Jazz By Mail
Record Clubs and Record Labels, 1936–1958
by Geoffrey Wheeler
Hillbrook Press, 512 pages
$60.00, soft cover
Reviewed by Jim Linduff
Advertised as a book for the serious jazz collector, historian, musician and educator, Geoff Wheeler has written a thorough and interesting collection of information about the recording business.
Wheeler, author of several articles for the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors (IAJRC), and a long-time collector, has meticulously compiled data about mail order record companies, independent collector record labels, and reissue labels. He has also included written historical profiles on subjects as diverse as jazz on English record labels, early jazz night life in New York, and discographies of Fats Navarro and Jackie Paris.
About half of the book, which is published on 8.5" x 11" heavy stock, is devoted to the story of The Jazztone Society, a direct-mail label that issued 83 albums that included new recordings, current recordings re-packaged from other labels and reissues from other record companies. The company operated this program from 1955 until 1958 primarily under the leadership of George T. Simon, a writer and editor who had previously worked on the V-Disc program. He later wrote for the New York Herald Tribune and authored an authoritative book on big bands.
He was instrumental in providing a broad roster of artists, styles and periods for the Jazztone efforts, all specifically in the jazz field.
Each recording in the Jazztone series is thoroughly researched with detailed data provided. The book is cross-referenced by artist, with information about the Jazztone covers and liner notes, and also includes profiles of many of the artists—Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, and Erroll Garner, among others. These Jazztone discographies are valuable to any serious collector. The associated discussions make good additional reading for the jazz listener, historian, and educator.
The Dial company is also exhaustively researched from beginning to end, with the support and assistance of the label's founder, Ross Russell. Dial, launched in early 1946 in Hollywood was the first West Coast label to capture and market bop. Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Howard McGhee and Dexter Gordon recorded for the label in Hollywood, and subsequently in New York, after the label moved there in 1947. After Parker’s contract with Dial ended, the company turned to reissues in the LP format. All of the Dial story, much in first person from Russell is provided. A full discography, with sidebars about the sessions and the artists is included. Charlie Parker fans and researchers will find the Dial information invaluable.
This work is an enormous undertaking. It is a very useful research tool, but probably will not be read cover-to-cover at one sitting. Beware, the book can be addictive! Every chapter information that could take the reader to his/her record collection—if you're not careful minutes turn into hours and hours into days.
In an effort of this size, and with the imprecise data available (Russell ran a one man show at Dial and his record keeping wasn't always accurate), there are bound to be errors. Nine pages of Addenda and Errata accompany the first issue.
Ed.—author Geoffrey Wheeler sent us this sidebar, which we are calling:
Naming that tune
Most of the tunes recorded for Dial Records, and probably most small jazz record labels of the time, had no titles when they were recorded. Typically, musicians came into the studio with notes, rough charts, or nothing more than an idea. They would work through the tune, run it down a couple of times so everyone knew it, and smooth out the rough spots.
All too often, recording sessions were also rehearsals. The artists would then record, listen to playbacks, approve takes if that was in the leader’s contract, and leave the studio. After the session, the producer was often left with recordings but no titles, and no leader or composer to turn to. In many cases, the titles came long after the recording session, usually just before a recording was to be mastered and labels printed.
Since the Dial name came from Dial Magazine of the 1920s, Russell often exercised literary license, and created the titles himself. During the late 1930s, Russell had edited and written for pulp magazines and was, in fact, a skilled, imaginative writer.
Sometimes just to pique the interest of customers at his Tempo Music Shop in Hollywood, he would ask for title suggestions. Customers would either tell Ross verbally and he would write the title(s) down, or the customer would write it on a slip of paper and hand it in. For Parker recordings alone, nearly 25 title suggestions were offered by customers. Only one, "Superman," was used. It became the name for the second take of "The Hymn."
Another suggestion was used for a Howard McGhee tune: "Dial-ated [or 'Dialated'] Pupils," and two more were used for titles of recordings by Dexter Gordon: "Chromatic Aberration," and "Bikini" or "Bikini Blues," as it is sometimes shown. In actuality, its full title is "Bikini Blues: All Men are Cremated Equal." The time was 1946, and this was a sardonic reference to atomic tests being conducted in the Pacific on Bikini Atoll. Bikini, of course, also became the name of very abbreviated French bathing suit.
Unusual titles for jazz tunes became quite the vogue in 1945–46, perhaps influenced by titles used in the 1930s by Raymond Scott, Alec Templeton, Larry Wagner, and The New Friends of Rhythm. Good examples from 1945–46 are titles recorded by Boyd Raeburn: Boyd’s Nest, Little Boyd Blue, Tonsilectomy [sic: tonsillectomy], Hip Boyds (aka: "Get the Abbot Habit"), Dalvatore Sally, and others.
One title, from the 1930s, by the New Friends of Rhythm, sticks in my mind. This was a string group with a rhythm section. Bandleader Bob Chester recorded a tune for Bluebird called "Shoot the Sherbet to Me Herbert." Vocal was by Kathleen Lane, who also sang briefly with Bunny Berigan's '38 band just after Buddy Rich joined. The title was changed by the New Friends of Rhythm to "Shoot the Shubert to Me Hubert," the tune being based on a piece by Franz Shubert.
To order Jazz By Mail, write to Hillbrook Press, CTI Inc., 8667 Sudley Rd. Suite 283, Manassas, VA 20110-4588, phone (703) 392-4026, fax (703) 335-1973 or e-mail HobbyCraft@aol.com. It is rare that a book provides thorough, detailed reference material in a very readable format with behind the scenes looks into the jazz industry. This is such a book and is unconditionally recommended.