The Biodegradable Miles Davis

The Biodegradable Miles Davis

Like the best of those wordsmiths working during what we now regard as the Golden Age of American Popular Song, Ira Gershwin’s lyrics have retained a timeless feel, their various expressions of romantic love – in all its stages from aspiration to dissolution – still able, even some four decades after his death (and a staggering one hundred and twenty five since his birth), to convey sentiments that remain bang on target. Yet I doubt that Gershwin could have ever foreseen how one line of his would one day be a useful and uncannily accurate summary for the boon in reissuing vintage jazz music. ‘How long I wondered could this thing last?’ he posed in A Foggy Day, written in 1937, but in a nice twist of fate in 1982, just a year before Ira Gershwin died, recorded technology took its greatest leap forward since the invention of the Long Playing record with the introduction of the Compact Disc format, co-developed by the Sony and Philips corporations.

For those not yet following the thread of this piece, the CD format quickly became an automatic money spinner with which record labels large and small could reissue their back catalogue, covering everything from vintage classical recordings, through Sixties pop and beyond. Inevitably, jazz, which had already entered a navel gazing decade of audio retrospection during the 1970s featured strongly in the mix, companies like Capitol, CBS and RCA soon realising that what they had sold their customers several times already in earlier formats (vinyl, tape cassette and eight track cartridge) they could now sell them all over again, adding the tempting (but misleading) marketing hook that the new CD format was indestructible.

Four decades on, not much has changed and, although the LP format is making what surely has to be a soon to be busted flush comeback, vintage jazz of all stripes continues to appear – or rather reappear – on CD. Of course, since the 1980s, owing to various corporate mergers and the passing of certain copyright expiration deadlines, the reissue market has transformed into a sprawling, sometimes hard to navigate field of its own, as little independent labels and majors alike make hay from some very old sunshine. If you want to gauge just how convoluted a business the jazz reissue issue market is, just go to Amazon and type in the words ‘Miles Davis Kind of Blue’. What will pop up before you will be scores of issues of Miles Davis’ 1959 classic – those on the imprint of the ‘official’ copyright holder Sony/BMG, foreign imports, cheap and nasty ‘public domain’ versions, deluxe double-disc ‘complete’ editions, picture discs, you name it. And that’s without even going into the technical aspects of the various formats themselves, many of which claim to be either newly ‘remastered’, or of SACD quality (said to the the ultimate audio experience). As the saying goes, you pays your money…


But what does this glut of product mean in real terms, especially when you consider that listening figures are now no longer exclusively measured by physical sales? These days you can stream Kind of Blue or download it to your own device – so why do so many record labels wish to continue re-releasing it on disc? The answer is one beyond the simple question of revenue, or indeed beyond the fact that Kind of Blue is regarded (rightly) as one of the ‘must have’ albums of all time, whether you’re into jazz or not. And it’s an answer that lies not in the music itself (more’s the pity) but in the symbiotic relationship between the ‘serious’ jazz fan and the record business.

To caricature such a figure is easy – he’s the deeply dedicated ‘you must hear Alternative Take 23’ type who, pretty much since the 1930s, has turned appreciation of jazz from an enjoyment to something perilously close to an analytical science. No, strike that; his obsession (these fans are invariably male) elevates an inside track knowledge of the minutia of jazz to somewhere between a dark art and a religion. Not only will he know every last reed squeak or piano stool creak from their favourite artists discography, they’ll know such things as the address of the studios used to create their treasured albums, the matrix numbers of the original LP pressings, even the price of a mint condition first edition with a certain crop of the cover photo. In sum, this is a listener who had not so much been there, done the album and bought the T- shirt as one who has been there, purchased every single edition from Iceland to Bolivia and bought the Anorak.

I used to question whether these sorts of collectors were actually music fans at all. Years ago, I remember standing cheek by jowl with such beings in places like London’s Mole Jazz, an establishment that had it not played non-stop music would surely have assumed the hushed, breath just about audible, atmosphere of a church. Or possibly an ‘adult’ shop. Beside me, men of a certain age would disinter LPs from sleeves, balance them on an outstretched palm and twist them this way and that, ostensibly to ascertain the state of the playing surface. Those not in the know, though, might have mistaken this for some sort of ritual trance, gazing, fixedly at the light reflected, spiral patterns before them. Perusing CDs, they’d carefully lift the booklets clear of those infuriating plastic lugs, flicking the pages like you might skim read a pornographic magazine in a newsagents. Tellingly, many of these men looked exactly like the kind of person who, when he wasn’t paying homage to Buck Clayton or Ruby Braff, you might catch doing exactly that.

As a younger man I used to look at these figures and wonder what they could possibly be getting from the experience of buying jazz. Nowadays, what seems like a lifetime later, I realise that my pleasure and theirs were roughly identical; they were as excited in their way over the latest reissue of Kenny Dorham as I was, except that whereas the reveries the music set off in me were ones focused on an imagined future centred on a greater understanding of the art of jazz, theirs were mostly locked into the past, the sounds pouring off a new, shiny compact disc taking them back maybe as far as a half century, or at the very least to the 1950s. The key difference was that I was experiencing the music for the first time; they were hearing it for the second (or given the 1970s reissue boom possibly third) time around. Whereas I’d marvel at Tubby Hayes' Down In The Village, imagining what it must have been like to see Hayes live, they were remembering a time when they did. Nostalgia consumed us both, but for them it was a chronological birthright; I was merely a stowaway on their journey backward.

We know, of course, that nostalgia sells and sells brilliantly. But what happens when those who are reliving their youth shuffle off this mortal coil to realms unknown? Well, visit almost any high street charity shop and you’ll find the answer, if not always spelt out in jazz albums then almost always shouted from the racks by sad looking collections of yesteryears music – anything from James Last to James Brown – which has been thoughtfully dumped in the practical task of getting rid of ‘Dad’s things.’ I wrote at length about this very notion in the introduction to my forthcoming book Upwards, Backward and Free: A Journey Into Jazz and as such I’ll keep those thoughts under wraps for the time being, however given that these days I earn at least a small part of my living reviewing jazz reissues for two well-known English jazz magazines I feel well placed to discuss a further off-shoot of this generational hand-over and it’s this; every month at least six or so reissued or vintage jazz releases hit my desk (on CD, I might add: I generally don’t review vinyl), which even by my basic understanding of mathematics, adds up to a substantial number of ‘new’ releases per year. Now I’m only tackling a specific tip of the iceberg; beneath it lay hundreds more such issues which I don’t ever see. While this is welcome in terms of appreciation and the ongoing curation of the music there is surely a real term impact from such a volume of product. Imagine, for example, that the world is full of little people like me all receiving our jazz reissues to appraise – it adds up to what must certainly be a veritable mountain of music.


The question this begs is – do we really need it all, or, if you want to be specific, does the world genuinely require yet another repackaging of, say, Giant Steps? I suppose, if I’m being generous and thinking of those younger than I, these ‘new’ versions might be compared to an example in the film industry – something like King Kong or Godzilla or the Marvel Comics franchise – which have all been recycled from generation to generation (in case you’re wondering, I loved the 1976 King Kong, if only for Jessica Lange). That said, what you can’t do with a reissued jazz recording that you can with an old movie is make it truly new again. You can remaster it, you can hire someone to write a new liner note, you can even dick with the cover art, but you can’t make it again, not really. The closest you can get to the Hollywood shtick of reinvention is ‘remixing’ and that, well, that’s a whole different story again.

So, to re-infer my opening question, how long will this all last, I wonder? The concept of reissuing, although seen as a post-modern reflection of the music’s ‘serious’ artistic role, began way back in the 1950s meaning that barely five decades into its development – a mere five minutes in terms of western classical music – jazz sought to codify and repeat itself in an exercise of mass retrospection. Indeed, reissuing jazz has now been a market force for close to seventy years, which in reality signifies that for well over half its existence the idiom has been reprising itself in a very obviously self-serving way.

Of course, I have to be very careful about all this (a well-meaning friend from Derbyshire cautioned me just this week ‘you don’t piss on your chips’) I make some of my living both reviewing and annotating jazz reissues (or vintage jazz releases) and, when all is said and done, I’m as much of a sucker as anyone for a new version of a Coltrane classic or, as is my own speciality, a well-planned release of some previously unissued live recordings by one of the giants of the Golden Era. I know I’ll always listen to these kind of albums and I know, in my heart of hearts, that I’m the kind of soul who’ll invariably plump for eight bars of Dexter Gordon rather than eighty minutes of Jan Garbarek, but what worries me is that, once those who heard these greats up close expire, once the framework and understanding of just how accomplished these astonishing figures became in a climate so far removed from our own is gone, will all these joyful things become just old music, tossed aside like the rest of ‘Dad’s things’, their value and impact rendered so much dust by a world a shade too obsessed with the novel and the trite? I do hope not for that would be a tragedy I’d rather not witness. Yet, one has to ask the question – again – how much longer can we slice the same salami. The ramifications of such an indulgence are not merely aesthetic, they are environmental too. And it is this latter point that caused me, a few years back, to question just how much of an eye for the future some record companies have; on a charity shop spree I picked up a copy of – surprise surprise – Kind of Blue housed in what the cover assured me was ‘biodegradable packaging’. Worthy of applause though this initiative is, you do have to stop and wonder at the what it says about a record label when it so blatantly invites you to discard music that is timeless, Maybe it is just me, but The Disposable Miles Davis just doesn’t have the ring of a catchy album title, does it?

Photo: under the spotlight; Miles Davis, perhaps the most reissued artist in jazz?

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