Guest Column: The Blue Note Guide, One More Time

With apologies to the author for my tardiness, here is an excellent guest column looking once again at Fred Cohen’s guide to Blue Note records. A version of this was previously published by the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors and Bill was gracious enough to do a new version for us here at Jazz Collector. I’m sure this will provoke much food for thought.

Vinyl Coverings, by Bill Schweitzer

The Blue Note Original Record Guide

Some mention of Blue Note Records appears in almost every column I’ve written for the IAJRC,. It is the single most discussed, collectible, and expensive LP label in jazz. There are Web sites and books dedicated to the music, packaging variations, photography and history. The nature of an “original” issue, with seemingly unending anomalies, has been debated in minute detail. Not without cause. An “original” can fetch astronomical prices on Ebay and elsewhere. So, if you’rebuying or selling, it’s important to know what is or isn’t a true “original.” Help has arrived.

Fred Cohen, long time IAJRC member, has just published  “Blue Note Records: A Guide For Identifying Original Pressings”, a Jazz Record Center Publication. At $45 it’s available at Jazz Record Center, 236 west 26 Street, #804, NY, NY 10001, or on the Web at jazzrecordcenter@verizon.net.

It’s been a long time coming and worth the wait. The objective of the book is to be a guide for determining original pre-Liberty issue Blue Notes (to BST 84252). With much acknowledged help, Fred has succeeded admirably. For 90 percent of the catalog, we now have a definitive model of what is an original issue. This is a great tool for sellers and buyers alike. However, it may also bring tears to the eyes of some folks who paid big bucks for a record only to find

it’s not an original. As for the other 10 percent of the catalog, mystery remains. Like the nature of the universe, some things are unknowable. More on that later.

The heart of the book is 30 or so pages dedicated to a numerical listing of the 1500-4000 series in both mono and stereo with column listings for the reader to see the nine or so variations in vinyl, dead wax notation, label, cover and back that must be present in an original issue. Here are two  typical listings for the 1500 mono series

All Records are dg, P.

1543 – Lex, RVGe, fr / W63, f, bs, nl

1568 – W63-s1 NY23-s2, RVGs, br / W63, bs, lam

What?

Here’s the translation. All records have a deep groove label (dg) and a P mark in the dead wax (P) also known as the “ear”, indicating manufacture by the Plastylite company.

Blue Note 1543 = Kenny Burrell Volume 2 (one of the Andy Warhol covers – not indicated). An original issue must have a 767 Lexington Ave. NYC address on the record label (Lex). It must have Rudy Van Gelder’s initials etched in the dead wax (RVGe) and a flat edge or rim (fr). The cover must have a 47 west 63rd St., New York 23 address on the lower back (W63), a frame cover (f), a blank spine (bs) with no lamination (nl).

Quite a checklist. But if you’re paying hundreds of dollars for a copy of this rare piece, you’d like to know you’re getting the real thing. Now you can..

Blue Note 1568 = Hank Mobley Sextet, is one of the most expensive records in the Blue Note oeuvre. We’ll return to it later.

All the indicators are explained with clear photo examples (except for the flat edge which is achallenge to illustrate and is unclear). There is much ground to cover and many variations and permutations as the chronology of the label unfolds. For example, there are five variations in the label and six for the back cover addresses for original pre-Liberty Blue Notes. The column listings show which is the proper one at a glance. One drawback to this system is there is no attempt to put a name with the number as I just did. You cannot reference a title without a catalog number. I use the illustrated Japanese Blue Note book. Another IAJRC member, upon receiving his copy, proceeded to pencil in all the appropriate titles by hand. There are “work arounds”, but it would have been nice to have it already done. Then again, what is a bible without notes in the margins.

Two other minor points. Fred states on page 49 “All mono pressings use a BLP prefix on the cover and labels.” Not so. Labels yes but covers no. And then, why put a reissue label on the cover of a guide to identify original issues?

The biggest surprise for me was the elevated status of the stereo issues. Long considered secondary mixes and re-issues at best, Fred, with the help of Rudy Van Gelder’s cogent contribution, shows the early stereos as true originals, recorded in stereo and mixed from an original 2 track tape. The problem was the inconsistent release of these titles. Lots were never released pre-Liberty and some released months or years after the mono. Fred’s careful plotting of their history clears up much of this confusion.

Now to the mysterious 10 percent of the catalog. The questions revolve around the manufacturing process. They are in two distinct categories. First there are the label anomalies during the many transition periods. As Fred points out in his preface: “Like so many record producers…(Blue Note was) frugal, wasting nothing in the manufacturing process”. This led to many mismatched details.

If we return to Blue Note 1568 this problem may become clearer. An original issue has a 47 West 63rd st. address on side 1 and the earlier 47 West 63rd St. New York 23 address on side 2. RVG stamped in the dead wax and a beaded rim. The cover has the West 63rd St. address on the lower edge, a blank spine and laminated cover. The problem is with the label. It is generally thought that the total manufactured run of this title was a very small, 600 pieces. Hence the high collector’s price. However, there are many copies that turn up with both sides as W63. Since the press run was not big and there were no reprints, it stands to reason that this too is an original issue and the frugal boys at Blue Note put both labels randomly into the hopper. Most collectors agree with this analysis.

But what about a transition album with a much higher pressing run, like 1577, John Coltrane Blue Train? That’s listed as NY23 on either side but not on both. Again we are confronted with a mixed bag of labels. Could it be that there was also an original pressing with W63 on both sides? Since the labels were mixed at the first run, it seems highly likely. As Fred points out “ In the pressing plant, the labels were applied at random”. Unfortunately, with a piece as popular as Blue Train, there were many re-pressings and while it is possible a 2 sided W63 is an original, it could also be a second edition. One cannot tell. I recently came across a shop selling a two- sided W63 issue for $450. They had previously sold a NY23 label issue, in comparable shape for $1,000. It’s quite possible that both are originals, but we cannot be certain about the $450 item.

The second question revolves around the deep groove. It is accepted as a definitive marker of all original issues up until 4058. Afterwards it is believed the Plastylite company bought new equipment which did not leave a deep groove in the center ring. We now have a situation that can only be resolved with a crystal ball. It stands to reason that Plastylite used their new equipment first, but why are there so many deep groove issues with later numbers? Many of these have a deep groove on only one side. Were there two presses used? Were there two press runs? Are the deep groove issues actually second pressings ? It seems there is no one at the old Plastylite factory who had any experience pressing records, so these questions must remain unanswered.

In his columns, Fred lists all of these deep groove variations as markers for original pressings. However, in his essay on Transition and Original Pressings he states “ After a certain point, it can never truly be known whether similar pressings for the same record, whose only difference is the presence or absence of a deep-groove on one, both or neither labels is actually the original first pressing.Since most collectors gravitate to early markings, those single-sided deep groove pressings have enjoyed a not-so-well deserved reputation as original issues. Personally, I think the originals don’t have the deep groove (and most times are cheaper!). But now, this is for the buyer to decide.

Like most everyone who gets this guide, my first stop was my personal collection. There were some tears (actually, more than some) and at least one big surprise when a later issue (BLP 4193 Art Blakey Indestructible) I always thought was a re-issue (no P) turned out to be an original. I found myself replaying some of my second issues to see if I was still happy with the sound.

Unfortunately, this book added some unexpected items to my want list. On Ebay there are many Blue Note titles falsely claiming to be original issues. Whether from ignorance or perfidy is not important to the buyer. Now, you can check the pictures of the label or back cover for tell-tale markings of a 2nd press. You can ask the right questions. An informed buyer is a powerful buyer. Let’s hope this guide has the power to significantly reduce the price of later issues which claim to be original. Maybe someday this book will be so ubiquitous that Ebay listings will claim to be 100 percent Cohen Original!

So what do you do when you’re at a shop and you don’t have your trusty guide? There is a one page summary of important transitions. Try and remember as many as you can. But, if you’re like me and have trouble remembering anything, a few main points are:

1- deep groove to 4058.

2- Look for the P (ear) on every issue to 4193 and most thereafter to 4226.

3- Check to see the RVG in the early numbers (etched then stamped) or the Van Gelder in the later.

As we have seen, the labels can be inconsistent, but the dead wax should be true. In the end, we should all remember, it’s the music that must shine through. Lee Morgan’s trumpet should pop. Jackie McLean’s sinewy alto should mesmerize. If the music is clean and clear, and you’re happy with the sound of your copy, whether it’s an original, a New York Inc. labeled second, a UA issue, a Japanese King facsimile, or Mosaic re-issue, that’s what’s important. Happy Hunting.

 

4 comments

  • Well, Bill, thanks for your great column. And I agree with your side notes about the label transitions and the deep groove. Recently I delved into the subject of matrix numbers and shape of the trail out groove with some of the other regulars here at Jazzcollector; all aimed to see to what extent it can lead us to a true 1st pressing. So far it has been a joy to email to and fro with the other Jazzcollector members about it. My statement is that a true 1st pressing must have a matrix number extension that either ends with -A for side 1 and with -B for side 2. As soon as we see a -A1, -B1, -A2, -B2 or higher, than it can’t be a first pressing. Whether I’m correct, I don’t know, but still I think it’s interesting enough to give it more thought. Maybe once it’ll become an extra chapter in the future 😉 Oh and you’re right: at the end of the day it’s the music that counts. And sifting through these details is just fun!

  • Bill, what a great article! For us folks who don’t really understand Blue Note sequencing, your article was great! It sounds like you have mastered the Blue Note Ninja training, with a blue belt! The interesting thing (maybe just to me) is the overall complexity of identification. Although, this makes the hunt for first pressings even more fun! Thanks again……

  • Larry Baldachin

    This is a terrific article, and well worth the read. I am a very big fan of Fred and have used his guide many times when bidding on rare jazz records …. I have also called Fred from time to time when I didn’t quite understand the coding from his book or had a particular question about one of his listings. Fred has always been extremely helpful and patient with me and his advice is invaluable.

    There are few, if any, sellers that I have more confidence in than Fred and a number of his recent listings have made their way up to “The Great White North”.

    He has also helped me to catch the occasional dud on eBay and avoid duplicates or reissues …. And yes, like you, I discovered a few “seconds” in my collection after reading his book (Blue Train was one, Something Else was another) but I also discovered a few “firsts” that I didn’t know I had so in the end the balance was all good.

  • You can never have too much clarity with Blue Note, and the extra words here are definitely beneficial, thank you.

    The unwritten chapter for me is the first pressings which followed the sale of Blue Note to Liberty.I have some thirty “Blue Notes” who’s first appearance on vinyl was under the stewardship of Liberty, cataloge 4252 – 4418. Not reissues, their “First Pressing” appears on Division of Liberty labels. Much fine musc among them – Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Grant Green, Hank Mobley, McCoy Tyner – most sporting “VAN GELDER” in the runout.

    More than a few of these I have picked up at “reissue prices” as the seller has noted “Division of Liberty” labels and priced it as a reissue by Liberty.

    The bane of our lives is the opposite – where Liberty used up old stock Blue Note original labels and covers in an early tsunami of reissues after 1966(NY labels! shout the seller). I even own a record with 47W63rd NY23 labels but no “ear”

    You can never know too much about Blue Note!

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