Hunting vintage jazz vinyl records in the Nutmeg State
While I’ve been especially turned on to music since I was about 13 or 14 years old (I’m twice that age now), I’ve collected records since I was in college and only within the last year did I discover that there’s a major difference, sonically and aesthetically, between pre-70s pressings and later reissues. The discovery was pretty thrilling and the search for records that are nearly 60 years old has been simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating. I’ve learned on the job so to speak and made a small mistake or two, and while I think that might be the best way for anyone to dive head first into the world of collecting classic jazz, I thought I would pass along the most helpful tips that I know, put in a sort of “jazz records for dummies” format. This particular post is in regards to identifying older records themselves, as I drove blind for quite some time before I had much of any knowledge of what I was looking for. Some of this information could seem obvious, and yet it was not super obvious to me, so here you go.
1. LOOK FOR THE DEEP GROOVE
The first thing you need to know about looking for original pressings is that there are exceptions, anomalies, and oddballs for every rule. That being said, the second thing you need to know is that the “deep groove” is amongst the most reliable indications that a record was pressed in the 50s or perhaps the early 60s. This was a byproduct of the record pressing process – the equipment used to press the record left an indentation somewhere on the label. I’m not particularly knowledgeable in the pressing process but having this indentation on the record was either unnecessary or expendable, because it was phased out in the early 60s.
I’m sure there are some weird exceptions out there, but seeing deep grooves on a record combined with some of these other criteria helps to dramatically narrow down the age of a record. It is worth mentioning that a label like Impulse, which came about a little later on, doesn’t have any deep groove pressings. Blue Note did phase out their deep groove equipment, but reused some of it to repress newer records – so, a release from 1963 with deep groove on one or both sides is most likely a repress from a later year. You’ll have to look for more clues elsewhere.
2. FEEL THE WEIGHT OF THE RECORD
This one is a little tricky to discern at first and a little less reliable than the deep groove. Generally records have gotten lighter over time, to the point where records pressed right at the end of their prominence are nearly half the weight of the heaviest jazz records I have encountered. This is a TREND, not a hard and fast rule. Still, even the small sample size I have has few outliers.
In my collection, the records from the 50s and the first few years of the 60s range anywhere from 205 to 150 grams. Then when you begin to encounter releases from the mid-60s like Columbia’s “two eye” label or Blue Notes pressed after the label was sold to Liberty the weight is centered around 140 g. Then after than you see more like 120 g. Again, this is not to say that you need to get all of your records out and weigh them like, uh, I did…but it’s good to know what 200 grams, 180 g, 160 g, 140 g, etc. feel like so that you have another tool in your arsenal of determining if you’re looking at a reissue or not.
These are the heaviest records in my collection, from left to right. They range from 203 to 200 grams. While there are early Lexington label pressings from Blue Note on the heavy end of the spectrum, a record from 1960, Jimmy Smith’s “Crazy Baby,” jumped in there somehow. Also, “Soultrane” weighs at least 15 grams more than the three NY label Prestiges in my collection. Not to mention…the heaviest record in my collection is a stereo pressing of the 1958 self titled powerhouse by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and not one of those 1955 Blue Notes. Trend, not a rule.
Why does weight matter so much? Regardless of whether or not it effects sound quality, it might just help you sniff out a record that appears older than it actually happens to be, especially if you’re dealing with a record label that would reuse its old labels, or even if you’re off your game one day and start shoving exact facsimile reissues under your arm on your way to the register.
3. LOOK AT THE MATRIX ETCHINGS/STAMPINGS
This can be a pretty frustrating part of looking at the record since so little of what you see in the matrix seems to mean anything to anyone except for whoever worked at the pressing plant when the record was made. Each label has some peculiarities when it comes to what you’re going to find in the “dead wax” of an LP. Here is a little cheat sheet of some things to notice.
RVG/Van Gelder – Rudy Van Gelder may have been the luckiest man in the jazz world, being a talented and much sought after recording technician. If you’re looking at an older record on Blue Note, Prestige, or Impulse you should see one of these markings in the dead wax. If its especially old, like mid-50s, the initials may be etched rather than stamped. Also, RVG was stamped on Blue Notes for a while, and then changed to VAN GELDER (or RVG STEREO in applicable cases).
“The ear” – the most telling, fool proof way to make sure you’re looking at an “original Blue Note” is to look for “the ear” – a symbol that is in reality supposed to be a cursive capital P, which tanks for Plastylite, the company that pressed BN albums until they were sold to Liberty. You can somewhat see that symbol in my Eminent J.J. photo above. Be aware that sometimes the ear is very lightly stamped, perhaps incomplete. The ear doesn’t put an exact date on the LP but having an LP be a pre-Liberty pressing makes a huge difference in the eyes of collectors and salespeople. Some pressings of albums on United Artists label also have these ears – but it is very inconsistent and doesn’t mean nearly as much as have them on a Blue Note.
Hand-etched or machine-stamped? – you want to know how each label typically marks the matrix information. For example, Contemporary, Argo, and Columbia machine stamp their matrix information on a regular basis. With Argo you might see about a thousand hand etchings as well, but with the other two labels you do NOT want to see anything else, lest you may be looking at some sort of strange modern pressing. Similarly, familiarize yourself with the standard letters and numbers involved in the catalog numbers by different labels, if not the way the handwritten matrix codes typically look, in case you encounter a particularly thorny case.
4. EXAMINE THE JACKET – with most records you’ll be able to discern quite a bit from just what’s found on the back of the jacket. This is actually where the most obvious information can be found: bar codes (duh), copyright dates (hello?!), the name of a reissue series like Original Jazz Classics (whoops), etc. However this is also the easiest place to initially get your hopes up. Original Jazz Classics reissues of Prestige, Contemporary, Riverside, and more are nearly exact copies when it comes to the front of the jacket. The back is a different story: you should be able to spot “OJC” somewhere along the top. With other labels, you might see the same back cover as the original, only with a different address than the company used in the time when the record came out. The more you notice the difference, the easier it gets to riffle through them quickly. Just recently I found a nice Contemporary original at the back of a rack at a shop that I’ve gone through many, many times. It had a lot of neighbors that were OJC reissues, and I must have missed it. Persistence pays off I guess.
5. LEARN THE LP LABELS
Ultimately your best weapon in hunting down original jazz is to know the various record labels and the different designs they used over the years on the center of the LP itself. I didn’t make this tip #1 because, quite frankly, it tells you a lot but it doesn’t tell you everything. Companies would reuse old LP labels even if they were making newer pressings of a record. There are plenty of oddballs out there too, for sure. Sometimes tips 1-4 can tell you so much about a record that you’ll be able to deduce what label should be on it – bottom line is that a combination of this information is necessary to be sure you know what you’re holding.
Now you know enough to get out there and hunt for old jazz records – or at least you know what important information to seek out next, depending on which labels and eras you hope to collect. Knowledge is power in this hobby, but until you jump in the deep end and start seeing the original pressings in the flesh, most of this information will mean very little to you. Chances are that what you seek is hiding amongst the floppy modern pressings in the racks of your favorite shop without you realizing it – I know that that’s what I’ve found. Good luck!
PLEASE FEEL FREE TO COMMENT WITH CORRECTIONS, ADDENDUM, ETC. In the immortal words of Billy Madison, “I’m here to learn.”