In Memory of a Jazz Collector
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.