Uncertain and Unverifiable: Jazz Metadiscography and the Paradox of Originality

Article excerpt

While copyright law may not have caused the precipitous end of jazz ... it will not stop jazz's descent with its ill-fitting doctrines ... copyright's inability to fully comprehend and incorporate its own sine qua non-originality--lies at the heart of all these problems.

Harvard Law Review, 2005 (1)

"[W]e throw our hands up in the air and exclaim what a mess the field is ... unscholarly behavior, not to mention ugly and unethical behavior, has long been a part of jazz, blues and gospel literature." (2) With this dubious eulogy, the era of the ink-on-paper comprehensive jazz discography drew to a close in the late 1990s as the first searchable CD-ROM products were announced. (3) Discography, the systematic listing, description and verification of sound recordings, began shortly before World War II with European jazz aficionados who wanted accurate and complete guides to the unreliably labeled 78-rpm records of the era. While classical music scholars quickly came to appreciate its advantages, for them the practice was essentially an exercise in large-scale cataloging. Western classical music relies primarily on written scores, so recordings are usually secondary material and discographies are likewise ancillary to bibliographies of musical texts. (4) But in jazz, recordings are paramount. Jazz has always emphasized the importance of spontaneous improvisation, and successive studio recordings of the same tune can sound remarkably different. The written score of a jazz song, when it exists at all, may provide only enough information to perform it in a rudimentary manner. The rest is up to the skill, experience and inspiration of the artist. To study jazz one must rely upon sound recordings. (5)

The problem is that detailed information about these recordings has always been hard to come by. Rudi Blesh, one of the first serious jazz historians, recalled that "The record labels told you nothing. The companies' specialty was to document as little as possible, get it on the market as soon as possible, and as soon as sales started to slow to a walk, lose the masters, let them deteriorate, or even destroy them." (6)

The record companies' neglect was slowly and painfully repaired by a group of ardent collector-scholars who began to publish annotated record lists that eventually became known as "discographies." These compilers uncovered the date, time, and place of individual recording sessions; their participants and the songs played; and a list of each session's master recordings by matrix, take or studio control number. (7) Their more recent works may also list modifications to the studio recording such as dubbing, tape splicing, or digital sampling. Finally, they acted as catalogers, listing the various records, albums, tapes, CDs, DVDs, films, digital media or other means by which each recording can be accessed. Once discographers went beyond the role of list-makers to become investigators and compilers of recording data, their work started to attract the attention of jazz scholars who looked to their products to trace the evolution of jazz musicians and jazz music as a whole through its primary source -phonograph records. (8)

After World War II, this dual emphasis on discography as a record catalog and as a historical reference tool created a growing internal tension. Previously, jazz tunes led largely individual lives, each taking up one side of a three-minute, 78-rpm single. As late as 1953, 78s still accounted for 80 percent of the output of American firms. (9) But with the advent of the microgroove long-playing record (LP) and its 23-minute per side capacity, record companies could now release new songs nine or ten at a time - or re-release as many as fourteen of the old 78 tunes. The result was what one discographer called "The Flood." (10)

By 1955 the major firms turned to LPs and small independent labels switched to RCA's new 45-rpm single, a mating of the 78's three-minute format with the LP's microgroove technology. …