Discography, the most essential way to get to the music that you’d like to hear, is a library science that provides an indexing system for recorded content. Discography was long prominent in Jazz, but is today an overlooked avenue to the enjoyment of the art form.
As recordings are Jazz’s historical legacy, the means to study the music, a method of categorizing and organizing them blossomed into a fun activity of the music’s fan base, among them the earliest Jazz scholars. The term Discography was coined by French scholar and critic Charles Delaunay, the pioneer in creating this library science to cataloguing and studying sound recordings. Jazz was Delaunay’s music; so, Jazz gave rise to Discography.
Records, Jazz and non-Jazz alike, particularly in the early years before Lps (1888 – 1948) did not feature much information. The only requirements: the song, composer, and performer (band/vocalist/act). And this info was often puzzling: what was declared on a record’s label – the only place with information – was not specified to its meaning (particularly true of composer credits) and pseudonyms or meaningless made-up trademarks were often used for the name of the performing organization. This left early fans to wonder, who exactly were the “Dixie Stompers,” or who took that baritone sax solo on the Duke Ellington recording of “Old Man Blues?”
In the mid thirties the first attempts were made to sort out the information pertaining to records. Interestingly, the earliest discographies were written by European authors; Hilton R. Schleman’s Rhythm on Record, Charles Delaunay’s Hot Discographie, and Hugues Panassie’s Hot Jazz, all 1936. These early discographies were the first serious attempts to organize listings of Jazz records, and give as complete listings as possible with the matrix number, recording date, location, personnel, issue number(s), takes, and other pertinent information. At this early stage though, there was not yet a standardized format, so one might list by time period or location, and within that alphabetically by band, whereas another might do it alphabetically within a certain time frame.
Although these early discographies were far from perfect, obtaining the information for them was relatively straightforward, for most musicians chronicled were still alive, and quite active, so verifying players and what they did on a recording could be achieved by contacting the artist or checking with record company administrators who might very well have produced the recording or who might give the discographer access to ledgers. That’s one marvelous thing about these early attempts; much of the information was gathered straight from the horses’ mouth.
As time wore on some of these early discographies were updated eg Delaunay’s tome republished as The New Hot Discography in 1948 and edited by Phil’s father, Walter E. Schaap. The format itself had become far better organized and standardized, with most discographies focusing on a certain time period, an artist, or sub genre.
Others had entered the field as well, building on the work of their predecessors. Brian Rust, arguably the Jazz discographer, organized the entirety of Jazz (and Jazz-related) recordings up to 1942, in the comprehensive Jazz and Ragtime Records 1897-1942, first published in 1961, and now in its sixth edition. Rust’s format is ideal, for its scope (within a specified period), and organization (alphabetical by artist, and chronologically within that). He’s also authored several other notable discographies, including The Complete Entertainment Discography, and American Dance Bands on Records and Film 1915-1942.
When a Discopgraphy focuses on one artist, Walter C. Allen’s incomparable Hendersonia is noteworthy. Not just a discography, but a Bio-discography, Allen exhaustively chronicled the recordings and like of Fletcher Henderson. Though he only focuses on one artist, the format is essentially the chronological Rust approach.
Many general Jazz discographies have been published, with various cut-off dates. Brian Rust chose the infamous 1942 Petrillo ban than ended commercial recording as his cut-off. The strike by the American Federation of Musicians against the record companies provided Rust – quite inadvertently - with an aesthetic judgment, as BeBop was yet to change Jazz. Rust’s judgment and the Petrillo ban led to notably Jorgen Jepsen’s starting in 1942 with his Jazz Records 1942-1968(9), essentially an Lp Discography of the format’s first twenty years. Walter Bruyninckxconsolidated the two works as well as updating them in many ways, including adding a decade with his Sixty Years of Recorded Jazz, published in 1978. Here, too, a cut-off year – inadvertently, again – led to discographical co-ordination as Bruyninckx’ tome just about cover the time up to the advent of CDs.
More recent discographies however, tend to be quite specific, focusing on a single record label, artist, or style, such as Ross Lairds’ Tantalizing Tingles, which focuses on Jazz and related solo and feature piano recordings, 1889-1934. This is primarily due to the fact that printed discographies are expensive to produce, and sell, and compiling a complete Jazz discography to the present, would be near impossible in this manner. The Internet has dealt with this by making available much of this information, and compiling it in an up to the minute time-line, available. But this is not without its pitfalls though, for much of it is inaccurate, and to gain a serious understanding one must be very careful to check, and cross check ones information, ideally – currently still an absolute necessity - against print.
“The thankless science,” Discography is a most ignored aspect of Jazz, though key to a full grounding in the music. From its inception in the 1930s to the present, it is applicable to any style, artist, or period, and an invaluable way to document this music, for which, records are its legacy. Whether you’re an early Jazz enthusiast, or a Free Jazz fan, eclectic, whatever - Discography is essential to a better understanding and enhanced appreciation of the art.
[by Rob Vrabel, edited by Phil Schaap]