I have written about Columbia Records being “the necessary evil for jazz collectors” in the past; but I have tended to focus my attention on the way in which this “industry” handled Miles Davis’ sessions. In spite of my feelings about Columbia, I decided to succumb to the favorable review for the German-produced Original Album Classics 5-CD collection of Thelonious Monk. I am not going to dispute that there are some really good sessions in this collection. However, this conceit of putting the CDs in sleeves that look like the original vinyl album jackets serves only to remind us of just how uninformative the text on those jackets actually was. I suppose that, in the context of Fran Lebowitz mourning the death of connoisseurship, these album jackets provide a good source of the symptom that ultimately led to its death.
It comes down to this: When you are listening to music, do you really want to read at all? If so, do you want to read mildly diverting text for which the music supplies a pleasant background; or do you want to read some basic facts that might orient how you listen, such as when the recording was made and who all the performers were? Columbia banked on the former option, reading for diversion that distracts from attention. In this way they contributed to cultivating the “culture of middle-brow thinking,” much to the distress of those like Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), who believed that jazz was as worthy of serious listening as Igor Stravinsky felt his music was.
The good news is that, in the world the Internet has made, we no longer have to be victimized by Columbia’s bad judgment. The Thelonious Monk Website, created and maintained by Howard Mansfield, has a rich and informative discography section, within which is “Part 3,” which covers Monk’s work for Columbia. Once you get to that page, all you really need is text search to find out anything you want to know about any of the tracks on those five Original Album Classics CDs. I suppose it will not be long before we are playing these CDs on an Internet-connected Blu-ray player with a widget that will retrieve these basic facts for each track we happen to be playing.