music. While the music we collect on vinyl all falls under the jazz umbrella (“improvised music” as Clifford puts forth here), and while Clifford appreciates and collects the hard bop of the fifties and sixties which this site admires so, this interview serves as a testament to his leanings toward free jazz/avant-garde recordings dating from the late 1960s to the present. Although Clifford’s shoutouts of artists, albums, and labels here are practically all a foreign language to me, he has clearly been passionate about jazz music for a very long time, has worked professionally as a critic and historian, and has a vast wealth of knowledge, wisdom, and expertise when it comes to jazz in general.

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

Clifford: I started buying LPs and 45s in my sophomore year of college, which would have been 1996. From high school into college I was primarily interested in indie rock, especially the noisier stuff like Sonic Youth, Slint, and Rodan. Driving and varied rhythms and guitar squall always really spoke to me (and still do). But by about 1997 or ’98 I felt like I’d reached a turning point with that music, and was lucky enough that in my college town (Lawrence, Kansas) there was an excellent record store called Love Garden. At that time they had a small section devoted to ‘free jazz’ and noise/experimental music. I was intrigued but had no real clue what those genres were, so I started checking things out and asking the main ‘weird music’ guy, Michael Klausman (who later went on to work at Other Music and now runs Wry Press in Colorado), for recommendations. His collection of free jazz, contemporary composers, and experimental music was and is legendary, and he’d play all sorts of wild stuff at his apartment – some things I still haven’t found to this day.

We also had a great college radio station, KJHK, where I was a late night DJ and had the opportunity to sample all kinds of stuff. Eventually I switched to the morning jazz DJ slot and that pretty much allowed me the space to fool around with the format and check out both Charlie Parker and Merzbow, much to the chagrin of some listeners. There was one older lady who always called in when I was playing something far out and would ask for Etta James –– but not before buttering me up with feigned interest in whatever I was spinning. We only had one Etta James CD in the library, so it’s not like there was much to choose from; I think every morning DJ had to appease her at least once. Hopefully, maybe, she went out and bought something avant-garde!

Anyway, at the end of the day I have no romantic attachment to the first time I heard jazz or improvised music on LP versus CD. To borrow the ESP-Disk’ slogan, for me it was that I had never heard such sounds in my life! That said, a non-collecting friend of mine was with me when I was picking up a few rarities from another collector, and he maintains that the look of wonder and concentration on my face at the time was quite unique. So there must be something in these things that is special, and I do prefer listening to vinyl above other formats.

Clifford’s copy of Peter Van De Locht/Boy Raajmakers Quintet ft. Burton Greene, At Different Times (Group Music Productions, 1970, NL)

DGM: How did you get started collecting jazz records?

Clifford: Jazz and improvised music and record collecting seem to go hand in hand. I was always after obscurer stuff, even when I was ordering things from the Sub Pop and Touch & Go catalogs in high school. Indie rock and punk were networks of relationships — you checked out who played with different bands or were named in ‘thank you’ credits, and jazz obviously is quite similar. If you like a player’s work, there are usually opportunities to hear them in multiple contexts.

The first jazz records I bought were Albert Ayler’s Bells, Eric Dolphy’s Out To Lunch, and Coltrane’s Expression. Ayler’s music was an especially formative listen — I’d never heard anything like it before, so intense and exuberant and free. It was a shock, and made me feel like anything was possible. From there I bought any recordings I could find that featured, say, Ayler, Sunny Murray, Bobby Hutcherson, Rashied Ali, etc., and it wasn’t much of a stretch to start a deep dive into free jazz and related musics. I read and reread interviews in Cadence Magazine as well as books like Valerie Wilmer’s As Serious As Your Life and John Litweiler’s The Freedom Principle — these were crucial research tools, and once I started writing about this music in 2002, that led me down a whole new path of discovery.

As a side note, my dad is an amateur piano player and composer, so jazz was always on in the house growing up. However, I had no interest in it at all until something clicked when I heard free music. He is not a fan of the more ‘out’ stuff though he’s slowly gained an appreciation for the avant-garde — players like Ornette, Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Bley, Matthew Shipp, Cooper-Moore, and Cecil Taylor. In turn I have gained a deep appreciation for the tradition including bop, ‘cool,’ swing, and even early jazz from Chicago and New Orleans. Brubeck and Desmond were on deck a lot when I was a kid, and at this point that’s some of my favorite music -– go figure.

Clifford’s copy of Modern Jazz Quintet Karlsruhe, Trees (Excenter, 1968, GER)

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

Clifford: I’ve been lucky to have friends and acquaintances who are heavily into this music so they’ve consistently turned me on to certain artists, labels, and scenes. My buying habits generally follow a natural progression of curiosity, and at this point hew closer to examining artists I’ve not heard much of or who haven’t left significant traces. Writing about an artist also sends me in a direction where I try to hear as much related material as I can.

When the collecting bug really hit, that coincided with the launch of eBay. I’d also hunt for records when I’d go on vacation, and have always tried to maintain a healthy balance between going to brick-and-mortar spots and buying things online. I’ve been lucky to have lived in several record-friendly cities, which certainly helped my education – Chicago, Minneapolis, and Austin, in addition to New York. In my quest for records I used to do a lot of Google searching — typing an artist’s name and a currency symbol usually worked, as did things like Gemm and subscribing to random set sale lists. I actually remember sending away auction bids by fax to Paris Jazz Corner or Roberto Castelli and then sending cash or money orders in the mail, hoping my goodies would arrive! Now, eBay, Discogs, and a network of stores and collector friends usually keep me in pretty good stead. I’m also rather picky when it comes to condition, so that stems the tide somewhat.

Clifford’s copy of Francois Tusques & Barney Wilen, Le Nouveau Jazz (Disques Mouloudji, 1967, FR)

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

Clifford: I have about 3,500 jazz LPs out of a total of around 5,000 LPs. The rest are a mixture of psych, folk, ethnographic field recordings, avant-garde composers, and of course indie rock and punk. There is a smattering of singles and a few ten-inches, and I also maintain a sizeable collection of CDs. Of course the real heads measure in length or weight, and I’m not there yet.

Clifford’s copy of Franz Koglmann & Bill Dixon, Opium/For Franz (Pipe, 1977, AUS)

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

Clifford: I prefer originals but I am fine with reissues. I’ve been really fortunate that, as a writer/critic, I’ve been able to do liner notes for a number of reissues. In 2017 I co-produced (with NowAgain Records) my dream reissue of the music of Michael Cosmic and Phill Musra, two AACM-schooled multi-instrumentalists from Chicago (and twin brothers) who formed groups in Boston and Los Angeles. So I know the level of work it takes to do reissues right, and am happy to support those situations. On the other hand, there is something historically compelling about listening to and poring over an original pressing, especially when it’s something underground and unknown. So I totally get that and I really enjoy having the opportunity to own and listen to a well cared-for classic. When it comes to hard bop and the records this site is mostly known for, I’m not as picky about pressings and have a lot of Japanese reissues. But that has saved me (some) money and I can use it towards something that doesn’t exist in another format.

Clifford rightfully looking proud of his achievement

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

Clifford: I have no preference when it comes to mono or stereo. A lot of the small label improvised music LPs I collect are somewhat lo-fi and cheaply manufactured in the first place, so the number of channels isn’t my first concern. As the late audio engineer and restorer Mike King said in conversation (and I paraphrase), “all the recording has to do is not obscure the artist’s intent”, and that actually leaves a pretty wide range of possibilities in terms of what the thing can sound like. For example, Abdul Hannan’s The Third World sounds like distant field ethnography, while Willem Breuker and Han Bennink’s New Acoustic Swing Duo is in-the-red and overdriven. Then again, there are perfectly balanced and rich recordings like Rudy Van Gelder’s treatment of the New York Art Quartet’s Mohawk session, and a host of albums that exist between these polarities.

Clifford’s copy of Giorgio Gaslini, Nuovi Sentimenti (La Voce Del Padrone, 1966, ITA)

DGM: What equipment do you use for playback?

Clifford: I use a Music Hall mmf-5 turntable with a Shure cartridge of some sort, a finicky Creek amp, and Snell bookshelf speakers. It’s nothing fancy in particular, but you don’t necessarily need a real high-end system to play very non-audiophile records. My shelves, however, are another story, and were custom made by my dear friend Peter Dobill, a guitarist/improviser, visual artist, and cabinet maker here in Brooklyn. They are probably the coolest non-record thing I own – shelves and a Bill Dixon artist’s proof lithograph. Bill gave that to me one year when I was visiting and interviewing him at his Bennington home.

Clifford’s copy of Tony Oxley, Ichnos (RCA-Victor, 1971, UK)

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

Clifford: I really don’t like picking favorites, as I want to hear anyone doing work where the commitment is clear. The artists I’ve gotten personally acquainted with over the years, being a fan of their work and in many cases writing about them, are always near and dear. From the first few generations of this music (1950s-’80s), that would include Phill Musra, Bill Dixon, Alvin Fielder, Burton Greene, Dickie Landry, Joe McPhee, Kees Hazevoet, and François Tusques. There are a number of musicians whom I never got to know but wish I had, like Steve Lacy, Mal Waldron, Frank Wright, Michael Cosmic, Derek Bailey, John Stevens, Bengt “Frippe” Nordstrom, Marzette Watts, Ric Colbeck, J.R. Monterose, and Frank Lowe. All of their work is essential. Probably the most significantly represented through sheer number of records in my shelves are Lacy, Waldron, Coltrane, Taylor, Archie Shepp, and Anthony Braxton.

As far as labels go, the smaller the better. Some of my most treasured records were self-released with no label designation and no catalog number. Independents such as ESP-Disk’, Nessa, BYG-Actuel, America, Center of the World, Intex, Mouloudji, Bird Notes, Debut (Denmark), FMP, Bead, Incus, Instant Composers Pool (ICP), and ALM are central to my aesthetic. In fact, I have complete or near-complete runs of several of these imprints. In addition to presenting unique sounds, a lot of these records look really beautiful, albeit totally different from Blue Note, Prestige, and classic cover art from the modern jazz era. Of course, in Japan and throughout most of Europe, major labels also released some very unruly sides and I’ve acquired a fair number of those – for example, Tony Oxley on CBS and RCA-Victor UK; Gunnar Lindqvist on EMI-Odeon; Steve Lacy on Columbia Japan; New Phonic Art and Iskra 1903 on Deutsche Grammophon; or Michel Portal on Pathé and CBS France.

Clifford’s copy of Kees Hazevoet, Pleasure One (Peace, 1970, NL)

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

Clifford: It’s impossible to pick a favorite, but I’d have to go back to albums like Ayler’s Bells, Ghosts, and Spiritual Unity, Dixon’s Intents and Purposes, or something by Ornette as being among the most crucial to my continued well-being. They’re old friends but I still find something new each time I have one on deck. I think a lot of collecting has to do with trying to recapture that first ‘dose’ and the feeling you get when something truly new is experienced.

Clifford’s copy of Don Pullen & Milford Graves in Concert at Yale University (SRP, 1966, US)

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

Clifford: I’ve never found a grip of Saturns for a dollar or anything, but recently I picked up 24 cassettes in Sheepshead Bay from a flea market picker. These tapes contain an assortment of live avant-garde recordings from the ’70s and ’80s, as well as one studio master tape — I’m having them professionally transferred and hopefully some are worthy of release. These were mostly done in lofts and clubs in New York, and feature a number of usual suspects from that scene. I’d provide more details but some of this has yet to be worked out.

Clifford’s original pressing of Cosmic Paradise, Peace In The World (Cosmic Records, 1974, US)

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

Clifford: The prices are significantly higher as a result but there is a level of access to records that I probably could not have dreamed of. I suppose stores are more willing to take chances on selling items, especially underground records, since eBay and Discogs have proven there’s a market for almost anything left-field. It’s still much cooler going into a shop and taking a chance on something than clicking ‘buy’ on a known title, but I certainly would not have the knowledge or ear that I do without the opportunity to enjoy a tactile relationship with a wide range of recordings from all over the world. Like I said, I came into collecting on the cusp of major online commerce, so I can’t deny its importance and usefulness.

Clifford’s copy of Derek Bailey, New Sights, Old Sounds (Morgue, 1979, JP)

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

Clifford: The ‘vinyl is back’ mentality has greatly increased the number of people interested in used/rare records; that will probably level off at some point, as will the ‘reissue everything’ approach (which has gotten more than a bit out of hand). Certain choice pieces will always be expensive, but I assume that some things will become more obtainable again. For example, when I started collecting improvised music, there was a bit of a trend and some quite common records were selling for a lot of money; now, most of those albums can be found for saner amounts. Then again, at that time original Blue Notes were comparably affordable and almost nobody was spending a grand or more on those records, so there is a history of flux across almost all areas of collecting. Given that, it’s pretty easy to tell what’s outrageous and what’s a fair price with just a little bit of attention and experience. I don’t think the auction model is where it’s at in terms of buying and selling records and wouldn’t be surprised if eBay shifts completely to Buy It Now. It’s already headed in that direction.

Clifford’s copy of Richard Landry, Solos (Chatham Square, 1972, US)

DGM: Do you have any advice for other collectors?

Clifford: Unless we’re talking acetates, demos, or country blues 78s, there isn’t just one copy of most records out there, so be patient (and yes, I often have to be reminded of this). There are also many stones yet to overturn and no reason to collect stuff that you honestly aren’t into just because it’s rare. I think a lot of us, passionate though we might be, take record collecting too seriously and need to be reminded that it should be fun and not decimate your well-being as well as your bank account. Finally, I hope people don’t get too hung up on those who are long gone, as contemporary improvised music is hugely diverse and vital.