Crack open the new book by record exec Jeff Gold and be prepared to be immersed into the world of mid-century jazz with its smoky clubs, flowing alcohol and sizzling music scene. “Sittin’ In – Jazz Clubs of the 1940s and 1950s” (Harper Collins) not only promises a trip through memory lane but delivers it handily, proffering everything from matchbook kitsch to sheet music to photos of unnamed club goers basking ecstatically in the uninhibited world of bebop and booze. Program sheets, marquee signs, media headshots and more grace the pages in a book that’s a historical review of the jazz life and touches on some of the surprising societal differences from then to now; for example, the economy, race relations and how people dressed. Gold digs in and gives an inside view of the venues and the scene from major jazz hubs like New York City, Washington DC, Kansas City, LA, St. Louis and Chicago and includes many of his fascinating personal interviews with the era’s jazz artists. Visually speaking, the book is beautifully done and artfully laid out. Prepare to be wowed.
Other books by Grammy Award winner Jeff Gold include “Total Chaos: The Story of the Stooges” and “101 Essential Rock Records.”
When did you first get the idea for this book?
I have a business buying and selling rare records and music memorabilia, and purchased a collection of jazz club souvenir photographs which I’d guess is the most complete one in the world. As I was looking through them the notion struck me that these would be a fantastic book. I had written two previous music-related books and had sworn off doing another one–too much work– but these photographs haunted me. I couldn’t find a collection of them anywhere online. Eventually I gave in; I thought they needed to get out and be seen by people.
Why are you attracted to jazz?
Because it’s great music! I’ve been a record collector since my early teens. I was lucky enough to work at a record store, and then as an executive in the music business, and I’ve always just been obsessed with music. And of course jazz figures into that in a profound way.
How did you become a historian and also a participant in the scene?
I was obsessed with records since I was about four years old. Luckily I grew up in Los Angeles where there were a plethora of used record stores, and my patronage turned into my first job as the first employee of the Rhino Records store in Los Angeles – which later launched its own label. During my record-hunting expeditions, I bought rare records that didn’t interest me and sold them to pay for the things I wanted.
When I went to college my fantasy was to get a job in the music business, so I studied business and marketing. Eventually I was hired at A&M records as the assistant to the president, and worked there and at Warner Brothers, ultimately as Executive Vice President/General Manager. The entire time I was collecting records and when I left Warner Brothers in 1998, I got right back into buying and selling them, now on the internet. Eventually a curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and another one at the Experience Music Project in Seattle reached out to me for help putting together exhibitions. I guess that’s how I became a historian.
Talk about the extent of your collection of music ephemera and memorabilia; and how did you come across some of these items?
I have a few thousand records and probably the same number of memorabilia items, which is far more targeted than many of my friends. I made a decision many years ago that I didn’t need to own everything, just things I was very passionate about. So I have a lot of really wonderful pieces, but they aren’t overtaking my house, much to my wife’s pleasure.
In terms of how I come across things, in the pre -COVID days I went to record stores obsessively, and would hop on a plane and fly to look at any collection that sounded promising. Then as now, I spend a lot of time looking online. I’ve also been fortunate to get first crack at the collections of many of the people I worked with in the music business.
What are the mechanics of archiving and preserving items like sheet music, notes on napkins, photographs, instruments, etc.?
They are different for each category of item. Obviously you have to store things in a temperature-controlled, smoke-free, moisture-free environment. Albums need to be stacked vertically, without a lot of space for them to lean over and warp. With paper items, I store everything in acid free sleeves, out of direct sunlight. Anything I have framed on the walls is in UV-filtering plexiglass.
Why/when did you start RecordMecca.com?
I began Recordmecca soon after leaving Warner Brothers in 1998. My intention was to have it as a hobby/retirement business, but for better or worse, it’s turned into more of a full-time job.
What was the most enjoyable part of your career as a journalist/writer when interviewing jazz musicians or others in the industry?
I love speaking to musicians about their work, and as I am obsessed with music and do a lot of preparation before any interview, they usually go very well. Regularly musicians are surprised at how much I know about their careers.
What are the aspects of your career that stand out as the most rewarding and fulfilling?
I was speaking to an industry friend about this yesterday: it’s kind of amazing that I have met and in a number of cases become friends with people whose music obsessed me as a fan. The first record I went crazy for was Herb Alpert’s debut single, “The Lonely Bull.” As a six- or seven-year-old I played that song incessantly. Years later I found myself working for Herb at A&M, and we’re still in touch. That song still captures my imagination and takes me right back to being a kid. And then I snap out of it and realize, wait a minute, I know him. It’s remarkable. That’s happened with a number of other artists, and I don’t take it for granted at all.
What are the most remarkable things you have discovered about jazz as an art form?
Well I don’t think jazz means one thing. Benny Goodman playing swing is a far cry from John Coltrane playing free jazz at the end of his career. I love many kinds of jazz from different eras, and doing this book, it was remarkable to discover how often external circumstances, things like the US entering World War 1, Prohibition, the Great Depression, and even the arrival of The Beatles and rock and roll played a huge role in the evolution of the jazz.
Another thing I didn’t understand until this book was the pivotal role jazz played in bringing together people of different races.
How do you think it’s possible for us to romanticize the period covered in your book even while acknowledging some of its unpleasant realities?
I explore that pretty deeply in my book. Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones and others told me how jazz provided a respite from the difficulties of real life. Sonny said these clubs were like a paradise, an oasis from racism, and a way to escape from the outside world for a few hours.
What came up in your research that would be the most surprising to readers today?
The thing that really astounded me was how even as early as the 1920s, there were clubs in Harlem that Black and white people attended together, with no racial issues. And by the time you get to the late 40s, 52nd Street in New York was a truly integrated place. Outside these clubs the situation was far different, but they did provide a respite from the overt racism of the real world.
The sheer number of clubs and other venues from decades past is staggering when compared to what is happening to the scene today.
Do you feel musicians will once again have these dynamic kinds of places to perform where we can enjoy live music in the same way?
People still love live music, and though no one knows how seeing it will manifest in a post-COVID-19 world, it’s been fascinating to see how people are already adapting – – music shows at drive-in theaters for instance, where people listen from their cars and honk their horns instead of applauding.
What kind of PR will surround the release on Nov. 17?
I’m doing interviews for print, online and broadcast, we are doing some remote events and remote signings, and we have a website, SittinIn.com, with sample pages, reviews, and a playlist that is kind of soundtrack for the book.
What are your hopes for this book?
For me, the most important part is getting the history down, getting these pictures out, and of course sharing the interviews. Anyone who was in a jazz club in the late 1940s is 90 years old or older. I feel so fortunate to have spoken to Sonny Rollins, Dan Morgenstern, and Quincy Jones, to get their eyewitness accounts.
For more information visit https://sittinin.com/ , https://www.amazon.com/Sittin-Jazz-Clubs-1940s-1950s/dp/0062914707 and recordmecca.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Jeff Gold.
(c) 2020 Debbie Burke