Saturday, March 1, 2014

Boris Rose: Recording Jazz History As It Was Made

© -Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.




Jazz has been well-served over the years by hobbyists, especially those who go through [sometimes extraordinary] lengths to preserve the music.


Jazz is the epitome of The Ephemeral in Art. Once it’s played, it’s gone. No “mulligans;” no ‘we will fix it in the edit’; no additions or subtractions.


In his treatise The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture [New York: Oxford University Press, 1988], Ted Gioia describes the fleeting nature of Jazz this way [paragraphing modified]:


"If improvisation is the essential element in jazz, it may also be the most problematic. Perhaps the only way of appreciating its peculiarity is by imagining what twentieth-century art would be like if other art forms placed an equal emphasis on improvisation.


Imagine T.S. Eliot giving nightly poetry readings at which, rather than reciting set pieces, he was expected to create impromptu poems—different ones each night, sometimes recited at a fast clip; imagine giving Hitchcock or Fellini a handheld camera and asking them to film something— anything—at that very moment, without the benefits of script, crew, editing, or scoring; imagine Matisse or Dali giving nightly exhibitions of their skills—exhibitions at which paying audiences would watch them fill up canvas after canvas with paint, often with only two or three minutes devoted to each 'masterpiece.'


These examples strike us as odd, perhaps even ridiculous, yet conditions such as these are precisely those under which the jazz musician operates night after night, year after year."


Enter the Jazz enthusiasts who over the years conjured up techniques to record live concerts using shellac-based acetates, or adapted fledgling “portable” tape recorders in such a way so as to preserve countless AM and FM radio broadcasts by local and national Jazz musicians, and those “dilettantes”  who made kinescopes or tele--recordings of Jazz programs thus saving these performances for posterity.

Morally and ethically, the person operating in such a manner was on safer grounds if they used such recordings, tapes [and now] digital files for personal rather than commercial purposes. If the latter was involved, then copyright permissions should be sought and the associated fees and royalties paid.


Boris Rose was once such Jazz archivist [for want of a better term] and his travels in the World of Jazz are recounted in the following essay by Will Friedwald, the noted and award-winning Jazz writer.


Rare Performances by Modern Legends Awaits Its Fate in a Bronx Basement”

WILL FRIEDWALD, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 4, 2010 © -copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“Elaine Rose, daughter of famed jazz archivist Boris Rose, holds a portrait of her father in front of a small portion of his many mastertape recordings from Birdland and a number of other New York jazz venues. Philip Montgomery for The Wall Street Journal


In a dark basement in a quiet residential neighborhood in the Bronx, a well-known archive of privately recorded live tapes and acetates is gathering dust and waiting for some institution to acquire it. The Boris Rose archive, named for the New Yorker who amassed it, is so capacious, in fact, that no one has even cataloged all of it and Elaine Rose, who has owned it since her father died 10 years ago, can't even begin to guess how much it's worth.


"This collection certainly deserves to be in a major institution, such as the Smithsonian, Library of Congress, or Institute of Jazz Studies—intact," said John Hasse, the curator of American music at the Smithsonian Institution.


The collection contains everything from rare performances by modern jazz legends like Charlie Parker and John Coltrane to swing stars like Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Mr. Rose's own favorites, like Sidney Bechet and Eddie Condon. Ms. Rose is well aware of the need for finding a permanent repository; the acetates and the tapes are, she said, in delicate condition.
"It needs a home. I just can't keep it in storage. I'm giving myself a time frame of six months to a year to do something with it," she said.


Boris Rose (1918-2000) was one of those legendary characters who seem to proliferate in the world of jazz. He was tall, articulate, always very well groomed—and by all accounts an outrageous character. An inveterate prankster, he dreamed up a dizzying array of fake label names (including "Titania," "Ambrosia," "Caliban," "Session Disc," "Ozone" and "Chazzer Records"), many of which he tried to pass off as European imports. Most of his albums bore an address on the front, such as "A Product of Stockholm, Sweden." But if you looked closely on the back, it would say something like "Manufactured in Madison, Wisconsin" in much smaller type.


The truth was that Mr. Rose produced them all from his brownstone on East 10th Street. He told me once that he took great delight in confounding collectors and discographers, whom he regarded as the bean counters of jazz.


"I always felt something about jazz," Mr. Rose said in an undated interview with historian Dan Morgenstern that was taped for German television. "As far back as 1930, I listened to broadcasts from the Cotton Club. I heard Duke, I heard Don Redman, I heard Cab Calloway."


During his years at City College, Mr. Rose practiced the c-melody saxophone but began to find his calling when he got a job at the MRM Music Shop on Nassau Street.


"As far back as 1940, I purchased a home [disc-cutter] recorder and I began to dub records," he told Mr. Morgenstern. "For the next few years while I was in the Army, I was able to dub records for collectors who couldn't find the originals."


From there, he branched out to recording radio broadcasts and then live bands in clubs. "Getting out of the Army in 1946, I had professional equipment, and began to take down all of these jazz broadcasts," he explained. "First on 16-inch acetate discs. Later on, when tape came into the picture, I was able to record on tape."


Mr. Morgenstern remembers Mr. Rose as "a man who never sat down—he was always monitoring three or four tape recorders or disc-cutters at any given time." For decades, Mr. Rose ran a thriving business, recording jazz wherever he could, then making and selling copies or trading them for rarer material.


He operated from 10th Street, but stored most of his original tapes and acetates in the basement of his house in the Bronx, where he raised his three daughters.


It's still fairly well organized: Discs are mostly in one area; soundtracks are in one set of cabinets; 10-inch reels are in one spot and 7-inch reels in another. 78 RPM discs and LPs are all over the place. A thick layer of dust rests on top of everything, but considering the vastness of the collection, the few tapes I recently took out and examined seemed to be in good shape—though neither tape nor shellac will last forever.


Mr. Rose kept detailed notebooks of most every recording he made. The trick, though, is to find the tape to match the written entry.


"We won't know what's in there—or what shape it's in—until somebody wants it," Ms. Rose said.
The centerpiece of the Rose archive is the Birdland Collection: Mr. Rose recorded virtually every band that played this most legendary of jazz joints, either directly off the airwaves or by smuggling a concealed tape recorder into the club.


Over time he amassed a spectacular library of modern jazz from the glory years—the 1950s. His friends found this amazing since he rarely listened to the stuff himself; his own tastes ran to Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory. Still, he documented an entire era of music, the great majority of which hasn't been heard in 60 years.

Around 1970, Mr. Rose's business entered a new phase when he began using some of his material for mass-produced LPs that were distributed internationally, generally bearing amateur-looking artwork and misleading information. According to friend and researcher Arthur Zimmerman, Mr. Rose rarely if ever bothered to negotiate with the actual musicians or pay mechanical royalties for the compositions (with the exception of several country albums by Gene Autry, after the singing cowboy's lawyers got in touch). He sold Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday material to ESP Records, and a famous double-LP set of Parker at Birdland to Columbia Records.


In the end, Mr. Rose released hundreds of albums, under dozens of label names, up through the mid-'80s. When compact discs took over, he gradually lost interest. In the '90s, he made it known that the archive was for sale, but kept raising the price whenever anybody expressed interest.


"He left it to me so I could have an income," said Elaine Rose. "His words to me were, 'Make money with it.' But it's a whole different era now."

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