More Important Than the Music: A History of Jazz Discography

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More Important Than the Music: A History of Jazz Discography. By Bruce D. Epperson. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 284pp (hardback). ISBN 978-0-226-06753-7

The intriguing title of Bruce Epperson's book gives a hint as to the direction his prose takes in attempting to untangle the knotted history of jazz discography. Indeed, it seems that the music that discographers have been trying to document since the discipline's birth has taken a back seat to the jealousy ego, stubbornness, bias, and obsessions of its practitioners. To Epperson's credit, what could have been a dull and dry subject has been enlivened by the personality studies of the major contributors to jazz discography through the years.

Jazz discography has been like the Wild, Wild West, with rules being made up as time went along, with practitioners acting like lone gunmen, fending off rivals in dusty street showdowns for supremacy in the genre. Musicologist James Patrick probably said it best when he defined discography as "a bibliographical quirk of a small band of monomaniacal jazz collectors," which is a perfect launching point for Epperson's historically based study. The best parts of the book are the first chapters, in which we learn that the word "discography" first appeared in an editorial written by Compton Mackenzie, owner and editor of the Gramophone, in its January 1930 issue. Hilton R. Schleman is given the credit for publishing the first book-length discography dedicated to jazz, Rhythm on Record, which came out in April 1936. After Frenchman Charles Delaunay published the first edition of his Hot Discography a few months later, the word "discography" was in wide circulation. The definition of the word, however, has changed over the years, and Epperson does a superb job laying out the chronology of not only what was included in discographies, but who their targeted users were.

Delaunay is recognized as the first important jazz discographer, a successful Parisian graphic artist whose historically-based approach to discography was a direct reflection of his own history and personality. Delaunay got hooked on jazz while creating advertising artwork for a Paris music store. Jazz became a new religion to Delaunay and he soon joined the Paris Hot Club, where he met Hughes Panassie, one of the more colorful characters in jazz criticism. Epperson has a wonderful way with words; he describes Panassie as a "wealthy solipsistic misanthrope," a walking embodiment of the "mouldy figge," a term coined by Leonard Feather to label intransigent lovers of traditional jazz music.

The initial discographies of the 1930s were quite different from the ones we use to today. In the beginning, discographies were conceived as guides for collectors, hip-pocket books to be taken to estate sales and record stores, with highly subjective listings of recommended records. These listings actually elevated the value of certain records, while devaluing discs that were not included in its pages. Details such as matrix numbers, recording dates and locations, and reissues would not come about until much later.

Delaunay's initial work consisted of chapters devoted to "The Originators of Hot Style," "Prominent Orchestras," "Chicago Style," and groups organized according to key personnel, such as Benny Carter, Red Nichols, and Benny Goodman. Delaunay's highly subjective first edition of Hot Discography did not include an entry for Jelly Roll Morton, who was considered "corny" in the mid-thirties. His approach, though cumbersome, worked better as literature than as an accurate catalog, and was given a backhanded compliment by writer/collector Ron Davies, who said Delaunay's work "failed gloriously."

The publication of Orin Blackstone's Index to Jazz in the 1940s resulted in the more clinical, alphabetical-by-artist listing that we are familiar with today. When compared to Blackstone's work, Delaunay's 1943 edition of Hot Discography seems confusing, incomplete, and difficult to use. …