Those old jazz favorites are back-sounding better than ever
New York — Many of us have records bought back in the '50s and '60s that we have cherished and played and played . . . until the grooves are worn flat and the sound is a shadow of its former self.
When a reissue comes out, we run out and get one, but often hold on to the old copy because we hate to part with the original jacket.
How sweet it is to discover that certain record companies are reissuing some oldies with the original jackets, as well as superb remixed sound.
Jazz fans are delighted at the recent Verve reissues coming from Polygram. Many will remember those early Verve sides -- the famous Ella Fitzgerald-Louis Armstrong recordings, among others. Later Verve was sold to MGM, which was sold to Phonogram. Then when Polydor and Phonogram got together under the corporate name of Polygram, Polydor took over the distribution of Verve.
David Town is the man in charge of these reissues. I spoke with him about the program recently at his office. Does he think, for instance, that all this activity indicates a resurgence of interest in jazz?
"A phenomenal resurgence," he said. "There's a whole new audience for jazz from the '40s to the early '70s. College audiences in many cases have not been fully aware of many of these artists or their works, because they've not been available before."
With about 800,000 students all over the United States enrolled in some kind of jazz program in colleges today, Mr. Town feels there's an untapped market out there for jazz reissues. And it's not just the jazz of the Chick Coreas or the Keith Jarretts that the students are interested in. They're looking back to the Parkers, the Gillespies, and the Louis Armstrongs, too.
"I felt I would like to get a broad spectrum, from Charlie Parker to Wes Montgomery to Ella Fitzgerald -- whatever I could -- big bands, small groups, soloists, and so forth. And I considered the lack of availability of certain sides over a long period of time, plus the demand for the original packaging."
Does he take a personal interest -- did he have these in his own record collection?
"Oh, I threw away many of the originals!" he confesses. "I didn't like them the first time around, but I regretted it later. When I listened to Charlie Parker the first time I said either I don't understand what he's doing or he's not doing anything!" He laughs at the memory of having eaten those words many times over.
"We approached the Verve jazz reissues almost as if we were dealing with a brand new label. We went out with all of the necessary things to introduce a new label -- advertising dollars, promotional copies, a new listing of reviewers , and so on. . . .
"Last October when we started to kick this around, there was some discussion about getting records from Japan. At that point we got a catalog from our sister company in Japan, Polydor, which issues all the Verve recordings in Japan. We polled several retailers in the United States that had been importing records for some time, and they liked the idea, since the market had not been saturated. So we started putting together all of the releases. At the moment I have about 200 of them."
Reissuing records is synonymous with vast and complex legal maneuvers involving royalties, copyrights, and so on. According to Town, lawyers had to be consulted ". . . on every single song, on every single record. Our lawyers were kept very busy."
What about the quality of the reissues?
"The Japanese quality has to be heard to be believed." Recently he heard a reissue of a Charlie Parker mono recording from the 1950s, "right after having listened to a certain 1981 digital release. The sound on the reissue was sooooo good -- it's amazing." He added that the domestic sound quality was also excellent.
How does Town account for the high quality in the sound?
"It's because of the development of mixing and mastering. Each time we master a tape it doesn't necessarily mean that we're pumping it with a lot of gimmick effects. But the techniques have developed to such a degree that you can take the raw master tape and mix it so the sound is clearer and the definitions are better. They are much better than the originals."
Polydor in Japan has just built a new factory, which Town describes as "a complete white-glove situation. Their quality control is a hundredfold better than the United States. Maybe it's because they don't have to produce the quantity of records that they are able to put more effort into quality. The records are all flat, no warpage. And the return factor as of a week ago was tiny: Out of 5,000 each of 25 titles -- that's 125,000 records -- I've see eight defects."
And the records are selling. The Billie Holiday reissue is the best seller, followed by Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson, and Count Basie. These have been in the stores since May. The next group has been on sale since July. And the third group is shipping out this month.
This, however, is by no means the end of the Verve jazz reissues.
"I plan to do a release of 10 or 15 every month of Verve. Let's see, with around 800 albums altogether, at 60 to 100 releases a year -- that's about seven or eight years' worth."
Enough to keep any jazz collector happy for a while!
In addition, cassette tapes go with this month's releases -- the first time any of these recordings have been available on cassette.
"The Japanese are producing them specifically for us," Town says. "They won't be available in Japan."
In addition to the Verve releases, he is already working on reissues of Mercury, Emerson, Limelight, and Phillips jazz, starting in October or November "if we come to terms," he says.
One hopes they will come to terms, since these first reissues will include six Clifford Brown sides, Eric Dolphy's last recording date, and Dizzy Gillespie with the Double Six of Paris, as well as Art Farmer, Benny Golson, Dinah Washington, Art Blakey, and on and on. . . .
It seems certain that these will sell out, just as the Verve reissues have to date.