Tuesday, February 10, 2009


[This is a piece I wrote for the November 2008 issue of The Wire.]

So I'm preparing for my interview with Bill Dixon (see The Wire 293) and I know there's no way around it - by hook or by crook, I have to hear his landmark 1967 album Intents & Purposes. It's justifiably regarded not only as a major statement by the trumpeter, but also as a massively important avant-garde jazz LP. Tough, then, for me to imagine approaching the guy for any kind of halfway intelligent conversation without at least a glancing familiarity with its tracks. Too bad the album's been out of print since about 1968. Vinyl copies turn up here and there on occasion, or so I'm told, but it's not like I know anybody who's got one, or who'll transfer it to tape or CD-R for me if they do. Most old-schoolers, the kind of folks who actually own original copies of legendary records, are kinda tight with 'em, it seems.

The digital age has created a new generation of more generous souls, though, and Google helps me find one. The search "bill dixon intents purposes rapidshare" turns up a blog on which somebody has posted a link, only a month before I need it, almost as though they've seen me coming. And it's still live! I download the 192kbps MP3s on offer, throw 'em into my iPod, and I'm off to the races. (By the way, a disclaimer: I don't wish to condone or encourage illegal behavior. I was desperate. That being said, Intents & Purposes is a fantastic album, and you should hear it by any means necessary.)

My experience was far from a fluke. The world of MP3 blogging, though it's only been truly active for a couple of years, is allowing jazz fans to mount what could be seen as an insurgency. By sharing their own records anonymously in cyberspace, the proprietors of these blogs are writing artists and albums back into history. When labels permit albums to fall out of print, either because they're independents that go under or because - as is more and more frequently the case with major label jazz divisions - there's no profit to be made by keeping the weirder corners of the catalog active, those records effectively cease to exist, especially when they're vinyl and physically deteriorate with each play. So this samizdat circulation of digital files, vinyl crackle and all, is the only way this music can keep even the most delicate toehold on existence, or have even the slightest chance of reaching a new audience. What is true for the jazz releases mentioned here holds for any other specialist genre.

It seems to be primarily the free or avant-garde scene which is reduced to digitizing old jazz records in this way. Blue Note churns out reissues of even middling hard bop titles at a speed no gainfully employed listener can keep pace with; Verve, Impulse! and Prestige continue to recycle their catalogs, too, albeit at a slower pace. And let's not even talk about the cash cow that is the Miles Davis reissue/compilation/box set industry. But what about the more difficult releases sponsored by the major labels in the 1960s, '70s and even '80s? The experiments and inexplicable signings have largely disappeared into the memory hole of commercial failure. Even recent-ish releases such as the Columbia albums by Tim Berne and David S. Ware are long gone.

Of course, there were just as many if not more fly-by-night independents and artist-owned labels in the late '60s and early '70s whose catalogs are just as scarce; India Navigation, Artists House and Sun (Frank Wright's label, not Sam Phillips') are but three examples. Many of those labels' releases have now drifted back into digital availability on this or that anonymous blog. There are even blogs devoted to digitizing the entire catalogs of highly-regarded independent jazz labels such as Strata-East, Flying Dutchman and CTI.

This kind of quasi-bootlegging is fascinating not only because it reveals music fans' priorities as being diametrically opposed to those of record labels (we'd rather hear a long-gone Marion Brown album on MPS than one more set of Rudy Van Gelder Editions), but also because it reduces music to pure information. No one is pressing up new copies of these records from a vinyl master; they are merely sharing digital (and lossy, and crackly) copies of the audio files. And yet, this is likely still seen by label executives - to the extent they're aware of it - as just as bad as reproducing the physical item. But is it possible to steal something that no one is offering for sale? Who's being harmed by the digital dissemination of audio from an out-of-print album? The proprietor of a used record store somewhere in Paris or Chicago, whose lone, spine-split, dusty copy of Noah Howard's Space Dimension will sit a little longer on the shelf, because the free jazz hipster who might have purchased it has instead downloaded it from Rapidshare?

If anything, given the music industry's current state of slow, creeping death, labels should be doing the same kind of web searches I did to find Intents & Purposes. Not to download albums themselves, but to see which of their titles are being downloaded most frequently, and get them back into print. Even if it's 1000 copies of some rare jazz title, it's more copies than they're selling at present. The existence of MP3 blogs proves the existence of an audience for avant-garde jazz. The correct response to this situation is not anger or even blithe dismissal, but embrace.

[N.B.: This cranky old fuck disagrees with me.]

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