The Independent Ear

On the Bandstand but Off The Books

Peter Leitch

Look under jazz book releases at your favorite online literary retailer – and yes, I almost said ‘at your favorite bookstore’ unleashing the old school impulse – and you’ll find hundreds of titles chronicling the lives, times, and even minute recording session details of the giants of jazz. On that latter tip there is a growing legion of useful, informative books simply detailing one recording period or even one recording session in the recorded life of Miles Davis, the definitive volume of which is my friend and colleague Ashley Khan’s chronicle of all things “Kind of Blue.” We’ll call it the White Collar section, that section of the aggregate jazz bibliography dedicated to the giants. But what of those relative blue collar jazz artists, those who have contributed much, labored mightily and largely successfully in the figurative trenches of the art form, yet never really achieved top of the polls status? Such an artist is the ever-swinging guitarist Peter Leitch, and he’s written a book appropriately titled Off The Books (A Jazz Life; Vehicule Press).

For those not familiar, Peter Leitch is one of those no pretense, superb craftsmen whose artistry is measured by his skillful way around a standard, knowing and loving the blues in the pit of his stomach, and his ability to enhance whatever setting he graces. He’s one of those artists whose warmth and humility – in both his guitar playing and his personality – may have left him slightly out of focus of the big spotlight, but he’s no less worth your attention than his more celebrated peer artists.

There is much to be learned from this book of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the jazz musician’s life, and Leitch tells it quite successfully. From humble beginnings as an English-speaking Montreal native, Leitch aptly details growing up musically in Canada. Along the way there is much to be learned of the various players who’ve developed jazz, particularly modern jazz, in our neighbor to the north, including pursuits of the music in and around Montreal, in the outreaches of Quebec province where you’ve likely never ventured, and informative helpings on the jazz life in Toronto, where the guitarist migrated in the 1970s. One of the more valuable aspects of this book is that Leith, ever the keen and perceptive observer, pulls no punches in his clear eyed assessment of his many scenes or the musicians he encounters along the way, dry wit firmly in place, including this passage on life in Toronto:

“Toronto’s population in the late seventies and early eighties appeared to consist mainly of people whose belief in the financial, social, and political systems was unshakeable, although among musicians many of the jazz and studio players seemed to be involved with various spiritual advisors, gurus, and therapy groups. There was a character called Mr. Mills, who had quite an international following. You gave him a percentage of your income, and if you gave him enough money, you were allowed to wash his feet. There was another one called Bawa, who was supposedly four hundred years old, and had never been seen to ingest food or water. There was a Catholic psychoanalytic commune called Therafields, which allowed you to pick bean sprouts on their farm if you paid them, which they then sold in health food stores. It seemed that a lot of musicians in Toronto were ripe for this kind of con.”

Throughout the book are great stories on the life of the jobbing jazz musician – the have axe will travel, itinerant life of the sideman, adept in any setting, valued by traveling soloists playing Canada from south of the border looking for a complimentary musician with big ears and a willingness to schlep that guitar case far and wide in pursuit of the jazz truth. And along the way Peter Leitch drops pungent sidebars and stories of encounters in that life, like his account of this stop on the road with the late B-3 master and Prestige recording artist Don Patterson: “One night at the Flight Deck club in Wilmington (hometown of Clifford Brown) I was sitting at the bar between sets and started conversing with an older black man, who seemed to be quite knowledgeable about the music. It turned out he had gone to school with Clifford Brown. He talked about how serious Clifford was and how much he practiced, and I started thinking about how this music was just not a cultural reality in the places I had been living. What were the chances of having this conversation in Toronto or Montreal? I had learned by now that it wasn’t enough to just try to play this music. You had to understand where it came from, intimately know the culture that produced it, and know in whose footsteps you were following.”

Inevitably Peter Leitch’s road led to New York, where he details the hard scrabble life of a jobbing jazz musician, including both harrowing street life encounters, the follies of Manhattan apartment rental, the joys and idiosyncrasies of recording the many sessions he made for the Reservoir and Criss Cross labels at Rudy Van Gelder’s historic studio, and beating back the devil of drug addiction. Leitch pulls no punches on the racial idiosyncracies of the music, recounting how in New York he found his most welcoming home, both in terms of playing and establishing lasting interpersonal relationships, largely with black musicians. This passage illustrates Leitch’s view of the inevitable racial politics in jazz:

“[John] Hicks told me he’d gotten a little heat from the black community for hiring me at Bradley’s. I have always accepted the fact that this music is the creation of black Americans, but I have never bought into the concept that white people “stole the music.” There has always been a lot of stealing going on in music or any art, by people of every conceivable race or color. In my own case, I’ve never felt that I’d stolen something. This music was given to me. And it was given with a lot of love. By a lot of black people. By the happenstance of employment I happened to be thrown into the culture that produced the music, which was such a valuable experience. If you want to really learn about something, you’d better understand the culture that produced it. That said, coming to the United States from Canada, especially Montreal where there was a lot of diversity, I failed to realize that race was still such a huge issue in America. Racism has aways walked hand in hand with its partner, ignorance. But come to think of it, by the same token so to speak, ignorance and stupidity are two of the few things in our society that know no color line. When you consider the four hundred years of slavery and repression, it should come as no surprise that racism (on both sides) exists in jazz, supposedly the most democratic of musical forms. John put it in perspective when we were in the South together. As we got out of the van at a gas station somewhere in Arkansas, John asks, “Where’s the colored toilet?

Along the way Leitch became one of the MVPs of the fertile 80s/90s late night scene at Bradley’s, one of the great musicians stomping grounds which achieved a measure of fame as much for its late night hang atmosphere as for the potent duos, trios and cavalcade of brilliant piano players it boasted. Among those piano masters was another fellow relative underdog, the late, incredible John Hicks, with whom Leitch developed a beautiful friendship (ditto altoist Bobby Watson and bassist Ray Drummond) rooted in the Bradley’s scene, relationships recounted succinctly in this book.

“In early January of 1990 John hired me for my first week at Bradley’s, with Ray [Drummond] on bass. Bradley’s was not just a world-class jazz club, it also served as a clearing house and office for the musicians. It was the only club with a 2am set, which attracted a lot of musicians who would drop by after their earlier gigs. If anything happened in the jazz world, you heard it first there. Being at Bradley’s was breathing rarified air. New York forces you to grow and develop faster than in other places. You would be playing and look up and there’s Tommy Flanagan sitting there. Or Kenny Barron. Or George Coleman. Or Ron Carter. Your idols, people you had grown up listening to on records were sitting there checking you out. Scared the hell out of me! It was like going to school every night, and made me work that much harder on the music. I would get up the next day and practice some more. One of my fond memories is of sitting in the office at Bradley’s one morning around 5 am with John Hicks and Tommy Flanagan, listening to Tommy tell about John Coltrane laying “Giant Steps” on him.” Sorry ya’ll, but you just don’t get that kind of wisdom from the academy!

Ever the keen observer, Leitch’s perceptive eye leads him inevitably to photography, first as a hobbyist’s pursuit and eventually as a serious artistic obsession. His fascination with life below the Mason Dixon line takes him on fascinating photographic excursions into the heart of Dixie, richly detailed in this chronicle. Off The Books is a vivid, quite successful portrait – roots & fruits, warts & triumphs – of what it means to be a working jazz musician, sidebars and all – well worth your read.

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A New day for jazz vinyl & delivery

Full disclosure: I’m no audiophile. Call it a record collector’s conceit or think of it as a measure of protectionism for an old-schooler who has been collecting vinyl Lps (and a few 45s to boot) since the late 1960s, amassing a decent collection (which the average Jack or Jill might consider rather massive) of vinyl records that dominates a large room, As a result I’ve viewed with curiosity news of the resurgence of interest in vinyl records. Sounding the steady drumbeat pointing to the whys & wherefores of this resurgence has been Jim Eigo and his daily Jazz Promo Services posts. Having volunteered at my local Friends of the Library used book store in Wheaton, MD for the last several years as weekly vinyl recordings intake manager (a stint chronicled in an earlier Independent Ear post), it was with interest that I read the following news:

“A new kind of record label with a curated repertoire of world class musicians. Newvelle ships six impeccably produced and beautifully packaged vinyl LPs to your door every year. This music is available only on vinyl and solely through Newvelle.”

Spotting such endlessly creative artists as NEA Jazz Master drummer Jack DeJohnette (delivering a solo piano date no less!) and pianist Frank Kimbrough among the initial batch of Newvelle releases, not to mention counting drummer Billy Hart and bassist John Patitucci as sidemen in the accompanying photo as participants in Newvelle’s maiden voyage releases, guaranteed a certain high level of artistic sophistication. Those names alone lent a certain credibility, and overall the whole concept seemed rather intriguing; so we sought one of the Newvelle principles, Elan Mehler, for some whys & wherefores.

What is the philosophy behind the launch of Newvelle and why vinyl only?
I think vinyl is answering a question in the music industry that the industry didn’t see coming, and that is “How do I reconnect with recorded music?” With Newvelle, we have recorded some world class music and we’re releasing it on what we think is the best sounding medium for this music.

However, what we really drew us to creating Newvelle is that we saw in this vinyl resurgence an opportunity for a new model for releasing music. A musically and aesthetically uncompromising model, devoted to high quality, where musicians are paid upfront and keep their rights to the music and where a stable economic model is provided by a membership base, allowing the art to be paramount.

Detail how one becomes a “member” of Newvelle and the benefits of membership.
Currently we have two ways to become a member.
1. Once we launch, prospective members will be asked to pay an entrance fee and then a monthly fee. There will be some exclusive online content available to members and invitations to special events/concerts; but the principal benefit of membership is that members will be sent one record to their home every other month. We believe that we are offering something unique. We are not disseminating any digital copies of these albums and these are not re-issues of old recordings; what we are doing is testing if there’s enough of an audience that wants exclusive access to this brand new music, recorded impeccably and presented in only one format, to make this model work. Members will be supporting a model from studio to press that actually pays musicians up front AND lets them keep control and rights to their music.

2. Starting in January 2016 we are launching a crowd-funding campaign to get Newvelle off the ground. During the 6 week campaign we will be selling two month memberships. This means you will get Frank Kimbrough’s record sent to you, with no further obligation to buy. Members will not have to pay the membership fee if they choose to continue. We will also be selling 12 month subscriptions upfront which means of course that all 6 records will be sent over the course of the year, with no entrance or monthly fees.

Apparently curated cover art is a key component of Newvelle. Talk about how that works and the role visual art will play in Newvelle going forward.
The cover art follows directly from the medium. Once you have only one format in which you’re releasing and that format is a 12’ by 12’ vinyl (no digital, no tiny CD cover), well than you have a beautiful canvas to work with. So, although it certainly starts with the music, we have been able to attract some world class artists that are interested in participating in a project like this. Bernard Plossu, who’s photos are comprising the covers and gatefold interiors of our first series of six records, is a national treasure in France. His work is inspiring, creative, surprising, mysterious and above all, gorgeous. We feel extremely blessed that he has allowed us access to his enormous catalogue. Curating the series was a joy and a challenge. I called an old friend, Andrew Burke from the celebrated artistic duo Simmons and Burke to help me tease out relationships. The idea is really to utilize all the space of 6 vinyl covers and 6 interiors to allow something beautiful to happen.

Lastly, we didn’t want to have traditional liner notes on the record. But we did want to have some text. Incredibly, we found poet Tracy K. Smith was willing to print copies of her work from her Pulitzer prize winning collection “Life on Mars” on the record sleeves. As we were selecting works to use, I found pieces that I think fit beautifully the aesthetic and the intention and, for lack of a better word, the “vibe” of what we were trying to produce. The concept is to have separate streams of artistic output; musical, visual and literary, all presented in the best possible quality we can achieve, and without any part leaning on any other. The relationships between the musical, visual and literary are hopefully not explicit but felt.

How do you envision and position these releases as “bi-monthly events” as you describe them?
Well thats pretty much what I was getting at in the last response. It’s also about the way that vinyl makes you slow down when you listen: you have to flip a vinyl record over after 20 minutes, you can’t put it on in your car. Its more of a meeting with the music then something you can just plug into your daily life; a bi-monthly rendezvous. (We are at least 50% French here, we’re allowed to say things like that.)

Frank Kimbrough head shot low quality

How did you forge relationships with the artists in your initial releases, and why those particular artists?
I’m a pianist and composer that worked in NYC for 12 years, before moving to Paris in 2010, so I have relationships with a lot of musicians in New York. The very first person I thought of when I set up this project was Frank Kimbrough. I studied with Frank at NYU in the late 90’s so I know him well. Frank’s tone, touch and above all his melodic and lyrical sense embody exactly what we’re looking to release at Newvelle. Frank’s been living in NYC since the 80’s but doesn’t fall into the idea of a “New York sound” rather, Frank embodies what I think is a truer sense of New York Jazz. Frank is a musician’s musician, he can play with the best and make them sound better, but he’s always himself, and has a voice that rings out. I wrote more about Frank and my relationship with him at NYU here. Our first release with Frank also features musicians that I’ve admired and played a lot with in NYC. Andrew Zimmerman the saxophonist is another person I thought of immediately. I think Andrew has that same, rare sense of melodic purpose and he plays with one of the best tenor saxophone sounds on earth.

Elan Mehler and Jack DeJohnette

Recording a piano record with Jack DeJohnette was a dream come true. The first time I heard Jack play live was when I was fourteen and he was touring with the Gateway Trio featuring Dave Holland and John Abercrombie. It was my first jazz concert! Everyone knows that Jack is one of the greatest drummers to ever hold a stick, but I’ve always greatly admired Jack’s compositions and touch on piano as well (He did play some piano on that concert as well). We reached out to him with the idea, and he liked our model and responded immediately. To have him come back and play drums with Leo Genovese’s Trio along with Esperanza Spalding was, of course, unbelievable. Just being in the studio, was one of the most intense musical experiences of my life. Jack introduced me to Leo’s music but he’s quickly become one of my favorite living musicians.

Ben Allison, Playing Bass.
I know both Ben Alison and Noah Preminger, through Frank Kimbrough and from my time living in NYC. I’ve admired Ben’s playing and writing since I was a teenager and first arrived in New York. He’s another musician driven by a melodic sense that is the engine behind everything he does. And his sound on bass is unparalleled. Noah, is a younger guy but he doesn’t play like it. He’s got technique that goes on for miles but he’s never in thrall to it. For this date he’s playing all ballads but a tune selection that’s going to surprise some people. Between these two dates the sidemen are: Billy Hart, Ben Monder, John Patitucci, Ted Nash and Steve Cardenas. Holy shit!
John Patitucci, Noah Preminger, Ben Monder and Billy Hart

We also made a record with the great Don Friedman. Don is another guy who I know from when he was studying at NYU. Don played on some of my favorite records of all time. In 1960, he recorded two semi-forgotten gems with Booker Little “Out Front” and “Victory and Sorrow,” these records were so beautiful and progressive and featured titanic musicians like Eric Dolphy, Julian Priester, George Coleman and Max Roach. For the session we recorded, Don revisited these masterpieces with his trio and, at the age of 81, destroyed. I can’t wait to share this one with the world.

What advice do you have for artists who may wish to affiliate with Newvelle? Are you open to artist inquiries or do you develop those relationships on your own?
Absolutely open to inquiries! I’m at

PHOTOS BY: William Semeraro

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Finding a line between Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the Pacific

The Monty Alexander Jazz Festival
Monty Alexander JF '15
Monty with his Jilly’s crew: vocalists Clint Holmes, Allan Harris and Caterina Zapponi (in background), w/Obed Calvaire on drums, Houston Person on tenor

Visiting the annual Monty Alexander Jazz Festival on Labor Day weekend threatens to become a tradition. Last year was our first and this year’s return was a no-brainer. Held in one of those classic old downtown movie houses, the Avalon Theatre in very agreeable Easton, MD (several nice restaurants – including the BBQ Joint; don’t sleep that one! – and the nearby Chesapeake shoreline beckon). The centerpiece of the festival is Monty Alexander’s Saturday night concert, however this year two of the satellite concerts out-shone the namesake. On Friday evening Rene Marie proved once again to be among the most engaging and wholly satisfying vocalists on the scene. She sang one half her vivacious Eartha Kitt tribute (cannily preceded by a pre-concert screening of some Eartha footage), delivering a sumptuous “C’es Si Bon” and kittenish “My Heart Belongs To Daddy”, which though the height of 21st century political incorrectness, was a blast nonetheless. After intermission it was all about Marie’s original songs from her forthcoming album. These included a deeply touching piece on homelessness, prefaced by her personal story of learning her brother had been homeless for a time unbeknownst to the family, and his subsequently conveying that touching experience, which his sister has now conveyed very touchingly in song.

The Saturday matinee brought to the stage one of the biggest, most mellifluous sounds in tenor saxdom – Eric Alexander and his longtime crew of the vastly underrated Harold Mabern on piano, Joe Farnsworth on drums, and John Webber on bass. Alexander traveled to the heart of soul and swing, his huge sound engulfing the old theater, very much in the spirit of his mentor George Coleman, but at this point purely Eric Alexander.

Saturday evening’s centerpiece was largely a reprise of the chief’s Monty Alexander & Friends program, with yet another gorgeous tenor sound courtesy of Houston Person, the adroit young guitarist Graham Decter, and the engaging vocalists Allan Harris and Clint Holmes. The first set concentrated on Nat Cole, with Harris representing the “King” and Decter on hand to bring the authenticity of the original drummer-less Cole Trio. Harris, who has a lot of experience with the Cole oeuvre was a wise choice. The second half represented Monty’s Sinatra program, with Holmes in the Chairman’s seat, including a lovely essay of “Angel Eyes” replete with Person’s buttery obligatos. “Where or When” elicited a smooth essay by Holmes, and we were transported to the legendary Jilly’s, where a young Monty Alexander got his start as house pianist at Sinatra’s favorite watering hole. But therein lies the rub – with the exception of Holmes and the guitarist, this was nearly a tone-for-tone reprise of Monty’s 2014 Festival performance – the Jilly’s stories and schtick in place, even reprising some of the same jokes and asides as last year, and including another interlude from Alexander’s vocalist-wife Caterina Zapponi. Hopefully namesake will refresh for the 2016 edition.


Finding a Line
Discovering common ground between a skate board park magically morphing onto the front plaza of the Kennedy Center, to Maryland’s lovely Eastern Shore country and the majestic Pacific Ocean’s mid-California coastline might seem like quite the stretch, but let’s give it a shot. Last spring at the Kennedy Center’s annual press event to announce its forthcoming season, one event particularly piqued the curiosity. Though something similar had been presented at SF Jazz as part of a Jason Moran residency, it remained a bit difficult at that point to wrap one’s arms around the Kennedy Center actually staging a collaboration between Moran’s musicians and skateboarders. Let’s start with the most obvious question: where on earth in the Kennedy Center might that happen? Surely not in one of those pristine concert halls; nor could the jazz program-inspired KC Jazz Club (a legacy of Billy Taylor’s tenure) or the Crossroads Club (product of Moran’s tenure) conceivably accommodate such an undertaking.

As the skateboard cum jazz performance weekend of September 11-12 approached, coincidentally I had a DC Jazz Festival meeting at the KC (stay tuned for that collaboration). Arriving via the KC’s convenient shuttle from the nearest Metro station, the bus maneuvered around a rapidly developing wooden structure abutting the entry plaza, construction workers busily going about their charge. Hmm, might this be the venue for the collaboration the KC dubbed Finding A Line (I suppose as in finding a line between skateboarding and improvised music, or is that a skateboarding term that somehow eluded my boomer mentality)? Part of that line and the seed of inspiration stemmed from Moran’s vivid memories of skateboarding as a kid growing up in Houston, an obsession that included watching skateboard videos. Seems some of that video footage was accompanied by jazz music, including Video Days, which chronicled skateboard champion Mark Gonzales skating to John Coltrane! Who knew?

Arriving at the September 11 premier we grabbed spots in the bleachers as close to the top as we could, the better to scope out the skaters from an elevated viewpoint as our ticket taker cannily suggested. Gazing to our left we could see assorted skaters warming up on a nearby track just beyond the standees area. The bleachers quickly filled up and as expected – and clearly this was central to Jason bringing this idea to the KC – this was decidedly not the usual jazz audience. There were parents with kids, plenty of millennials, and more than a few of the curious… like us.

As Moran and his Bandwagon – bassist Taurus Mateen and drummer Jamire Williams commenced improvising, the skaters ramped it up, including various local crews (such as The DC Wheels, and Dads Skateboards!) as well as a crew from Cuba Skate, a non-profit DC-based initiative developed to support and grow the burgeoning Cuban skateboarding community – ambassadors of the boards as it were.


58th annual Monterey Jazz Festival
Nicholas Payton @ MJF
Nicholas Payton blown’ strong on the Jimmy Lyons Stage

This one is an annual Cali pilgrimage, its no longer even necessary to check the lineup in advance; such is the nature of Tim Jackson’s superb artistic direction of this world’s longest continuously running jazz festival. The big stage highlight was opening night’s Erroll Garner Project: Concert By the Sea. This year marked the 50th anniversary of Garner’s Concert By The Sea, captured for posterity by Columbia Records on September 19, 1955 in nearby Carmel, CA. In conjunction Columbia has reissued the famed recording of the same name in complete form, with eleven additional tracks from the concert restored in a 3-disc package that also includes a remastered version of the original recording. Growing up Concert By the Sea was a record found in every discerning home in the black community, including that of Mount V. Allen Jr., Geri Allen‘s dad, who was on hand for this tribute. One could not help but wonder what this might mean for a 2015 concert reprise. However this was decidedly no reprise of the original Garner trio classic. Instead MJF recruited Geri Allen as music director. Three pianos were arrayed across the expansive Jimmy Lyons Stage (MJF founder Lyons had produced the original Concert By The Sea), Allen at the helm joined by Jason Moran and young Christian Sands. They were supported beautifully throughout the night in solo, duo and piano trio expositions by bassist Darek Oles and drummer Victor Lewis. The Chick Corea Trio followed the Garner program with more piano majesty, with the peerless rhythm section of Christian McBride and Brian Blade.

Saturday evening, after the kinetic Trombone Shorty had incinerated the Lyons Stage and energized the throng to close the Saturday matinee, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire‘s quartet was followed by this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival on Tour unit. Its core was essentially the Gerald Clayton Trio – with Joe Sanders on bass and the ferocious Justin Brown on drums, which certainly makes sense as far as assembling a requisite all-star ensemble for touring – along with the horns of Ravi Coltrane and Nicholas Payton, who unburdened by band leading responsibilities was in particularly fine form, blowing some mighty trumpet. The MJF on Tour unit was preceded by the Caribbean funk & folkloric enterprise of trumpeter Etienne Charles & Creole Soul, appropriately on the Garden Stage whose more open spaced environment is the best place on the grounds to get your dance on, and the trumpeter’s island grooves proved irresistible to more than a few. Doing the familiar Monterey fairgrounds stroll mid-MJF on Tour enabled some time with a very potent band led by guitarist David Gilmore at the Night Club. Gilmore had Marcus Strickland on saxophones, Luis Perdomo on piano, Ben Williams on bass and the ubiquitous in-demand drummer Rudy Royston on hand for a distinguished set of his originals. Once Gilmore had concluded it was out the door and across the lawn to Dizzy’s Den for Bay Area hand drumming ace John Santos, who showcased a veteran Cuban sonero for a sublime set of boleros mid-program. Justin Brown was one of the busiest players all weekend, his incendiary drums proving a fine foil for trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire‘s fat toned trumpet closing the Night Club with his second set. Such is the nature of MJF that certain artists play multiple venues during the weekend.

This year’s residency at the Coffee House Gallery featured a reunion of one of Monty Alexander‘s most successful trios, with bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton for six sets throughout the weekend, highlighting yet another strong MJF curatorial touch.

Sunday evening was a veritable potpourri of easing from venue to venue to catch healthy portions of sets, including two parts of this year’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra residency (which included a full orchestra performance on the Arena stage), starting with saxophonist Walter Blanding‘s Sextet and concluding the evening with the JALCO jam session, both at Dizzy’s. Caught a taste of Dianne Reeves‘ customary majesty on the Jimmy Lyons/Arena stage, and more of Monty’s elegant swing personified trio at the Coffee House. Alas the day was a bit truncated personally by a thoroughly freakish accident, though all’s well at this point; the day just further pointing out that missing the Monterey Jazz Festival is simply not an option!

Shorty's peeps
Trombone Shorty’s peeps shakin’ a tail feather at the Arena

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Crate Digging with DJ Soul Sister

CRATE DIGGING with DJ Soul Sister
One of the absolute hippest DJs I know is New Orleans’ DJ Soul Sister. When not spinning at joints around the Crescent City, you’re liable to find her spinning records at diverse outposts around the globe. But you needn’t venture further than your computer to get a nice taste of this sister’s broad range of music interests. Known in her civilian life as Melissa Weber, DJ Soul Sister can be easily accessed every Saturday evening 8:00-10:00pm on New Orleans legendary Jazz & Heritage station WWOZ, which is one of the world’s most actively streamed radio stations at

On a lovely Saturday evening when New Orleans was as always buzzing with one social event or another at seemingly every corner, I was down there doing a site visit for the NEA Jazz Masters program and visited the Contemporary Arts Center. They’d received a grant to support a project involving native son and NEA Jazz Master Ellis Marsalis and on that particular evening the festivities were in high gear at the CAC. The Center was celebrating an anniversary and Ellis played a set on one floor while on another DJ Soul Sister was ruling the dance floor. After Ellis’ set I eased as close as I could to her DJ set-up to spy what vinyl goodies she had in store for the high-spirited crowd on hand. I was truly impressed at the range of vinyl she had on hand and coupled with my admiration for her Saturday evening radio shows, I was determined to pin her down for one of our occasional Crate Digging dialogues.
DJ Soul Sister
Back in the mid-1980s when CDs began their market domination, some hasty music lovers liquidated their vinyl collections. I’m sure you know such misguided individuals. Considering that you may have been a happy beneficiary of such haste – likely through some local old-vinyl purveyor or other – was that folly or prescient move?

For me, it’s about the music more than the format. I’ve been DJing for 20 years, and that includes my radio work on WWOZ and my performances as a live DJ artist on tons of stages, playing only the music I love. For both of those, I use 100% vinyl (actually 99% vinyl on my radio show, because I always play my theme song off a CD). But I’m not a vinyl purist at all. I happen to love vinyl, and that’s my thing. If someone else wants their music on a CD or a computer, as long as the music is good to them, that’s all that’s important. With that said, I love to take vinyl off of folks’ hands. When I was a senior in high school, I actually passed out a flyer to all of my classmates, asking them to give them to their parents. The flyer said that I’d pay “$$$$$$s” for their old albums. I wonder what $$$$$s I was talking about or where it would have come from! Some of the parents must have took pity on me cause they wound up giving me lots of nice LPs for free.

When you search for vinyl recordings, what have been some of your most useful outlets (used record stores, flea markets, yard sales, private sales, etc.)? Are there any particular genres f music you find yourself search for more readily?

When I was younger, I was all about the danger hunt – climbing in weird attics and entering dark garages – just for the adventure of finding something rare and amazing. Today, I’m really happy just going to used record stores as much as I can. My favorite local stores in New Orleans, listed in no particular order, are Louisiana Music Factory, Domino Sound Record Shack, Euclid Records, Peaches Records, and Disko Obscura. I’ll also give a special shout to Jim Russell Rare Records though, lately, every time I pass there, it seems to be closed. My favorite record store outside of NOLA is A-1 Records in the Lower East Side of New York City. Here in New Orleans post-Katrina, there aren’t nearly as many yard sales as there used to be. But yard sales are what I lived by back in the day. As for genres, I’m always looking for soulful music: soul, disco, funk, jazz, Latin, Brazilian, true school hip hop, DC go-go, gospel, post-punk, electro, you name it.

What is it about vinyl recordings that continue to hold such fascination for you?

I like to be able to pick up this massive piece of wax and hold the grooves in my hand, and look at them on the turntable. Like many others, I’m also into album artwork and liner notes. And, as we know, the sound is much better in analog format. People ask all the time why I don’t just switch to digital and CDs when I’m performing. I’ve always called myself a crate digger first before calling myself a DJ (or “dj artist,” as I prefer). I’m into the hunt for those records, and have been since I was very young. It’s just a personal thing with me, and I don’t look down on others if they don’t feel the same way. But I have to have that vinyl.

DJ Soul Sister 1f

Now that MP3 is dominant – not to mention whatever formats the technocrats may cook up in the future – has vinyl receded even further in the rearview mirror, ala the 78 RPM format?

According to the studies, people are buying more and more vinyl. I hope it’s because they realize it’s better, but I’m scared it may be because there’s a sort of “hipness” associated with it now. Trust me, I don’t use vinyl because it’s hip. It takes real devotion and dedication to choose to haul crates or flight cases of LPs wherever you go. I lift weights just so I can do it right. Nothing hip about that. It might break your hip. LOL.

As you go about merrily crate diving for old vinyl recordings, what kinds of things attract your attention?

The same things that attract other people: interesting record covers, musician lineup, producer, liner notes, things I’ve read about, things I’ve never heard of before, etc.

Bluebook and other ratings systems in terms of the “book” value of supposed rarities aside, what in your gaze truly constitutes a “rare” vinyl record find from your collector’s perspective?

A rare album is something that people really want and something that’s hard to find. I would like to add, however, that just because a record is rare does not necessarily make it great or even good to listen to. I only collect and play albums that I love. If it’s rare, but does nothing for me personally, it’s staying in the store or with the seller. It’s got to move me in some way, make me smile or wanna dance or something. I could care less how rare it is. On the other hand, if it does move me and it’s rare – watch out. I’m scared to admit how much I’ve paid for some of these records that have both qualities for me. Crate digger illness.

Besides the rare items, when you hit the stacks do you generally have a “wish list” in mind or are you so intrepid that you simply delight in the process purely in hopes of uncovering some useful nugget or another?
DJ Soul Sister 2
I never go crate digging with a wish list. I just like to discover. That’s what makes it fun.

Talk about some of your recent vinyl “finds” and what it is about that/those record(s) that attracted your interest sufficiently enough to cop a purchase?

I can’t remember specifically what I bought, but I recently went shopping at A-1 Records during a trip to NYC. When I go there, I plan to stay all day, like, 4-5 hours. I go through everything and I pull stuff that looks interesting on 12” and LP. (45s are very popular with collectors lately, but I’m more of a 12”/LP collector.) Then I’ll listen to everything and buy what I like. The end. No science about it. Just fun and discovery, and staying true to what I like instead of what someone else thinks I should like.

What would you recommend to those with an interest in seeking out rare vinyl recordings?

I’d say, “Don’t look for records just cause they’re rare. Look for stuff you like. With that said, don’t look for records just cause you’ve already heard of ‘em before. Take a chance and try something new to enjoy. That’s what music is all about.

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Crate Digging with Reuben Jackson

CRATE DIGGING with Reuben Jackson
Reuben Jackson

Reuben Jackson is a music scholar, poet, broadcaster, journalist and an all-around very thoughtful man. Long a resident of DC currently residing in the lush greenery of the Burlington, Vermont area, Reuben spent over 20 years as curator of the massive Duke Ellington collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s American History Museum. His patient assistance proved invaluable to this writer on numerous occasion when a writing or other assignment demanded extensive research, whether through the Ellington collection or other of the Smithsonian Archives Center’s incredible holdings, including the collection of the family that owned and operated the Apollo Theatre during the height of its legendary existence. It was through Reuben that I spent many hours marveling at Frank Schiffman’s meticulous boxes of index cards, where he hand wrote his nightly impressions of various Apollo performers, including how they did at the box office, how they performed, their onstage and backstage demeanor, and whether it would be a good idea to book them again.

Reuben has contributed music reportage and criticism to the Washington Post, Washington City Paper, All About Jazz, Jazziz, and NPR’s All Things Considered. Since relocating to Vermont he has been host of Vermont Public Radio’s “Friday Night Jazz” show. Throughout all of this experience Reuben has maintained his great curiosity for recordings of great variety, making him an ideal contributor to our occasional series on Crate Digging – the intrepid hunt for desired vinyl recordings that still befalls many of us, this writer included.

Back in the mid-1980s when CDs began their market domination, some hasty music lovers liquidated their vinyl collections. I’m sure you know such misguided individuals. Considering that you may have been a happy beneficiary of such haste – likely through some local old-vinyl purveyor or other – was that folly or prescient move?

I’ve always been a bit suspicious where record companies are concerned. Maybe that is a result of being such a jazz lover. What I mean is that I’ve never assumed that a particular beloved recording or recordings would be reissued in the format of the moment-especially if it wasn’t exactly a zillion seller . Of course there are classics which people get rid of for many reasons. I feel for them, but I’ve been more than thrilled to give them a happy home. You know, mine…

What is it about vinyl recordings that continue to hold such fascination for you?

What do I love about vinyl? First an AARP answer: I am middle aged, and farsighted. It’s easier to read the liner notes! Surely there is a nostalgic element to this as well. I learned so much about music in my parents’ basement. We had 45s, but mostly vinyl. Finally, I still feel that more than a few vinyl incarnations of –well, fill in the blank, sound better. Simple as that.

Now that MP3 is a reality – not to mention whatever formats the technocrats may cook up in the future – has vinyl receded even further in the rearview mirror, ala the 78 RPM format?

Reuben Jackson 2
Has the Mp3 been relegated to the cheap seats? I don’t think so .. If you live long enough, you see the carousel come around again. A lot of my younger music-loving friends crave vinyl. It’s –well, cool.
Like Cuban cigars. It seems to have become radical-ancient to the future. I walked into a bookstore the other day, and saw a few racks of Vinyl. I felt both young and old.

As you go about merrily crate diving for old vinyl recordings, what kinds of things attract your attention?

Truth be told, I sometimes buy albums I have no interest in-musically speaking. I love kitschy, sometimes politically incorrect covers. Shots of, say, 1940’s New York, stuff like that. I have more than a few of these in my music room. Then, of course, there is the endless search for titles I keep in my internal bucket list. I don’t usually find them, but I love the hunt. Oh,the hunt.

Bluebook and other ratings systems in terms of the “book” value of supposed rarities aside, what in your gaze truly constitutes a “rare” vinyl record find from your collector’s perspective?

For me, the value is generally always musical/historic. There is nothing like finally getting hold of some gorgeous Blue Mitchell recording, say-
after years of searching and pining…
Blue Mitchell

Besides the rare items, when you hit the stacks do you generally have a “wish list” in mind or are you so intrepid that you simply delight in the process purely in hopes of uncovering some useful nugget or another?

I tend to be a dive in the water and swim kind of collector. I do have stuff I’d love to find in mind when attending vinyl conventions, but I never let that drive me to the point of anxiety or despair. (If you don’t find whatever it is …) To quote Tom Waits- “the pursuit and never the arrest.”

What have been some of your recent vinyl “finds” and what it is about that/those record(s) that attracted your interest sufficiently enough to cop a purchase?

The last thing I found wasn’t (or isn’t) especially rare, but it is a collection I’ve wanted for my show. Cannonball Adderley’s “Lovers.” It wasn’t finished by Cannon. He had a stroke and died before the sessions were completed. But I love the music . The stuff on which he is featured, and –well, the whole collection.

What have been your favorite sources or retail outlets for vinyl record crate diving – whether that be store(s), private collection(s), garage sale(s), record convention(s), or some other source?

I really love record conventions, but I’ve also found a great deal of joy combing through yard sales here in Vermont and across the lake in New York State. That’s really about it for me. I remain an ardent collector, but not the rabid young collector I once was.

What would you recommend to those with an interest in seeking out rare vinyl recordings?

Seek help immediately! Just kidding. I’d say cultivate a network of fellow travelers- even if it’s just one. I find it’s more fun when you can share the hunt/capture with a bud. Most importantly, have fun… Music is a damn wonderful thing. I think of collecting the way I think of walking through a dark, foliage-laden forest: a truly wonderful thing. An aural smile. This was fun….

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