Sometime ago, a friend Googled me and said, “In the results, I got all these old Jazz recordings. Is this you?” Actually it is me. Eons ago, when I first moved up to San Francisco from LA, my ex-husband and I owned a small record label called Blue Jazz Records. We recorded pianist George Michalski, the Waterfront Blues Band, Johnny Nitro and the Doorslammers and a few other people. The company itself wasn’t successful, in fact it cost us a lot of money, but other things came of it. I became president of the NARAS chapter, found a steady job at Winterland Productions through Bill Graham, and best of all, I met husband Marc. The other thing that came out of this was work on a huge batch of Jazz reissue CD’s in the mid -1990’s, and these are the recordings that search engines still find.
Orrin Keepnews, the jazz producer who owned Riverside and Milestone Records (Thelonious Monk, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, etc…) was a long time board member and national trustee of the SF NARAS chapter. Last I heard, he’s still around and working at 86! Anyway, back in the mid-90’s the major record companies were buying up classic jazz labels and remastering all the music that could be rescued for re-release on CD. For jazz fans, this was a matter of some urgency. Manufacturers of recording tape had tried different formulas and materials at different times in the past, and many of the 2 and 4 track master recordings from the 1930’s and 40’s (even the 1960's) were literally falling apart. Record masters prior to that were recorded on reverse metal plates (remember, we are talking about technology used to press vinyl 78, 45 & 33 RPM recordings). The problem with the metal plates was that they warped, but still the deteriorating tape was a bigger priority.
Orrin was doing a bi-coastal thing. He was not only a respected producer knowledgeable about the artists and the circumstances of all the recordings, but he was also well known as a writer on jazz history. Because of this, he was hired by BMG to work on reissues of the Verve and Bluebird catalogs in New York, and he was also hired by MCA to work on reissues of the Decca, Commodore and Chess catalogs in LA. As he found himself alternating between the two from week to week (at 72!), he hired me as an assistant producer for the LA project, and we did about 20 reissue CD’s together (listed at the bottom).
We did all the digital sessions at MCA’s mastering studios in Burbank. A couple experiences are really burned in my mind. The first was when we played the original 1938 master for Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit (youtube video). This is probably hard to imagine now that we are accustomed to hearing extremely compressed digital music through tiny (tinny) ear buds, but to hear the lush analog 2 track master recording of this beautiful and haunting song through state-of-the-art recording studio speakers was a transcendent experience. You could close your eyes and imagine her singing into the microphone right in front of you. Unfortunately, the tape was in bad shape. We knew we would only have one chance to capture it digitally and the tape fell apart in strips as it played through the machine. The original was lost forever (but we got the digital capture!). I consider the opportunity to hear it that way one of the more fortunate things in my life.
The second thing was a visit to collector and jazz producer Steve Lasker. This was another unreal aural experience. Mr. Lasker lived in a… I’ll be kind and call it disheveled...house, right on Venice Beach with two huge shaggy St. Bernard dogs and hundreds of pre-tape metal masters. So, we’d sit in this funky living room with the wads of dog hair blowing around on the floor, surrounding a playback system he’d rigged up with an old Pioneer turntable. He would take a roll of quarters, and judiciously place them around to balance out the warping, and do other mad scientist type adjustments. To hear this music from the 1910's & 20’s come to life again was really something. And then the dogs would start to howl along, and we’d all laugh (and sneeze).
Here’s a partial list of recordings, many of these were boxed sets of 2 to 4 CDs:
The History of Chess Jazz - The Commodore Story - Billie Holiday: the Complete Commodore Recordings - Ella (Fitzgerald) : the Legendary Decca Recordings (this was a 4 CD set that had Grammy nominations for Best Historical Recording and Best Liner Notes in 1996) - Lester Young: The Kansas City Sessions - Jelly Roll Morton Last Sessions: The Complete General Recordings - Louis Armstrong: Satchmo at Symphony Hall - Pete Fountain: Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? - James Moody: Return from Overbrook - Art Farmer: Out of the Past - Ella and Friends - The Nat King Cole Trio Hit That Jive Jack: The Earliest Recordings and Hamp: The Legendary Decca Recordings of Lionel Hampton.