Hunting vintage jazz vinyl records in the Nutmeg State
I’m sure every collector dreams of it – the jackpot, the honey hole, etc. For some it may be simply finding the rarest of the rare, while others salivate over the idea of buying filet mignon at ground chuck prices.
For me, I’m generally dissatisfied with buying records online. Sure, it doesn’t stop me from virtual crate digging, but the apex of those thrills is when I’ve found a seller motivated to clear out more than one record I need at a cost that is very reasonable including shipping. Woo.
One of my local shops definitely does not specialize in jazz, but they have also become a very visible establishment for where to sell your used records, so I often have some of my best scores there. The staff there is awesome and I treat them like you’d want to treat your cheesemonger or your butcher – go out of your way to give them a good amount of your business, trust their expertise, and they will eventually return the favor. Because the shop attracts plenty of genuine diggers – many of the times I shop there I am having to pull unpriced LPs from “fresh crates” – it’s important for me to get out in front of the crowd when jazz LPs come in. So just like the dude with the cleaver saying “well if you want to know which cut the butcher takes home…”, I received this email about a week ago:
SUBJECT: We just took in 6 or 7 crates of jazz
Some blue note. Putting a few on eBay, but a lot more where those came from too.
I’ve gotten these emails before, and rather than ask questions and discourage them from doing me this favor in the future, I just get myself there when I can. Usually it turns out to be 70s stuff or later and I pick out a few, but I want to continue to get these notifications just in case, so I thank them for letting me know and chat them up per usual. Obviously, this one made my eyes open pretty wide upon reading, and I realized I had a golden opportunity to run down to the shop for just the last half hour they would be open that night. I popped over to eBay to see how eager I should be to get there. Two LPs were listed, both by Sonny Rollins: Live at the Village Vanguard, and Newk’s Time.
They were specified as having the “ear,” and the photos revealed that they were very early, if not first pressings. I still needed to get through dinner and my three year old’s bedtime without all the LPs I wanted getting onto the internet (I suppose I could have asked them to take the Sonny listings down…but they had already received bids, in just a matter of minutes!). So I kept refreshing eBay, holding my breath. 5 more LPs showed up, but they were all Horace Silver LPs that I already owned. I jumped in the car as soon as I could, made it out to the shop, and upon entering was directed to the back.
There was already someone going through the crates. Ugh.
The other collector had a little stack going, and I wanted to be polite, so I asked to look through crates that they were finished with. I saw at least a McCoy Tyner Impulse (Newport?) and a Hutcherson-Land Blue Note put aside. As I started to go through the first crate, I noticed that some of the jackets were pretty nasty. I would later find out that some of the records had to go right into the dumpster due to mold and water damage. If I remember correctly, the first crate didn’t yield anything too exciting. The LPs were grouped roughly alphabetically, so like all collectors I was prepared to hold my breath when I got near “Mobley” “Gordon” or “Rollins.” I think I waded in right around Erroll Garner – a deceptive indication of whether or not these crates would yield gold or not. Nothing against Garner, but as a popular performer, his records aren’t exactly rare or coveted. I’m sure I pulled one or two promising LPs, stuff that interested me but didn’t get my heart pumping. Good news was that, in VGish condition, those LPs would only be a few bucks.
Getting into the second crate – and I wish I could remember exactly which LP it was – I came upon something unexpected. I had not pulled too many records at that point, but spotting this LP drastically changed the tenor of the entire trip. I’m pretty sure that this is what popped up:
ANYTHING 1500 series on Blue Note is very desirable, but in particular, the records where Hank Mobley’s name is part of or the entire title top the list. Collectors can guess where my brain went next: the record must be trashed, and/or it must not be an original. Slid the record out, and:
Frame cover. Ear. Definitely had some hard scratches but a lot of times the early pressings play strong regardless. So now there was a possibility of this collection reaching back to the beginning of the 12″ era at Blue Note. Things were getting interesting. And then, boom, another 1500 Mobley:
This one appealed to me even more because of the presence of Art Farmer, one of my favorite trumpet players. The labels revealed the briefly used “NEW YORK 23” variant of the label on the LP, which I was pretty sure was a first pressing, if not then it was still super early. At this point I had two very rare Blue Notes and a few less desirable LPs piled up. I looked over at the other collector, who was finishing up. He only had about 6 LPs under his arm after having looked through all the crates. That was what REALLY got my heart racing. Perhaps some would have thought this was an indication of how little the crates had to offer, but as a generally optimistic and easy going record collector, I just assumed that I still had first dibs on anything special. I checked the time – about 30 minutes to closing. The shop often stays open late so I figured they might take the time to price me after hours if needed. Or, I would go home leaving them a stack to be priced and then I’d have to come back. Either way, I was eager to see what else would pop up.
And then, something amazing happened. I started going through the third crate having lost track of where I was alphabetically but flipping past some Miles Davis albums on Columbia that weren’t in great shape. There was a copy of Steamin’ on Prestige, and I didn’t have that, so I grabbed it, hooray. And then…
This LP is impossibly rare and furiously coveted. Al from jazzcollector.com, who inspired this type of “tale of the hunt” post, once purchased several thousand records with Sonny’s Crib being the crowned jewel. And I had a copy right here. Like the other rare LPs I had grabbed, it had at least one questionable mark, but as you can imagine, the rarity of these records made their VG/VG- condition lucrative.
I sent that text message to my wife that many of us collectors have to send…
My discretion during this dig suddenly needed to change, because I now had three records in my pile that would cost more than I had spent on any records at this shop before. Plus, I was running out of time. I flipped past a lot of Sonny Stitt LPs and various So-and-so Meets What’s-his-face records on the Verve label that I would normally have considered but would have to come back for another day. There were Sonny Rollins Prestiges (no Saxophone Colossus though), Dexter Gordon Blue Notes (many of which I already had), the entire Horace Silver catalog that wasn’t already on eBay (had those too). I pulled these records out for the sake of the shop, so that I could at least help them move the merchandise sooner rather than later. I was working so fast that I treated this LP like business as usual and just put it in the pile, an LP on par with the desirability of Sonny’s Crib:
Once I got through all the crates, what amazed me the most was the amazing fortune I had in regards to which rare records appeared and which ones did not. There was an original mono of Whistle Stop by Kenny Dorham, but no Trompetta Toccatta or Una Mas, which I didn’t need. No Freddie Hubbards, but a copy of True Blue?! The only LP I saw on the New Jazz label was Roy Haynes’s Cracklin’ which is hard to find.
I lugged my pile to the front counter and started to sepearate into three piles. One pile consisted of merely the LPs that I already owned but that I wanted to highlight for the staff so that it felt like I was helping them out. A second pile was everything that appealed to me but I could leave at the shop without being heartbroken. The final pile was what I could not leave without or else I may never see it again.
The Blue Notes had made their way to the middle of that final pile, which was still pretty thick when it was all said and done. The staff member/owner who stayed behind to wrap this up started with some Red Garland Prestiges – At the Prelude, Red Garland’s Piano, etc. The prices were fair but certainly not pennies, and it occurred to me that I better have them skip to the Blue Notes and see what I could even afford. I tried to keep my mouth shut, but my conscience wouldn’t let me stay silent. “They’re not in perfect shape, but…some of these I may never see again.” At least I felt like, no matter the outcome, I could come back to the shop in the future without feeling like a criminal.
As the prices were written onto plastic outer sleeves with Sharpie marker, the two of us chatted about their condition. I was able to test the deep marks on the records, and they were generally unobtrusive considering how prominently I could feel them by touching them. As the verdict came in, I became hopeful that this was going to be a generally affordable splurge, whatever that means. The records were being priced on rarity but also on condition, and if there’s anything I’ve learned about this particular establishment, condition is VERY important to them. They undergrade and over deliver on price. And it was clear that they would rather sell to me than on eBay, partially because of our customer/record monger relationship but also because our particular breed of collector can be pretty fastidious (on a different visit, an employee stated, “you jazz people make me nervous!”). True Blue rang in at the highest price, and rightfully so because the condition was quite good, and when it came time to make a decision, I chose seven Blue Notes and Cracklin’. I felt confident that other titles would make it onto Discogs and that I could have them put aside once they had been priced. They would probably even hold them until later in the Summer when I had more cash thanks to all the extra work I had on my plate. Yet, it’s also nice to leave something for other collectors, especially if I am taking the gems from this batch.
All in all, it was a breathtaking haul that I am very happy with. I played BLP 1540 first, and while there was one little skip and a few ticks, it played strong like Lexington pressings tend to play. Sonny’s Crib has some ticking from a mark that I am paranoid I put on the record myself through an accident while cleaning, but otherwise it sounds crystal clear, from Curtis Fuller’s clamoring to Coltrane’s fervor.
Some of the LPs I set aside, for myself or for the shop, appeared on Discogs a few days later, and many of them quickly sold, including those Dexter Blue Notes. I made a return visit to find that even some of the rougher items that were priced but I ultimately passed on were gone as well. Yet many of the LPs were still in the crates in the back, so I got to leave with some interesting cheapies plus two Red Garland Prestiges with NY labels, a white label Jazz Contrasts by Kenny Dorham, Blue Moods on the original colored vinyl, the list goes on. I am glad to have supported a business that is such an excellent resource to my hobby and my passion for music. Amidst a lot of exciting and happy things going on in my life right now, this was a beautiful cherry on top. There is some mystery to all of this too, as there were some reissues and some very popular items like many LPs by Oscar Peterson, with these Blue Note gems buried within. When asking if some of the things that had to be thrown away were Blue Notes, the reply I received was “oh yeah.” What ended up in that dumpster?! There was a surprising lack of Art Blakey LPs. No Lee Morgans. Was there more Mobley? BLP 1568?????
A week later, we had our last day of school with the students. I am leaving the elementary schools where I’ve taught band instruments for the last five years to move on to one of the high schools in the district. I’ve gone through a few different emotions about this – excited about the possibilities ahead, eventual dread over just how much of an uphill climb I have ahead of me, and finally an unexpected sadness and fear over leaving somewhere I felt at home while parting with my favorite class of students that I have had in my career. When I got home, I popped on True Blue and started to get on the other side of what effectively felt like grief with no exact cause. I am always in awe of the legacy of this music, but what truly floors me is how something pressed into plastic 60 years ago can, in a way I often take for granted, help improve the quality of my life.