In Memory of a Jazz Collector

Irving Kalus

Irving Kalus was 82 years old when he died on December 22, 2011. It was early in the evening and he had just gone to the record store around the corner, Infinity Records, in Massapequa Park on Long Island. He bought a Miles Davis record and was crossing Sunrise Highway when he got hit by a car and was killed instantly. I didn’t know Irving Kalus personally, but I seem to know him quite intimately now, at least in connection with one particularly important area of his life: His love of jazz. It was Irving Kalus’ collection that I purchased a few weeks ago and I would like to share what I have learned about the man and his life-long passion for jazz.

Irving fell in love with jazz when he was a teenager. His son Gary remembers him telling stories about musicians he had met – the time Sarah Vaughan kissed him on the cheek, the times Dizzy Gillespie would talk with him outside a club before or after a gig. Bud Powell once fixed him a drink: “He called it a Joe Louis because he said it will really knock you out,” Gary recalls his father telling him. Irving picked up on bebop quite early and it clearly had a profound influence on his life.

In 1949, when he was just 20 years old and bebop was still in its early years, he wrote a thoughtful, compelling and heartfelt tribute to Charlie Parker for an advanced composition class at New York University. He titled the paper “Ornithology” and he kept it all of these years. He was proud of it, appropriately so. After I purchased the collection his daughter Karen gave me a copy. I was moved by several things, particularly the quality of the writing, the advanced ideas Irving expressed and his awareness of the impact that Bird would have on music, even at that early date. The paper included some direct quotes from Bird, some of which I had never seen before, and I wondered if perhaps Irving had spoken to Bird himself.

The other thing that really struck be about the paper: Not only that Irving saved it all of these years, and that Karen and Gary saved it, but the date on the paper: December 22,1949, the same day that Irving died 62 years later. A little eerie, no? Anyway, I will post the paper in full tomorrow.

There is something oddly intimate about going through someone else’s collection. I could see how he organized his records, which musicians were his favorites, which records were most precious to him. Even though we never met, I could tell you in intricate detail about his taste in music. Rather than finding the experience ghoulish, I’ve actually found it quite reassuring: In some ways it’s like a final act of sharing, one collector to another, one fan to another. It helps that we loved the same music, the same records and the same artists.

I feel like a curator keeping the collection alive for a little longer and it’s hard not to think about my own father at the same time, trying to keep him alive as well. My dad also loved jazz, loved collecting records, loved listening to and talking about jazz. He and Irving were of the same generation and there’s a connection that’s hard to ignore. If you think about the jazz fans of that era, born in the 1920s and coming of age during the bebop revolution, you realize that most of the people who experienced it are not with us anymore. I was two years old when Charlie Parker died. Irving was 26, my dad was 29. They saw him live on 52nd Street, and they saw Art Tatum and Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown. We will soon reach a time when people who were actually there at the conception of the music we love will no longer be around to tell us about it. And that will be a sad day.

As for the collection itself, Irving had it all. More than 100 Blue Notes from the 1500 and 4000 series, early Prestiges, many of the records we talk about here at Jazz Collector, signifying the best of the bop and post-bop eras. The interesting thing was: He didn’t seem to care whether he had original pressings of most of the records: As I mentioned in an earlier post, he had all of the Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley and Jackie McLean Blue Notes, but not an original pressing in the bunch. Same with Dexter Gordon, Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson and other artists. So I now have in my home in The Berkshires a sizeable collection of later-pressing Blue Notes, ranging from Liberties to United Artists to Japanese pressings.

There were, however, some artists that were clearly more important to Irving, and he had a separate cabinet for these artists, not in alphabetical order, just a cabinet unto itself. These were: Clifford Brown, Sonny Rollins, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Fats Navarro. It was in this cabinet that Irving housed his most precious records and the ones that clearly meant the most to him. There were original pressings on the Blue Note, Emarcy, Savoy, Riverside and Prestige labels by all of these artists. Irving wasn’t obsessive in the sense that he had to have an original pressing of each record – but where he had an original pressing, it was in pristine condition. Obviously, this is what attracted me to the collection, and why I risked the potential wrath of The Lovely Mrs. JC to pursue it.

I can also tell you that Irving was loved by his children, who spoke warmly of him in all of our interactions and treated his passion for jazz with utmost respect. Karen said she remembers times when her father would help her with writing – “he was a wonderful writer,” she said – and she would go downstairs to the basement in their old home and he was always listening to his records. “That was when he was at his most relaxed.” Every Friday evening at the end of the workweek, Irving would trek from Brooklyn into Manhattan in search of records. Gary remembers how much his father loved the music and would share his love of music with anyone he respected. He told me about one time walking in the city with his dad when a man came up to Irving and gave him a big bear hug. “He thanked him for something, I don’t know exactly what, but you could see he liked my dad very much and was very warm to him,” Gary recalled. “When he walked away my dad said he was Sonny Rollins’ cousin and my dad couldn’t even remember what he had done for him. He was just like that.”

It’s odd that I never met Irving because we traveled in the same circles. Perhaps I had seen him at Infinity Records, or at Red Carraro’s house, or at one of the many record shows in New York or Long Island. If we had met under those circumstances perhaps we would have looked at one another suspiciously – competition for the few precious gems we were both seeking. In the end, however, we both shared a bond in our love for jazz, our love for music, our love for the records. And now we share one more thing: Irving’s record collection. Rest in peace, Irving.

If you recall, when Red Carraro died I wrote about him here on Jazz Collector and many friends of Red came here and commented on the site, telling stories and sharing memories. It was very nice and quite cathartic. If you knew Irving and would like to talk about him here, please feel free to post a comment, whether you are a regular Jazz Collector reader or not. And also stay tuned tomorrow for the article Irving wrote about Charlie Parker. It is really quite good.

29 comments

  • I like this man very much, and your right the soul of a person is in the things they surround them self by or cherish. Records do become very personal ‘Friends’ and they stay with you through many things in your life often something to turn to in troubled times to give you the hug or comfort needed. I admire you for keeping the collection intact and i think its very important. You could have easily cherry picked the gems. The fact he loved his music so much is unquestionable, not a collector of treasured expensive ‘Insanely Rare’ items but of great jazz music. I would have liked to have shared a beer and a chat with this man. I bet he was lovely.
    Well done Al for taking custody of a great personal collection.
    I hope someone does that for me when I go, this story has made me look at my collection just a little bit differently.

  • Marvellous story, Al, thanks for sharing it with us. The intro of the story about Irving getting hit by that car almost made me cry. Good to know that his collection is now in safe hands.

  • It’s not the story of the finds that’s important. It’s the story of the journey of a man that shines through.

  • Nice story Al.I feel related to everyone with love for the jazzera of the 50’s and 60’s.For me the sound is also more important than the fact that the record is a first pressing.I must confess that in that respect I prefer in most cases an englisch pressing ( London, Vogue or Esquire)more than the original american pressing.The sound quality is far better,more dynamic.IAs a collector Itry to find both,but I play mostly the european issue.Try to find the London pressings of the Coltranes on Atlantic and you willbe astonished!!

  • Advice to read: Nica’s Dream by David Kastin.(the life and legend of the jazz baroness)You’ll love it.

  • What a beautiful tribute to my grandpa. It makes me smile that his jazz collection has gone to someone who can understand and appreciate it. Years ago, I brought two friends who were jazz enthusiasts to visit my grandpa and his collection. While I wasn’t the most knowledgeable about this genre of music, I knew enough to realize that the records he had and the stories he could tell about them were pretty special. I was so proud to “show off” my grandpa that day! I hope that you enjoy the collection as much as he did.

  • I don’t comment alot but I just wanted to say how great it was to read about this man and his love for music. I think it’s wonderful that his collection lives on with someone who appreciates it as much as he does. That’s half of the joy of collecting for me is finding someone who shares the same interest and passion as I do. Irving sounds like a wonderful man and it’s good that his passion is living on.

  • Wonderful story Al, just great…

    I’ve had a couple situations like this myself with small collections I’ve bought. Had some nice chats with people selling their records or family members moving it after a loved one passed.

    These collections are important to people–all of us really, that’s why we’re reading this blog. I really like being a part of the next piece of that and giving this art a good home. I get a lot of enjoyment out of it and hope to share it with other folks that are interested.

  • RIP Irving. Mr JC if you have a lot of extra bluenote libertys can i rock a few from you for not insane prices that you already have a few copies of. they’d be going to a good home on the w. coast

  • What a great series. I had my doubts about the “keeping the collection together” sentiment,but the idea of looking at a room and literally seeing a lifetime of effort-and love-in one space is heartfelt. Here’s hoping they get played and cherished by a whole new generation of listeners.I didn’t know Irving,but I met and traded with Red. There’s something about collectors-and jazz lovers in particular-that easily reaches across nearly a century of music-making. RIP to them both.
    Incidentally,Chewy-I guess this can mark the “official” start of the race for Al’s extra Liberty Blue Notes. I say,”Let the games begin!”

  • Wonderful, wonderful story. Most importantly, Irving was a nice man who was loved by his friends and family.

  • When Sonny Rollin’s cousin had hugged my father, he had said to him “When I was struggling you said something very nice about me to someone that helped me.” And then he continued on his way. My father said to me that he was a good musician in his own right but was a struggling one. My father also said that he always personally liked him very much and always spoke well of him, but wasn’t quite sure of the specific time Sonny’s cousin referenced. My father’s face glowed with the pleasure that he so clearly derived from learning that he had done or said something that made this man’s life easier.

    Thank you Al for this wonderful tribute. My sister found the absolute perfect person to take over my father’s collection. I’ve printed all six articles plus this tribute, which I will keep forever.

  • Al, I wanted to add my thanks as well for your beautiful words about my dad. I don’t know whether it was chance, or whether something else led me to your website. But I do believe dad would be pleased that his treasured collection has found a new home with you.

  • A warm and heartfelt tribute, very well written. I got to know a man I’d like to shake hands with and talk to, during some treasure hunting in the Village.
    All the best to the family.

  • Great story and epitaph for Irv. He was a friend of mine for many years. We spent many hours talking of the old days and clubs and music…Glad you got the collection Al. You would have enjoyed talking to Irving as well. Irv did promise the collection to me, but I am OK, with not getting it. I won’t get into the whole story here, we can talk another time. Irving was truly what a Jazz Fan should be. He loved the Music and the Players. It was his life before his children, and then a hobby to listen to after his children. His main love was his wife who passed on a few years ago. Music became second to her. Anyway great, great great. Glad you got it if it was not to be me. I was actually prob going to keep it intact if I got it since I knew how and why much of the collection was obtained by Irv. Those stories for another time. Peace.

  • Oh, the last record he purchased was a $30 Hank Mobley record before his untimely passing, not Miles Davis. He had the whole Miles catalogue already that he wanted. Not important, but something to correct if you want to. It was funny since, the only real holes in his collection were on early Sonny Stitt, he was always looking for a few elusive 50’s Stitt pieces with me. He will be missed for a long time and is missed greatly. The only solace that I got from his passing that, he is finally back with his Wife, Millie who he missed dearly. R.I.P. dear friend.

  • Ouch I stand corrected. Irv’s last purchase was a Miles Davis LP re-issue of some 40’s stuff with Charlie Parker 20 minutes before he was struck by the automobile. Double checked with my store manager just now. The Hank Mobley was two days prior, and that stuck out since I thought he had all the Mobley sessions, but this was a double LP from the Roulette live sessions. He used to walk for exercise from his home, stop off at the music store then walk into town and then back to his house. Saw him at least 3 to 4 times a week for over 10 years. Hard to find guys from the old days with such great stories and information.

  • Thanks for the wonderful tribute to Irv Kalus. I knew Irv and his wife, Fran, for at least 12 years. I also shared his love of music and I learned so much just from talking to him when I would see him. You see, I was his and his wife’s dentist. Besides, his love and appreciation of be-bop, Irv had a real fondness and love for Billie Holiday. I always looked forward to seeing him at my office and I would try to block out a little extra time so I could play him different things from my collection (all digital in my office) just to see his reaction. If I played a track from a compilation he would be quick to point out if it was out of chronological sequence. When I first heard the Madeleine Peyroux Dreamland CD, and played it for Irv. He begrudgingly acknowleged that the voice did indeed sound like that of Billie Holiday, yet in pristine digital stereo. But he quickly pointed out to me,and I quote Irv:”It’s good, but I don’t hear the pain in her voice.” And he was absolutely correct! I would also play tracks for him without telling him who was playing. And 9 out of 10 times he would amazingly correctly identify the artist. Gary was in my office a couple of days ago and he mentioned that you had purchased Irv’s collection. I told him, without any knowledge of you or your website, that you sounded like the kind of person who could really appreciate and take good care of such a cherished and well cared for collection. After reading your tribute, and knowing Irv as one of my favorite patients for so many years, I would have to concur.

  • My mother’s name (which of course was Irving’s wife, since Irving was and will always be my father) was Frances, not Millie. Everyone knew her as Fran.

    Joe, do you know the name of the Miles Davis record that my father bought before he was hit? It apparently ended up on the highway and wasn’t returned to us with his belongings. I would love to know the name of his final jazz purchase. It would mean alot to me. Your manager did tell me it was a Miles record and I passed it on to Al for the story.

    I was unaware of my father’s promise to you about the collection. I am sorry for the confusion. Truth be told, his great hope was that I would keep it for myself. At times he would talk about what would happen to his belongings if he were to pass on, and he basically promised the collection to me and hoped I would develop the passion. I have much knowledge of jazz as I grew up with it as part of my father’s life.

    I did take an offer from you Joe and I truly hope that I did not lead you to believe that I made a promise. That was not my intention and as reflected in Al’s telling, there was not even a promise to Al until the last conversation. I enjoyed the reading of it, as it was interesting to learn of what Al’s thoughts were as the negotiation progressed.

    Joe, I do appreciate the hours and hours of friendship that you shared with my father. And I truly enjoy Al’s series on jazzcollector.com, of which I’ve informed all my friends and not just in the New York region. The site should have some new observers now.

  • Hey Marc, glad you found the site. I was going to call and ask for your email so that I could send you a link to the tribute. Knowing you’re a big jazz fan, I hope you enjoy Al’s site. BTW, the tooth is holding up fine.

  • great story/Tribute Al!!

  • a tribute to Mrs. J C, from Mingus, referring to Dolphy:
    she is a saint.

  • Well done Al, just read all six parts to this story. What a lucky find. Great to hear that such a nice collection has gone to someone like you. This whole story does raise the issue of what will happen to our collections after we have gone… I for one have catalogued my, admittedly modest collection, with an indication of what each LP cost me at the time of purchase so at least my family have something to go off when the end comes.

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