The Pseudo-Science of Squareness: Musings of A Jazz Record Collector

*Disclaimer: This is not -I repeat NOT- an authoritative piece of writing, nor is it personal exposition passed off of as the gospel. What follows is exactly what the rather academic-sounding title says: my personal thoughts on an interesting aspect of collecting jazz on vinyl!


Last week while in the Motherland of Southern California, I made a stop at the local record store. Once inside, I beat a direct path to the jazz section and got busy flipping through the store’s offerings. As I got to the ‘J’ section, I let out a small whoop of joy. There, peeking at me from behind another record was Ahmad Jamal’s seminal album ‘At The Pershing: But Not For Me’! This was an album that I had been searching for in its original form for a while, after passing it by for years.

As the elation and gratifying feeling of success washed over me, I suddenly had a thought that brought the euphoria to an end. Why was I so keyed up (pun unintended) about finding what is easily Ahmad Jamal’s most ubiquitous album? I doubt modern-day jazz record collector has ever said “gee, I finally found that Poinciana album!” Why was I so hyped about ANY Ahmad Jamal album? He’s not exactly a red-letter artist eagerly sought after by jazz record collectors. Just as that question popped into my head, another question flashed across my mind: “Why such a big deal over such a popular album? A more undercover album, sure. But if somebody like NPR is waxing poetic about it, it’s just GOT to be too square to be excited over.

While the other questions cast a cloud over my happiness, that last question was more insidious. It sat with me as I paid for it at the counter, sat at my friend’s wedding hours later, and sat on the plane ride back to Alabama. Just as I was beginning to forget about it, fellow jazz fan and record collector Rich Capeless aka DG Mono randomly started a conversation with me about this very topic! He raised some interesting points, which inspired this post (he supplied the title, too). Are some records truly uncool and square because of their abundance, availability, popularity, or all the above? Or, to be more general, are some records judged more by the non-musical attributes rather than the content of their grooves?

Hail yeah, of course they are. And the thing is, all honest collectors of jazz on vinyl know this.

Generally speaking, the Science of Square stems from both the desire of wanting the real, authentic thing and the “common knowledge” that the public wouldn’t know real authentic if it hit them in the face. Thus, anything that is popular with the public at large is not real nor authentic and therefore uncool, square, and not worth the serious-minded person’s time. In the realm of jazz, this is not science, but law. In jazz’s modern era of the 1950’s and 60’s, an elitist attitude set in among many jazz critics and hardcore jazz fans that looked with suspicion upon any jazz album or musician that gained acceptance and popularity beyond their own jazz coterie. Examples of this are numerous. One particularly hypocritical example of this is Dave Brubeck.

Brubeck is a square dude. He had a successful marriage with no affairs. The man didn’t do drugs, didn’t drink, and quit smoking in the 1950’s when smoking was the norm. He wore glasses, lived past the age of 50, and was white (which was always looked at with suspicion in the jazz community). All square attributes if you’re a jazz musician. His biggest crime though? Being wildly popular and successful with the public. When Brubeck was popular with the small group of knowledgeable people in the 1940’s and 50’s, he received positive reviews and write-ups from jazz critics. When he crossed over and became a huge success with the rest of America in 1954, the jazz community longhairs denounced him.

Jazz fans and critics love the underground. Maybe it’s because the jazz clubs they inhabit are dark and grimy, but hardcore jazz heads seem to prefer their music underwraps and enjoyed primarily by others in their jazz coterie. The moment a musician or album becomes popular outside their exclusive community, it becomes square, uncool, and tainted. Like a modern-day hipster, they abandon it and move on to something else, because if the general public likes it, it can’t be that cool.

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“Hey Sally, have you dug the latest Horace Silver LP? Simply the gonest, man, like Wigsville!”

After all, the term ‘general public’ is code for ‘white America’ which translates to white acceptance, and while white America was known for many things in the 1950’s (the popularity of Lawrence Welk and making a big band cha-cha-cha version of “Tea For Two” a hit”), coolness was not one of those things. It seems as though this elitist attitude has infected the jazz record collecting community. Perhaps it’s this aspect of popularity with the general public that makes some albums square?

Or is it availability that makes albums square? Albums like Ahmad Jamal’s ‘At The Pershing: But Not For Me’ or Brubeck’s ‘Time Out’ were hits and so were pressed in large quantities. As a result, they’re not hard to find at all. Meanwhile, albums like Hank Mobley’s self-titled Blue Note album 1550 were released in smaller quantities of a few thousand and now commands four-figure asking prices online. You’re more likely to get struck by lightning than to find it in the wild at a record store. With jazz, the more obscure and rare an album/artist is, the more hip and desirable they become.

Then there’s the issue of race. White jazz musicians are naturally square. Guys like Brubeck, Cal Tjader, Stan Kenton and the whole West Coast crowd were all considered square and somewhat not as authentic in their day and still are in many ‘hip’ corners of jazzdom today. I’m sure there won’t be a sudden rush on Kenton or Herbie Mann albums any time soon.

It would appear that the Science of Squareness makes sense. You may not agree with it, but it at least it has clear principles.

False.

This is a pseudo-science of the highest order. Each principle is riddled with hypocrisy. Miles Davis was a superstar in terms of a jazz musician and had an income to prove it. He was immensely popular with the record-buying public from the 1950’s up to now. His album ‘Kind of Blue’ has sold more copies than any other jazz album. Released on Columbia, it was also pressed in large numbers and isn’t particularly hard to find today. Yet Miles is the epitome of hip and cool. Lee Morgan had a hit record in ‘The Sidewinder’, to the point that it was used in a car commercial, yet nobody would dare sneeze at him or that album.

And then, there’s guys like Stan Getz, who shatter multiple principles of the Science of Square. He was white, yet Getz was always considered hip and cool by musicians, critics and fans alike. Getz had not one but two mega hit albums that are still played by the most unhip grandmothers and in elevators across the world, yet he managed to survive both unscathed and still in possession of his cool card. And then there’s the cases of Bill Evans and Chet Baker, two white jazz musicians who are highly desirable on vinyl. Then again, they were both drug-users who died tragic and untimely deaths, and people love the image of the tragic hero, which somehow equates to coolness (see James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Tina Brooks, etc.).

At the end of the day, the principles of squaredom are not only hypocritical but detrimental to the record-collecting individual who holds these “truths” to be self-evident. Why? You lose your individuality. More importantly, the fun and excitement of collecting jazz on vinyl gets replaced with the straightjacket of what’s fashionable. One’s record library should be a reflection of the person and not what’s considered hip and enviable by other contemporary record collectors. After all, collecting jazz on vinyl should be fun and full of discovery, complete with albums that end up being clunkers. Besides, albums that are popular with the masses are popular for a reason. The music just might be good!

I’m guilty of this elitist record collecting attitude. When I first started collecting jazz on vinyl, I ran into Ahmad Jamal’s ‘At The Pershing’ a few times and each time I did I passed on it. I passed it by not because of the music itself but because I figured it was such a basic Jamal album that I didn’t really need it. As I started to complete my discography of Jamal on vinyl, however, I realized how wrong I was and suddenly I wanted that record in vinyl form. Naturally I couldn’t find it for years until I found it the other week at the store in California. Putting it on my record player once I got home, I was knocked over with how good that album really was. It was like hearing it for the first time. “Poinciana”, the tune that sold the album, is still just as groovy as when I first heard it as a kid.

Before I got to the record store and found that Ahmad Jamal album, I was walking down the street in the downtown area with some friends when the familiar strains of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” floated through the air from a trendy bistro along the street. I’ve heard this song a gazillion times and have said that the album it’s on, ‘Time Out’, is not the greatest Brubeck album you can own (to the point where I did a series of better Brubeck albums to check out). Yet, listening to Desmond solo over Brubeck’s repeated figure, I found myself stopping and listening. That was the start of an epiphany that carried over to the record store to the conversation with Rich Capeless a few days after- the seemingly obvious realization that the most important part of record collecting is the music itself. Nothing else is as significant as the music itself when it comes to record collecting. Not the pressing, the label, the presence of a deep groove, the popularity, the obscurity, the hipness (real or otherwise), not the race of the artist, not even the artists themselves. No, it’s all about the music and whether you dig the music. Take the straightjacket off and just enjoy the music!

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4 thoughts on “The Pseudo-Science of Squareness: Musings of A Jazz Record Collector

  1. Are you saying that jazz heads abandoned Brubeck because he’s not cool or because they didn’t like this music? Or perhaps they didn’t like his music because he was not cool. As music becomes popular it becomes intertwined with the culture in which it is used. When it’s used as background music at a suburban dinner party, in car commercials, or even used as elevator music those experience can create new, and sometimes negative, connections in one’s mind. The music hasn’t changed, but what you associate it with has. People want to be unique, but not at the risk of being isolated. Collecting rare original pressings can help us create a narrative of who we are or perhaps even who we would have been had we been born in the right place and time. It can also connect us to the present with a small group of like-minded individuals.

    Collecting (no matter what it is) will always put a value on rarity, but there has to be substance as well. There are hundreds of thousands of rare records that aren’t worth the wax they’re pressed on. Obviously quality and quantity together is what sets the price. Of course what is considered a quality is decided by the “masses” and changes over time as the core collecting group evolves (e.g. many 10″ albums have plummeted in value in the last 20 years). We may see a day when Lexington Blue Notes are surpassed by Strata East titles or some other more recent released albums.

    1. So many good points in one comment. I don’t know which one to address first. First, to clear up your initial question, I’m saying that once Brubeck became cool with not just jazz heads but the entire country, he wasn’t cool anymore to the jazz heads. Why that was, I don’t claim to know. They liked his music initially, so perhaps it was just the classic hipster phenomenon of liking something until it becomes mainstream, then ditching it for the next underground thing?
      You make a good point about being unique vs being isolated. That’s the conundrum that faces the jazz record community. Being individualistic without isolating one’s self. For instance, I suspect there’s a jazz collector out there who also digs Mitch Miller but wouldn’t dare be caught dead with an album of his out of fear of being labeled the mother of all squares, and that’s too bad. As for the day when Lexington Blue Notes become unpopular, I’ll be on the lookout for flying pigs before that happens! Point taken though. A little birdie told me that Stan Kenton was becoming popular again, which is interesting…

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