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excerpt > Aaron Gilbreath > This Is: Essays on Jazz

Jimmy Smith and The Allure of the Vault

Imagine a completely different version of one one of jazz’s most revered compositions sitting on a shelf in a Los Angeles office building for three decades without anyone knowing it.

When twenty-seven year old jazz enthusiast Michael Cuscuna finally gained access to the Blue Note Records vault in 1975, he not only found an alternate take of Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t,” but scores of unissued, album-length recordings. On his first day inside, Cuscuna stood amid rows of Scotch 3M master tapes and told the man who brought him, “This is great.” He’d been hounding another Blue Note executive for three years to gain access, enticing him with offers to catalog and identify the vault’s voluminous contents. Ever since musicians in New York started telling Cuscuna stories about the sessions they had played on but never seen released, he’d grown obsessed with this undiscovered music and started recording details in a notebook. Now, here he was, surrounded by the lost recordings of legendary guitarist Grant Green, saxophonist Hank Mobley, trumpeters Lee Morgan and Blue Mitchell, and drummer Art Blakey—brilliant players who defined post-Bop jazz in the 1950s and ’60s and helped make Blue Note jazz’s most important label. “The experience was staggering,” Cuscuna said. “There were far more unissued sessions than I had even imagined.” Many of those sessions belonged to organist Jimmy Smith.

In the annals of music history, Smith will forever be known as the person who transformed the Hammond B-3 organ from a chirpy, ice skating rink novelty into an expressive instrument. With his driving, bluesy style, Smith solidified the organ trio format in the jazz tradition and led the way from Be Bop to Soul Jazz. Lest you imagine organ music as dentist office easy listening, know this: when Smith first started performing in New York in 1956, jazz was acoustic. Although horns were often played in clubs near a central, ambient microphone, guitars were generally the only instrument that required electricity to produce their sound, and even then they were run through amplifiers free of effects, employing only their natural, open tone. When Smith plugged in his B-3, the sounds he produced were as groundbreaking stylistically as The Ramones’s two-minute punk songs or surf guitarist Dick Dale playing Eastern scales through a Fender Reverb unit in 1961. No wonder Miles Davis described Smith as “the eighth wonder of the world.”

As a diehard Jimmy Smith fan, I was thrilled last year to discover that, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Cuscuna released four of the Smith recordings he found in the vault. I owned the organist’s entire Blue Note and early-Verve catalog, many of the albums so infectious that each playing left me in a nearly drug-addled froth craving more. Yet, despite my years of fandom, two of the new albums had somehow eluded my notice. Cherokee and Lonesome Road were both released in 1996 exclusively in Japan, a country that, for its size, boasts an unusually large, dedicated jazz audience. Limited releases hadn’t slowed my purchasing habits before. I bought a number of expensive Japanese imports online: organist Freddie Roach’s Down to Earth, trombonist Curtis Fuller’s Volume 3. Even though our digital age offers instant acquisition through file-sharing sites, high prices and long distances were no barrier to acquiring the physical album and its superior fidelity. What worried me was listenability. Were these albums as good as Smith’s best from the period, such as Home Cookin’, Crazy! Baby and Midnight Special? Or had they been in the vault for a reason? I’d run into problems before.

When I bought Hank Mobley’s elusive Poppin’, I was disappointed. Recorded in 1957, the album features some of jazz’s best players—pianist Sonny Clark, drummer Philly Joe Jones—and sat in the vault for twenty-three years before Cuscuna released it in Japan. My hands nearly trembled when I first opened that rare CD’s jewel case. It proved unremarkable. Only two songs were stirring, and one, “Darn That Dream,” was a popular cover available on countless jazz albums. In the parlance of record reviewers, Poppin’ was a standard Hard bop date composed of predictable compositions neither abysmal nor memorable. The same happened with trumpeter Dizzy Reece’s Comin’ On!. Recorded in 1960, locked away for thirty-nine years, I bought the CD, played it, then shoved it on a shelf as if it had never left the vault.

Which isn’t to say that Cuscuna’s discoveries were all lackluster—quite the opposite. His determination and meticulous archival work liberated numerous masterpieces from the metaphorical tyranny of the corporate vault and, in the process, filled gaps in music history and doubled jazz fans’ record collections. All of saxophonist Tina Brooks’ posthumous releases; Grant Green’s Matador; vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson’s first session, The Kicker; Lee Morgan’s The Procrastinator; Mobley’s Another Workout—each on par with the leaders’ most celebrated albums. Had it been his only discovery, Andrew Hill’s adventurous nonet, Passing Ships, would confirm the importance of Cuscuna’s efforts, but he also discovered the rest of Sonny Rollins’ searing live set from A Night at the Village Vanguard, not to mention that Monk tune. But my experience with Smith’s recently unearthed music had established two distinct poles between which everything thereafter would fall.

Two of them, Six Views of the Blues and Straight Life, came out in the US as limited editions, and I owned them. Smith’s cover of W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” on Six View burns with the deep, in the pocket groove Smith is celebrated for, and his melodic originals “Blues No. 1” and “Blues No. 2” are rousing enough to fit easily on Home Cookin’ or Midnight Special. This only makes the songs’ forty-one year dormancy more beguiling. Not so with the other album.

Straight Life, a session from 1961, includes a few moving originals, such as “Jimmy’s Blues” and the title track, but even as the album’s standouts, each resemble repeats of tunes on his other records. The rest feel like filler—how many covers of “Star Dust” and “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” do listeners need?—forming a program so nondescript as to place it in that dreaded record collector graveyard known as “nonessential listening.” I could understand why Blue Note co-founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff shelved Straight Life in favor of Smith’s more memorable sessions. Yet it’s the curse of the fan to always crave more music, and because the allure of the vault exerts such a strong psychic hold, I did what most obsessive fans do upon learning of new releases: I trolled the web for prices and shipping options.

To those for whom music is more than some casual, tertiary interest, the very idea of the record company vault possesses a mythic, Ark of the Covenant quality. Less in jazz than rock and roll, the locked and restricted storage spaces known as “vaults,” and their famously unreleased contents, are part of the mythology. Smile by The Beach Boys; Boy Dylan’s 1966 Royal Albert Hall concert; The Beatles’ pre-Phil Spector mix of Let It Be, entitled Get Back; the infamous “Million Dollar Quartet” jam session featuring Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, recorded at Sun Studios in 1956—all of these masterworks sat in vaults for decades, simultaneously tantalizing and tormenting fans while accruing more iconic weight than their contents seemed able to bear. Then the bands released them, and the wait proved worthwhile: the music was brilliant. Dylan released the Royal Albert Hall show in 1998 as part of his official Bootleg Series. The Beatles released an approximation of Let It Be’s original, thirty-four year old mix as Let It Be… Naked in 2003. “The Million Dollar Quartet” emerged in various official forms in the 1980s, 1990s and 2006. And when The Beach Boys finally put out Smile in 2011 as The Smile Sessions, they ended its reign as the world’s most famous unreleased album, a debut forty-four years in the making. Before the artists sanctioned these releases, though, the music circulated among fans on bootlegs.

Coined during Prohibition when people smuggled hooch in tall boots, the term bootleg now mainly refers to unauthorized albums pressed without record company sanction and sold to fans without profiting the copyright holder. When the music isn’t live material recorded by a concertgoer with a microphone, it’s usually something unearthed through the furtive methods of a tomb raider: namely, someone pillages a collection of source tapes, either from a company vault or a musician’s private stash.

In 2007, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page went to court in Glasgow, Scotland to testify against a bootlegger named Robert Langley. Langley faced twelve counts of selling copyrighted Zeppelin, Yardbirds and Page solo material without authorization. Unlike the usual live audience recordings, Langley’s stock drew from tapes that had been stolen from Page’s home in the early 1980s. Among the many multi-track soundboard concert recordings that were snatched from Page’s huge personal archive, there were also Zeppelin rehearsal tapes, studio outtakes and concert footage. In the years after the break-in, the Zeppelin bootleg market swelled with previously uncirculated audio and video, and bootleggers did what they’d done since the first rock bootleg, the Bob Dylan LP Great White Wonder, appeared on West Coast record stores shelves in 1969: they bootlegged the bootlegs to rerelease the material. In the process, sound quality deteriorated, but the music reached an increasingly wide audience, which satisfied listeners despite the fidelity.

Page had no problem with fans trading live recordings with each other; in court, he described the practice as “legitimate.” What he objected to were illicit commercial enterprises overcharging fans for what were often subpar live recordings that sounded, in his words, like “just a whirring” where “you cannot hear the music.” Langley’s bootlegs belonged to a higher class. In court, Page told a story about how he’d once gone into a large Manhattan record store to, in his words, “check what they had for the band and Jimmy Page,” and discovered a live album recorded in 1975 at London’s Earl’s Court. “I do not know where it surfaced from,” he said, “but I contacted my New York lawyers to say the shop was selling something as if it was official, but clearly it was not.” The album’s sound and packaging were of such high quality that the store assumed it was a sanctioned release. The shop removed it, but there was no stopping the underground trade. Like Langley’s, it was one among thousands. Hearing stories like these, you can’t help but wonder what other treasures lurk in the world’s unplundered vaults.

On that first day in the vault, Cuscuna cut the cord that bound together six reels from an early-60s Jackie McLean session, and when he opened the box, there were no papers inside. He looked at other reels. None of them had papers. No song titles, no sidemen’s names or composer credits, just the name of the session leader written on the box, along with the recording date and reel number. Frustrated, Cuscuna walked to the studio and asked, “So where’s all the paperwork for this stuff?” “There is none,” everyone said. The files had gone missing since a larger company bought and moved Blue Note from New York to LA. So began what Cuscuna called the greatest and worst day of his life. “My dream had come true,” he said, “and now it was my worst nightmare.”

To identify the contents, Cuscuna would listen to the music, try to identify the players by their stylistic signatures, and then study musicians’ union contracts and check what songs Blue Note’s publishing company copyrighted within weeks of each recording. This gave him song titles and sidemen’s names. In the 1970s and ’80s, many Blue Note musicians were still alive and performing, so Cuscuna would send them tapes and ask for information.

It took a few years, but as his detective work yielded results, Cuscuna began releasing the material. Fans were thrilled. After he’d issued about twenty albums, someone at King Records, the label which licensed Blue Note music in Japan, mailed him a Xerox of a document that Alfred Lion had made, listing most of the unissued sessions’ details, along with comments. That, Cuscuna said, “would’ve made my life a lot easier early on.”

Somewhere in Japan sat my two Jimmy Smith albums. I read peoples’ impressions on various websites. I studied the session information. I pictured the CDs sitting in a distributor’s cavernous warehouse, waiting for me to call them out from among the crates of CDs and LPs. I never ordered them.

As much as I wanted to hear the music, I also liked knowing there was more out there to be discovered. The notion is comforting, tied up with the kind of excitement and awe that you feel as a child when gazing over a fence at an expanse of undeveloped desert or a patch of neighborhood woods. “What’s out there?” you wonder, anticipation tightening your chest. Even if you never venture into it, the idea that such a wild tangle exists reminds you of the universe’s essential mystery. In our era where everything has been photographed from space and is searchable from your portable communication device, vaults are the world before 1412, the unexplored corners during the Age of Discovery. They’re the coelacanth captured in a fisherman’s net. The new planet discovered six hundred light-years away.

Maybe I’m being romantic, or maybe fainthearted, but I’d rather live with the enigmatic charm of these albums’ distant existence than bear the potential disappointment of their shortcomings. When an artist dies, they often leave a backlog of material both finished and unfinished, and at some point fans must accept that what we have has to be enough, that we’ve reached the end of the oeuvre. Readers have experienced this in literature. Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous novel, True at First Light, was finished by his second son Patrick, published thirty-eight years after its author’s suicide, and widely regarded as a disappointing bookend to Hemingway’s creative life. More recently, an editor at publisher Little, Brown and Company shaped David Foster Wallace’s final novel, The Pale King, into its published form from drafts, fragments and notes, leaving us a memorable, challenging work that doesn’t try to hide its incompleteness. The Pale King offers strong evidence that there is value in publishing certain unfinished material, while True at First Light suggests that in other cases it’s best to stop before reaching the bottom of the proverbial barrel. Sometimes the bottom contains the strongest, most concentrated flavors; other times it contains the dregs. I didn’t want to go there with Jimmy Smith.

Rather than the inferior artifact, I choose to live with mystery’s invigorating companionship, with the notion that maybe, just maybe, there is something else waiting in that vault, something as bluesy and red hot as “Alfredo” on Crazy! Baby, music so monumental that it makes you wonder how it could hide in plain sight for so long, right under our noses, without anybody noticing.

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Aaron Gilbreath is an essayist and journalist whose work has appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times, Paris Review, Vice, The Morning News, Saveur, Tin House, The Believer, Oxford American, Kenyon Review, Slate, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Threepenny Review, and Brick. He is also the author of the essay collection Everything We Don’t Know (Curbside Splendor, 2016). Learn more about This Is: Essays on Jazz.

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