Singing The Unsung

In Rifftides a month or so ago, you may have read,

Jazz albums should have program notes. Listeners want and deserve information about the music.

You can read the rest of that post by clicking here. I admit self-interest; I sometimes write album essays. Nonetheless, as a listener, I count on program notes to fill me in on the backgrounds of players, composers and arrangers and, often, on the music itself. Writers of liner notes, definitely including this one, depend on discographers. Discographers are unsung heroes.

Discography. The systematic cataloguing of sound recordings. Data for listings, in which aspects of the physical characteristics, provenance, and contents of sound recordings themselves (with their containers and any accompnaying written and iconographic materials) as well as from logbooks, lists, and catalogues compiled by the record producer or manufacturer, journals and other printed materials, and oral sources.—New Grove Dictionary of Jazz

Simply put, the discographer finds out who recorded, when, where and with whom. If that seems trivial, it is not. Much of jazz history has taken place in recording studios and much of it would be lost if discographers did not painstakingly dig it out, verify it and make it available. For purposes of study, jazz recordings are the equivalent of classical scores or popular sheet music. Accurate information about them is not only desirable, it is essential. Perhaps the best analogy is the field of baseball statistics. Two of the pioneers among discographers, in the 1930s, were the Frenchman Charles Delaunay and the Briton Hilton Schleman. They were followed by Charles Edward Smith, Frederic Ramsey, Brian Rust, Jørgen Grunnet Jepsen, Walter Bruyninckx and Tom Lord, all authors of general discographies. There are also many discographers specializing in specific styles, periods and individual musicians.
I’m singling out a pair of contemporary general discographers who, it seems to me, are making a valuable contribution. They are Michael Fitzgerald and Steve Albin. The difference between Fitzgerald-Albin and nearly everyone else in the field is that they offer their work on the internet. On their website, they make a persuasive case that the web is the best tool for discography, better than print, better than the CD-ROM. They write in “A Philosophy of Jazz Discography”:

Online discographies are ever malleable, readily accepting additions and corrections and immediately substituting the new version for the old.

You can read all of the explanation, find out how to use their system, which Albin developed and calls Brian (after Brian Rust), and roam through the listings by going to his site, which is cleverly named Fitzgerald and Albin have more than fifty musicians in their discography and are planning on adding many more. They include the famous (Frank Sinatra, compiled by Albin) and the semi-obscure (John Neves. Before you go, for those new to discograpy entries, here’s a sample from the listing for Sir Charles Thompson, compiled by Bill Gallagher.

Date: March 2, 1945
Location: Los Angeles
ldr- Coleman Hawkins; t- Howard McGhee; tb- Vic Dickenson; ts- Coleman Hawkins; p- Sir Charles Thompson; g- Allan Reuss; b- Oscar Pettiford; d- Denzil Best
Rifftide (Coleman Randolph Hawkins)
Hollywood Stampede – 03:07 (Coleman Randolph Hawkins)
I’m Through With Love – 03:11 (Gus Kahn, Joe Livingston, Matty Malneck)
What Is There To Say – 03:17 (Vernon Duke, E. Y. “Yip” Harburg)
Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams – 03:04 (Harry Barris, Ted Koehler, Billy Moll)
“Hollywood Stampede” is mistitled on the Extreme Rarities issue (#1008) as “Sweet Georgia Brown.” “Hollywood Stampede” also appears in the film “Crimson Canary.” “Rifftide” was unissued but a tape exists.

I wonder how many of you knew that Coleman Hawkins’s middle name was Randolph. I didn’t. Nor did I know, until I read this entry, that “Rifftide” was recorded again after the famous Hawkins Capitol date of February 23, 1945, with Vic Dickenson added. That sort of thing is trivia to some, valuable information to others. Enjoy your visit to Michael Fitzgerald’s site. Hurry back, if you can tear yourself away.

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