Building A Jazz Library Part 1

John Coltrane: The Atlantic Recordings

By Dennis Davis

Libraries have become distinctly passé over the last ten years. It’s a development that started with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, and later the iPad, devices that have replaced books and two-channel music playback systems in most homes, and increasingly the media room or television set in the homes of millennials. For many the idea of owning a library of books, music or film seems antiquated— “Do people really do that anymore?” is a question I’ve heard more than once. Within the audiophile world, the idea of maintaining a physical library of music on disc is also under threat, with increasing numbers of listeners willing to replace physical media with downloads or streamed music.

But among the joys of collecting records is the discovery that not all records are created equal. A different generation of a given recording, or a different mastering, can present a very different musical experience. Few buyers are as committed or downright picky as those who collector jazz records. Among avid fanatics such differences are parsed and weighed, dissected and debated.

Although jazz now represents just over 1% of music album consumption (what used to be called “record sales”), when it comes to current vinyl sales, the number jumps up to over 4%. Although I have no reliable data about reissue vinyl sales, I’m confident that the percentage once again shoots up dramatically.

But with an art form that’s as varied and eclectic as jazz, where do you even start discussing the fundamental structure of a library? Miles Davis is too obvious, although we’ll return there. Let’s face it; pretty much everyone has a copy of jazz’s greatest hit, Kind Of Blue. But not everyone appreciates that its all-star cast includes two of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century.  Any list of the most important or influential jazz musicians (and there are many) will include both Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Tenor saxophonist John Coltrane has been described as a virtuoso, as iconic, as an innovator, as an intense player, as spiritual and as the father of free jazz. All these things are true, and nobody had a greater influence on saxophone playing for the balance of the 20thcentury than Coltrane. But above all, he wrote and played some of the century’s most beautiful music.

Given his status as both one of the most influential composers and saxophonists in music history, any collection of John Coltrane records is going to require a sizable chunk of record shelf real estate. Leaving aside his album Blue Train (Blue Note 1577 – and his single release as a leader on the Blue Note label) that shelf space will include three distinct periods—the early Prestige recordings, the middle period on Atlantic Records and the final and largest selection of releases on the Impulse! label.

The house that ‘Trane built…

Coltrane established his place in history in the 1950s as a sideman with Miles Davis’ first great quintet during which time he recorded prolifically as both a leader and band member on the Prestige label. Towards the end of his somewhat rocky tenure with Davis he recorded Blue Train and signed with Atlantic Records, where he released five titles between January 1960 and November 1961, before Impulse! purchased his Atlantic contract. Atlantic later mined its archive of Coltrane recordings and released three additional titles before Coltrane passed away in 1967. But having settled at Impulse!, Coltrane was so prolific, producing so many records of such high quality, that the label became known as the “house that Trane built”.