[JPL] Lord of the Files: His Jazz Discography Rocks

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Wed Sep 12 08:06:10 EDT 2007


http://online.wsj.com/article/SB118955650992224493.html

Lord of the Files:
His Jazz Discography Rocks
By JOHN MCDONOUGH
September 12, 2007; Page D10

In 1917, the Original Dixieland Jass Band made the first jazz record. The
five-man band had just come to New York and stirred something of a midtown
meltdown with its guilty pleasures. "Disaster is coming to hundreds of young
girls," one guardian of public morals warned. Fortunately, public morality
was no concern of Columbia Records, which promptly recorded the band and
kick-started the history of recorded jazz.

As landmark firsts go, the ODJB may not rank with Gutenberg or even
Lindbergh. Still, here we are 90 years later with a large legacy on our
hands. If someone were to assemble a list of every jazz record, it would
cover about 22,000 printed pages.

Which brings us to Tom Lord, 66, a jazz researcher in Vancouver, British
Columbia, who has done just that. Mr. Lord became hooked on the music at age
12 when he saw Louis Armstrong in "The Glenn Miller Story." But it was his
success as a mechanical engineer and president of an international container
company that permitted him to pursue his private passion for records. He is
now most noted as the compiler of "The Jazz Discography," a huge work that
he began in the 1980s and that eventually grew to 34 600-page volumes at a
retail cost of about $2,200.


But such reference works have a way of becoming obsolete the moment they're
published. So Mr. Lord did it differently. He built his information empire
on a database, not a manuscript. It was a leap of innovation that has
allowed him to move beyond books and produce "The Jazz Discography" as a
single CD-ROM version 7.0 (available at www.Lordisco.com) whose
extraordinary search options can navigate millions of names, numbers and
songs with a few keystrokes. The result is a treasure trove full of
surprises that will fascinate any student of American music eager to know
the most recorded songs, the most recorded musicians, and the nature of jazz
itself.

A discography is a mix of bookkeeping and excavation. After the ODJB made
its splash, jazz dipped underground and sped through the next 20 years with
an amiable disregard for its own accumulating history. It wasn't until Benny
Goodman became a sensation in the '30s that jazz acquired a curiosity about
its fabled past. In 1936 Charles Delauney became jazz's first Boswell when
his 271-page discography, "Hot Discographie," was published in France. It
would be the Rosetta Stone for all record research to follow, listing master
numbers, labels, dates, personnel and catalog numbers for hundreds of jazz
sessions. Over the next 40 years the science of discography grew and
evolved.

Mr. Lord picked up the baton in the early '80s, using his computer skills to
develop an index for the Canadian jazz magazine Cadence. "I did it in a
computerized spread sheet called Lotus 1-2-3, a DOS-based program that
cross-referenced interviews, record and book reviews. In 1983, computers
were pretty new things. But after developing that database, I began to think
there could be an application in the discography field. I figured it would
take me about three or four months to do the database. Well, it ended up
taking me three years. A discography looks very simple in print, but there's
a lot behind it in terms of programming. Also there's the sheer task of
sitting down at a keyboard and typing decades of detail into a database. At
times it's just an overwhelming task."

Mr. Lord hired several assistants who hammered away at the endless
procession of names and numbers. When enough data piled up to fill 600
pages, Mr. Lord explains, a new volume would appear. Eleven years and 26
volumes later, he finally made it through the Z's in 2001. Another eight
books of indexes and addendums followed, bringing the total work to 34
volumes in 2004.

But by then publishing had changed, and in 2003 "The Jazz Discography"
appeared as a CD-ROM for the first time. It was programmed to search
leaders, musicians and songs and went up to the year 2000. Since then,
10,000 fresh entries have been added in annual revisions. The latest
version, 7.0, has expanded search options that include dates, words and
phrases. Search the phrase "wall street," for example, and you'll find one
tune called -- no kidding! -- "The Provincial Correspondent to the Wall
Street Journal."

There is only one record of that song, by Dick Goodwin in 2003. But Mr.
Lord's database shows 1,675 versions of "Body and Soul," making it the most
recorded melody in jazz history. New Zealand disc jockey John Joyce used Mr.
Lord's latest CD-ROM to break out a list of songs logging more than 500
recordings. He found 70 in all, 12 of which surpassed 1,000 versions.
Following "Body and Soul" are "St. Louis Blues" (1,628), "Summertime"
(1,358), "Sweet Georgia Brown" (1,302), "Take the A Train" (1,201) and
"Round Midnight" (1,184).

Such lists are fascinating because they impose a sense of order on the chaos
of factoids. Of those 70 songs, for example, 11 are by Duke Ellington, six
by George Gershwin, and three by Cole Porter. One third were written by
working jazz musicians; the rest by songwriters. The most recent is Erroll
Garner's "Misty," with 582 recordings since 1954. But the late critic
Whitney Balliett didn't call jazz "the sound of surprise" for nothing. Mr.
Lord's complete song index shows 52 versions of "Hey Jude," 29 each of
"Blowin' in the Wind" and "Mrs. Robinson," plus slumming tours of
"Satisfaction" (10), "Purple Rain" (three), and even "Thriller" (two).

Almost as surprising is what the data say about musicians. Of the 12 most
recorded jazzmen, for instance, four are bassists, including Milt Hinton,
who tops the entire list at 1,174 sessions. Ellington is a close second. Of
the 50 most recorded jazzmen in history, I count only nine still living,
suggesting the scarcity of recording opportunities in recent decades. Among
those not among the most prolific 50 are Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy
Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Oscar Peterson.

Not in the index at all are Washington attorney Leonard Garment and former
Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan. An understandable omission, perhaps. Yet each
played bebop saxophone in the Henry Jerome orchestra of 1944 and can be
heard on an obscure Jerome CD called "A Taste of Crazy Rhythm," according to
Mr. Garment's 1997 autobiography. This is the kind of oversight now easily
corrected.

Beyond such gee-whiz trivia, though, a discography, by its choices, defines
its domain. "That's a whole other thing," says Mr. Lord. "What is jazz? I
don't know that I want to get into that. It would be impossible with the
number of recordings I'm handling to listen to every one, even if they were
available. Frankly, in the end it's an arbitrary call. But we try to include
any recordings that have jazz content or performers in them."

So blues singers Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, who recorded with many jazz
musicians, are in, while a rural bluesman like Robert Johnson, who didn't,
is out. Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby are covered selectively,
as is Rosemary Clooney. There are surprises here too. Jackie Gleason, who
fellow-traveled with jazzmen on his mood-music albums, claims 23 sessions.
Lawrence Welk gets six and Kenny G is listed as a sideman on two early
dates. Even Frank Zappa's "Jazz From Hell" is included. Nora Jones's "Come
Away With Me" is also in, but with the notation "limited jazz content."

So jazz geeks may quibble about this inclusion or that omission. But Mr.
Lord has cast a wide net, knowing that revisions will be easy and that in
the 90 years since the first jazz record the definition of jazz has become a
moving and often controversial target. Now with its legacy securely
digitized, the music has a basic reference work that can move as fast as the
music.

Mr. McDonough writes about jazz for the Journal.

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