Seattle Jazz History Hiding in Used Grooves

My back ached. My fingers were covered with dust. I had to pee. 15,000 used records to search and I was only up to the H’s. Then the familiar chimes of Red Garland’s piano introduction to “If I Were a Bell” rang through the record store. Miles Davis’ gravelly muted trumpet crooned the melody, “Ask me, ‘How do I feel?’ Ask me now that we’re cozy and clinging…” My woes disappeared. I whistled along contentedly to the solos on the 1956 record Relaxing with the Miles Davis Quintet.

That’s one of the cool things about used record store shopping – the salesperson wove me into his improvised real-time commercial-free playlist. Goodbye earbuds. “The looking and hanging out at a record store is a thrill,” confesses one character in Vinyl, a documentary film about record collecting.

I wouldn’t go as far as “thrill,” but the hunt for interesting recordings is a personal habit that goes back to my first discretionary income. As a young Missouri teen the early 1970’s I would spend my meager allowance on Top 40 singles at Kmart. During college I would comb the racks at Illinois record stores weekly looking for Blue Note, Prestige, and Impulse jazz albums. Pilgrimages to Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart drained my bank account. My collection moved with me in the mid 1980’s to New York City where compact discs from Tower Records and J&R Music became the source of growth.

Thirty boxes of records and CDs followed me to Seattle in 1993. My first stop was Bud’s Jazz Records in a Pioneer Square basement. Hearing I was new in town, Bud Young played me local saxophonist Don Lanphere’s 1949 recording with New York bebop pianist Al Haig. Then he proudly pointed me toward the section of the store dedicated to new recordings by local artists. Scanning the CD spines I began to familiarize myself with the names of Seattle players.

On a recent tour of Seattle used record stores, I can still find those names and more. I found the most in West Seattle at Easy Street Records. The rarest was a 1960 Max Roach record Parisian Sketches with the Turrentine brothers and Seattle trombonist Julian Priester. This vinyl included an original composition by Priester called “Petit Dejeuner.” A block south at Rubato Records I came across percussionist Tom Collier’s Mallet Jazz.

The second largest cache of Seattle recordings was at Everyday Music on Capitol Hill. I found a 1994 recording Lopin’ of saxophonists Don Lanphere, Bud Shank, and Denny Goodhew with the New Stories rhythm section of Marc Seales, Doug Miller, and John Bishop. At nearby Wall of Sound I spotted a 1981 solo piano vinyl recording Guides & Spirits by Murl Allen Sanders.

The third biggest stash was at Silver Platters in Queen Anne. That’s where I found Don Lanphere’s 1983 vinyl Out of Nowhere signed by Lanphere and trumpeter Jon Pugh. At nearby Easy Street was pianist Dawn Clement’s 2008 CD Break.

The mellowest vibe was at M&L Records north of the University District. I found trumpeters Fred Radke and Mike Vax on vinyl from 1982 called First Reunion with a rhythm section of Barney McClure, Dan Dean, and Tom Collier. At nearby Neptune Music I didn’t find much but the basement location reminded me of Bud’s Records.

Searching through record albums is one way to learn about jazz history. The packaging yields information in liner notes, recording dates, personnel, and repertoire. The grooves contain voices of artists and their conversations. Each song is a meeting room – a gathering place for stories and emotions. Listening to recordings transports a former now into the current now. We feel resonance with the assiduous song of humanity. Pioneering New Orleans saxophonist Sidney Bechet said, “I got a feeling inside me, a kind of memory that wants to sing itself… I can give you that. I can send it out to where it can be taken, maybe, if you want it. I can try to give it to you.”

Giving songs defies profitable business models. When bassist and record company owner Gene Perla was asked for advice on starting a label he said, “Rob a bank and leave the country.” Bechet said, “My answer—all I can say of it—it’s just to be giving, giving all your life, finding the music and giving it away.”

That generous creative urge can be seen today in the large number of self-produced releases. Seattle’s Origin Arts label won JazzWeek’s Record Label of the Year in 2009 with over 250 albums from 12 years of operation. These CDs are typically financed by the recording artist.

Meanwhile, stores are closing. Tower Records closed in 2006. Bud’s closed in 2008. J and S Phonograph Needles on NE 45th closed last year. Borders Books filed for bankruptcy this year. Music collections soon will evaporate into the Amazon Cloud.

One collector mused in the book Vinyl Junkies, “I don’t believe in the idea of ownership—hey, we’re all gonna die someday so you don’t own that record, you just get to use it for awhile. There is no joy in ownership, the joy comes when you play the record. The hair stands up on the back of your neck and that’s it, that’s what you’re living for.”

The last stop for my hairy neck was Ballard to mine the quarry at two stores on either side of Market Street. In the doorway of Sonic Boom hangs an enlarged copy of the Blue Note album by Lee Morgan of the same name. There I unearthed I Dig Dancers by Quincy Jones. In the band from 1960 were trumpeter Floyd Standifer and bassist George “Buddy” Catlett. Across the street at Bop Street Records there was a good four inches of shelf space for vinyl from singer Ernestine Anderson.

But I headed for the door empty handed. The salesperson spun the Rolling Stones “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” That’s for sure. “But if you try sometimes, you might find, you get what you need.” I’ll be back.

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