If you’ve known me for any number of years you’ve heard me tell this story before. It was around 1988 or 89 and I was in the midst of blasting one of my recent tape acquisitions, Big Daddy Kane’s Long Live The Kane. The walls in my Brooklyn bedroom were paper thin so it didn’t take much for the drums to the title track to penetrate my sanctuary and interrupt my father’s TV watching in the living room. I could hear his foot steps as he approached and before I could reach for the knob on my JVC radio to lower the volume he was in my doorway. I braced for the “It’s too loud” admonishment but his eyes were different. It wasn’t the usual parental disproval. He pointed at my radio and said, “They stole that tune!” in his distinctive West Indian accent. I hadn’t even mustered a rebuttal (because I didn’t really have one) before he summoned me to the living room.
I took my usual position on the couch and waited. You see, my father would routinely sit me and my sister down and literally force us to listen to jazz. He wanted us to have an appreciation for the African-American musical art form, but we were too young to really “get” what he was trying to do. We hemmed and hawed, arms folded. There were no WORDS and it was SLOW. There was no “Mr. Hampton” puffing out his cheeks and making it fun like on “The Cosby Show.” But I’m glad that he did it.
Anyway, my father pulled one of his vinyl records from its sleeve and placed it onto his turntable. After a few cracks and pops the same sounds from the Big Daddy Kane record came through the speakers. “That’s where they got that from!” As the Meters “Here Comes The Meter Man” played on I just sat in awe. Of course I knew that sometimes rap songs borrowed elements and inspiration from other sources, but this wasn’t “Pee Wee’s Dance” or one of the myriad James Brown loops that had been appropriated at the time. This had that relative obscurity that I imagine has sent many diggers into a frenzy. From that moment my father’s record collection wasn’t safe and I unearthed many more gems over the years.
I began to think of my father’s record collection again this year as my parents ended their 30+ year residency in the Planet of Brooklyn for the quieter streets of Long Island. As they packed up their belongings for the move I wanted to find out how my father had obtained all of these records and how he became familiar with the artists in the first place. How we consume music has changed so much (and is still changing) so I wanted a first-person account of music discovery in the analog era. Here is what I learned.
Where did your love of music first start?
Back in Guyana. It was the 60s, that’s when you had the Supremes and all these different groups of people [becoming popular]. Then the Beatles came. I got hooked to jazz from…there was an elder man that I used to work with and he used to go to the American Embassy, they had a library with a lot of jazz music. We’d go there and borrow the records and play them on the old fashioned phonographs we had there back then. Some I liked, some I didn’t like. When I came here in early ’69 I used to listen to a jazz station called WRVR, I think it was the forerunner to WBGO right now. And they used to play a lot of jazz. During that time they used to call some of it Fusion. If you listen to a lot of the music, they mixed [it]…in order for those guys to sell their music they had to change it up a little bit. Because whether you want to believe it or not a lot of people didn’t understand jazz music. The real jazz. So they had to mix it up with pop and call it Fusion. But it was still nice music.
I was fortunate enough to see some of the real great ones like Ella Fitzgerald in concert. We used to go to Lincoln Center back in the day, Avery Fisher Hall and see Dave Brubeck, Sarah Vaughan. Then we used to go to the Cool Jazz Festival. One time we took all of you guys upstate to Saratoga Springs. They had that every year with different artists.
Where did you buy your music?
Mostly J&R Music, but there was another [store] called King Karol. They were bigger than J&R when it came to jazz music. It was on 42nd street near 6th avenue. Then right not too far from J&R you had Bondy’s on Park Row. Those were the places I got most of my albums from. You listen to RVR, you hear something you like and you go down and buy it. That’s how I accumulated a lot of it. My cousin lived on State street in Downtown Brooklyn and just for the hell of it we’d walk down Jay St and swing off on Tillary St and walk right across the Brooklyn Bridge and when you got off Park Row was right there by Pace University. You go down to J&R and get your music, and walk right back. We were young and crazy then. Once you get to like a particular group you go in the store and look for their music. Sometimes out of an album with a dozen songs you’ll only want one song and you’d buy it just for that one song.
They had a lot of free concerts too. Jazz Mobile, those days with Milt Jackson and Connie Kay. They used to have it at Grants Tomb and different venues in the city. I can’t remember who funded it but probably the city used to help out. Those were days when a lot of those things were going on. You’d see some of the real top notch people.
The Meters, The Meters
Most of these were bought in the 70s. I went to a friends house and he had this album and he was playing it. He says “Courtney you gotta hear this!” It was good. I went and I bought it. A bunch of guys from New Orleans. I started looking at them again. This one I liked. “Cissy Strut,” “Ease Back” “Sophisticated Sissy.” Nice. You don’t hear music like that no more, man. Something went wrong with our people. We don’t got any rhythm like we used to. James Brown had a man used to play music with him called Fred Wesley and the JB’s, you hear them guys play music (pantomimes a groove). That’s just my opinion.
MFSB: Love Is The Message
That’s the Philadelphia sound. You go to people’s homes and they’ll tell you about a new album and play it. If you like it, that’s it. That’s how you used to get most of your music.
Bob James, Two
He used to be a backup player for Sarah Vaughan. He played some good music. My cousin had a few of his albums and he’d call me and say “Hey, come here this.” Maybe you go to a party one night and hear a tune and go “Wow, who is that?” You’d ask the DJ who it was and you’d write it down and go buy it.
Bobby Hutcherson, Montara
This particular album is a good one. Montara. Beautiful. Harvey Mason is a fantastic drummer. Ralph McDonald. There’s a whole lot of good men on this album. Bernie Watson on flute. The back up players were important. Some of them were good and had their own albums and they played with someone else. Blue Mitchell. All these guys were good in their own way and then they’d collaborate.
Dr. Buzzard’s Savannah Band
A photo posted by @jlbarrow on
I heard him on the radio. I don’t think they made too many more after this album. It had a nice beat to it.
Ahmad Jamal, The Awakening
Everybody knows Ahmad Jamal, he’s one of the great pianists from way back when. When I was in Guyana he was supposed to come do a concert there. He had a tune called “Poinciana,” there are many people who have played it, but nothing like Jamal. It doesn’t come close to the original.
Grant Green, Shades of Green
He’s a good guy. All of these men…there was a recording company there in Englewood Cliffs. A man named Creed Taylor and another man Rudy Van Gelder had a studio there. That’s where most of these men did a lot of their recordings. CTI. Creed Taylor Incorporated. It’s sad when I see what’s going on now. We created all of this great music and you have other people coming in and taking it over as if it’s theirs and we don’t seem to notice.
Earth Wind and Fire, Open Our Eyes
I used to work at this place on seventh avenue opposite Madison Square Garden. I worked at a photo studio there developing film and a bunch of guys were talking about this group. This white boy was taking about this group Earth Wind and Fire. And low and behold I heard their music on BLS and that was it. I haven’t heard a group that sings like that since.
Roy Hargrove, Diamond In The Rough
He’s good. I saw him at Carnegie Hall a few years ago with your mother.
Chet Baker, Straight From The Heart
He was a very talented trumpeter and drugs messed him up. Drugs messed up a lot of jazz players. I don’t know why. (Sidebar: This was how my father gave me the “Don’t do drugs” talk when I was a kid. He held up these two album covers and said “This is what drugs did to him.” )
The O’Jays, Identify Yourself
I didn’t just listen to jazz. There was some Pop and R&B that I liked. It was a good sound. Everybody got their own outlets. You deal with things that make you feel good.
Today my father still doesn’t understand sampling, but has two grandchildren who play the flute and piano. I’ve played the Chico & Rita soundtrack in the car to let him know that his forced jazz appreciation sessions weren’t in vain and half of his vinyl collection now lives in my attic right next to my bag of Cassingles from The Wiz.
Happy Father’s Day, Pop.