American ’50s Record Clubs: The American Recording Society (1956-7)

Professor JazzA record collector’s special bonus topic, prompted by LJC commenter Geoffrey Wheeler. I’m sure that name is familiar! You’ll note it again after a few minutes reading.

An occasional look at the stuff you may well have overlooked, delving into the business of making and selling jazz records in the ’50s through Record Clubs – and one in particular I knew absolutely nothing about – the American Recording Society.

American-Recording-Society-sleeve-LJC

The American Recording Society was founded in 1951 to promote American composers, principally of classical music like Charles Ives. Under its umbrella, mail-order entrepreneurs John Stevenson and Milo Sutliff extended their successful  book club model to create a number of commercial record clubs – “music subscription services“, including the American Recording Society – Jazz series, which was active between 1956 and 1957, free enterprise operating under the guise of not-for-profit.

An offer you can not refuse…

An introductory record purchase, at a special club price, conferred Associate Membership status of the club, and thereafter, each two further purchases, at special club prices,  resulted in members receiving a free “dividend record”. How exciting! Free records!

Enter Mr Jazz, Norman Granz

Norman Granz, founder of Verve, Cleff and Norgran, signed an agreement with ARS to release jazz recordings through the ARS Jazz series – announced in Billboard December 17, 1955. Effectively, Granz found a new distribution channel for some of his stock of previously unissued  recordings. Sounds smart to me.

Granz sutliff-stevensonDiscogs label guide credits ARS as America’s “first non-profit record label”. Eventually there were quite a lot of non-profit making record labels in the US. Unfortunately, they just weren’t intended to be.

The ARS Discogs entry groups the not-for-profit promotion of American classical composers (ARS red label)  with the commercial record club operations of Sutliff and Stevenson (ARS blue label), under the overall American Recording Society umbrella.

ARS was founded with help from the Ditson Musical Foundation at Columbia University, which is still giving money away today.  In case any jazz entrepreneurs thought they might be up for some support, F.A.Q. under grants “In general, jazz is not supported. The Ditson Fund supports contemporary American classical concert music” .

ARS Jazz Division launch July 30, 1956

Life Magazine full-page promotion. For heaven’s sake, free jazz already! No obligation to buy records – ever! Music for Every Taste! Send for your Free Record At Once!

Jeez these guys could spin a line, I’m sold.

American Recording Society launch ad

Vinyl

As club releases, records in the Jazz Division have no original cover artwork , but a seriously cute club sleeve.

American-Recording-Society-sleeve-and-label-1600-LJC

Records in the ARS Jazz series have received critical acclaim from record collectors for their fine sonic qualities. This was in no small part due to the involvement of pressing plant Abbey Record Mfg Company, who pressed records for an eclectic assortment of independent labels, including Prestige, Riverside and pressed the ARS Jazz series. Abbey’s management board included Norman Jacobowitz – engineer at Carnegie Hall Recording – and drew on the mastering wizardry of Rudy Van Gelder. Who knew?

The quality of engineering of ARS records has drawn invidious comparison with Granz’s own output on Verve. Cited in David Bonner’s book “Revolutionising Children’s Records, 1946 – 1977″ (Scarecrow Press Inc., 2008) “according to Geoffrey Wheeler“…that name again!

Grennell Abbey 3

A comment on the excellent Jazz Collector site echoed these observations about audio quality of ARS:

“I just got through comparing my DG Trumpet label with the ARS. The ARS is brighter and crisper than the Verve which sounds muffled in comparison. Also the ARS has RVG etched in the dead wax while the Verve does not”.

And you get inserts!

In addition to top-notch engineering, ARS Associate Members were provided with a jazz-educational insert accompanying each record, written by respected and serious jazz educators. Occasional thrift shop copies may still have insert included.

ARS-insert-educational

and bonus records received a bonus insert:

ARS-Bonus-insert

Bonus records! Educational inserts! Wasn’t this a great time to be a jazz fan, belonging to record clubs and receiving all these treats?

Billboard noted at the time that Record Clubs prospered most among specialist genres, like jazz and classical music, rather than pop, on the basis that people trusted themselves to choose their own preferred popular artists, whilst in more specialist fields, they felt expertly curated selection introduced them to better choices among less-familiar work and artists. Makes sense.

Collector’s Corner

Record clubs and book clubs were a great idea for consumers – I well recall my excitement as a kid belonging to The Science Fiction Book Club – every month the postman brought an exciting hardback from Asimov, Bradbury or Heinlein, an enthralling dystopian future, unlike the dystopian present we now live in.

However record clubs proved an operational headache for record manufacturers. Special club price and volume discounts, parallel manufacture and distribution, free bonus records requiring separate accounting systems and sales tax calculation, and the dreaded spectre of record returns.

Some record clubs simply gave members access to record label’s normal commercial release catalogue, leading to massive fulfilment problems for people like United Artists. The Record Club of America spent decades in the court system with rottweiler lawyers  demanding access to original recording tapes so they could press their own club issues, where contractual fulfilment timescales were not met. Others, like Columbia, had separate club pressings which were not always the full measure, or in the case of ARS, unexpectedly better pressings.

Eventually I guess the whole record club thing eventually faded away, overtaken by events, technology, and changing tastes in music.

The ARS Jazz Listing

ARS Jazz series lists around fifty jazz titles issued between 1956 and 1957, catalogue numbers G401 though to G452, some missing and a stray G607 – possibly there are more.

Not all to my taste, I have never seen any of these in the flesh this side of the pond, I guess they didn’t travel. If I had, I would probably ignored them as not worth bothering with, “just a record club issue”. Once again, I would have been wrong. I didn’t know my ARS from my elbow. After a while, you just get used to being wrong: it gets a little less uncomfortable each time. Just not much.

If anyone can contribute any more information, knowledge or experiences about these Record Club issues, get onto your keyboard right away. My thanks to Geoffrey Wheeler for pointing me to this interesting and previously unknown to me piece of record history. If I ever find myself digging in thrift shop crates, I feel better informed, hopefully you are too. Only remember, if we reach for the same record at the same time,  I saw it first.

ARS Discography  – updated July 23 – full numerical series now in correct ascending order (unlike Discogs) missing titles entered blank as they fall.

Catalogue Title
G 401  Giants Of Jazz ‎(LP, Comp)
G 402  Count Basie And His Band That Swings The Blues ‎
G 403  The Swinging Jazz Of Lionel Hampton ‎
G 404  Jam Session (Funky Blues, Jam Blues No. 1)‎
G 405  Jazz Creations Of Dizzy Gillespie ‎
G 406  Kings Of The Keyboard ‎
G 407  The Cool Jazz Of Stan Getz ‎
G 408  The Dixieland Jazz Of Bob Scobey ‎
G 409  Billie Holiday Sings ‎
G 410 The Progressive Big Band Jazz Of Woody Herman ‎
G 411  Jazz Rhythms of Gene Krupa ‎
G 412  Art Tatum And Buddy DeFranco – The Flying Fingers Of Art Tatum And Buddy DeFranco ‎
G 413  The Urban Jazz Of Roy Eldridge And Benny Carter ‎
G 414
G 415  An Oscar For Peterson ‎
G 416  The Oscar Peterson Trio, The Gene Krupa Quartet, JATP All Stars – Jazz at the Philharmonic ‎
G 417  Lester Young, Teddy Wilson – Pres And Teddy ‎
G 418  The Swinging Guitar Of Tal Farlow
G 419  Jazz Scene
G 420 Swing Goes Dixie – Roy Eldridge, Eddie Barefield, Benny Morton, Dick Wellstood, Walter Paige, Jo Jones
G 421  Johnny Hodges And The Ellington All-Stars ‎
G 422  Basie’s Best ‎
G 423  Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band Jazz ‎
G 424 All-Star Tribute to Tatum
G 425  Battle of The Saxes
G 426  Anita Sings For Oscar ‎
G 427  Drummer Man – Gene Krupa
G 428  Intimate Portrait by Stan Getz
G 429  Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis, The Modern Jazz Sextet, Sonny Stitt – Cross Currents ‎
G 430 Sweets
G 431  Lady Sings The Blues
G 432  Jazz Looks Ahead ‎
G 433  Ella Fitzgerald And Billy Holiday – At Newport ‎
G 434  Gerry Mulligan Quartet, The And The Teddy Wilson Trio – At Newport ‎
G 435  Mainstream Jazz: Swing ‎
G 436 The Red Allen All-Stars Band.
G 437  The Cecil Taylor Quartet / The Gigi Gryce – Donald Byrd Jazz Laboratory Quintet – Modern Jazz ‎
G 438  The Oscar Peterson Trio At Newport ‎
G 439  Ruby Braff Octet And Bobby Henderson – Ruby Braff Octet And Bobby Henderson At Newport ‎
G 440
G 441  Now’s The Time ‎
G 442  Count Basie / Joe Williams – Count Basie Swings and Joe Williams Sings ‎
G 443  Stan Getz ’57
G 444  Lester Young, Vic Dickenson, Roy Eldridge, Teddy Wilson, Freddie Greene*, Gene Ramey, Jo Jones – Giants Of Jazz, Vol. II ‎(LP, Comp)
G 445  Hey, Ruby! ‎
G 446  Easy Swing (Nat Pierce Band)
G 447
G 448
G 449  Charlie Parker
G 450  The Fletcher Henderson All Stars Big Reunion ‎
G 451
G 452  Jazz A La Midnight
G 607  Cole Porter, Irving Berlin – Moods With Cole Porter / Moods With Irving Berlin

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26 thoughts on “American ’50s Record Clubs: The American Recording Society (1956-7)

  1. G 419 Jazz Scene
    Side A: 1: Neal Hefti & Charlie Parker – Repetition; 2: Lester Young – I want to be Happy;
    3: Machito & Flip Phllips – Tanga; 4: Ralph Burns – Introspection; 5: Willie Smith – Sophisticated Lady; 6: Duke Ellington – Frustration
    Side B: 1: George Handy – The Bloos; 2: Bud Powell – All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm;
    3: Duke Ellington – Sono; 4: Charlie Parker – The Bird; 5: Neal Hefti – Rhumbacito;
    6: Coleman Hawkins – Picasso

  2. Incidentally, ARS G-430 Harry James & His Orchestra – Sweets
    Side A: 1: Hollering at The Watkins; 2: Used to Be Basie; 3: How Deep is The Ocean; 4: Studio Call
    Side B: 1: Wuillow Weep For Me; 2: Opus 711; 3: Our Love Is Here To Stay; 4: K.M. Blues; 5: Walkin’ With Sweets

  3. ARS G-440 George Lewis & Turk Murphy at Newport
    Side A (all by George Lewis Band): 1: Basin Street Blues; 2: Bourbon Street Parade; 3: The Roof Blues; 4: Royal Garden Blues
    Side B: 1: That’s A Plenty by The George Lewis Band; 2: (Rest of This Side is the Turk Murphy Band) St. James Infirmary; 3: Weary Blues; 4: Down By The Riverside

  4. G-436-A The Red Allen All-Stars Band. Red Allen-trumpet, Buster Bailey-clarinet, J.C. Higgenbotham-trombone, Claude Hopkins-piano, Avrell Shaw-bass, and Cozy Cole-drums.

  5. Thank you for the great posts! I have the Charlie Parker G-441 and the Pres and Teddy G-417. 417 has the RVG stamp but not the 441, which sounds crispier actually! 417 sounds fine even though a bit murky at times. I wish I could compare them with the original Verves… ah don’t have the leaflets unfortunately….

  6. One more addition

    G 420 Swing Goes Dixie – Roy Eldridge, Eddie Barefield, Benny Morton, Dick Wellstood, Walter Paige, Jo Jones

    • A few could be valuable today, nothing stellar, I guess most are not. What you can do depends on how much time and effort you are willing to put into their disposal. You could give them away to a thrift shop, or list them for sale up at Discogs.

  7. A couple of notes regarding the Discogs info…

    ARS was never non-profit. A grant from Ditson covered recording expenses for some of the first classical releases, but the record label was for-profit. (The details are on pp.127-28, and accompanying footnote 2, of Revolutionizing Children’s Records.)

    Regarding the ARS label colors, as far as I know, all the classical series was red, and all the jazz series was blue. (Another classical series owned by the same company, on the Music Treasures of the World label, had blue labels — with the exception of the fake stereo releases, which were red.)

  8. (snip)
    Darlene, Please see comments policy: Comments deemed to be spam, promoting products or services, or soliciting/sale of records, will be deleted
    That is what Ebay and Discogs are for.

  9. Driving back home from a rather successful vinyl record hunt in a store reputable for jazz albums at accessible prices (read Bird and Diz, Columbia UK in VG+ condition for 12 dollars!), I decided to skip another store on the way that had proven unsatisfactory in the past. Yet, as my car was aligned to the store’s door, a rather unexplainable phenomenon forced me to turn the wheel and, within seconds, parallel parking had never been such an easy endeavor.

    My inquiry for a Jazz section led the owner to direct me to the “dollar” section, the “new arrivals” section and “somewhere over there in the corner.” This particular dollar section did not produce the gems that one dreams about, but reasonable jazz selections that I could not pass up because I usually see them for around 5 dollars elsewhere. Next to the new arrivals was a 1.99 section that produced a first pressing of Horace Silver’s “Song for my Father” in VG condition and a second pressing of Barney Kessel’s “Easy like” in VG+ condition. I thought I was done and my simian grinning almost made me skip the “somewhere in the corner section”, but—oh!—am I glad I did not. Those pink sleeves decorated with piano keys uplifted my spirit even more: over 40 ARS records, of which I got 26, without booklets, most of them in almost mint condition.

    Not only did the owner lower his price to 3 dollars each, but also gave me the two $1.99 records for free.

    If there is vinyl heaven, RVG certainly moved some levers in there for the serendipity of my discoveries that day, a couple after my birthday.

    • An uplifting story which will resonate with every collector. We all need days like that, to compensate for the hours of trawling through boxes of the unloved and unwanted. Thank you. One point to clarify, is there a vinyl-searcher app connected to your sat-nav, that takes over the steering wheel I wonder? If not, I see a gap in the market.

  10. note on Jazztone 1245, Modern Jazz Festival.
    it’s a compilation with studio tracks by Gene Quill, Rouse-Watkins combo, Joe Puma, Zoot Sims, Fats Navarro, Mat Mathews, Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Paul Quinichette, Charlie Parker.
    My personal interest is in the only Oscar Pettiford all-stars track: Strictly Instrumental
    to my knowledge, Jazztone 1245 is the first and only vinyl issue featuring John Coltrane.
    Oscar Pettiford b, Ed Thigpen dr, Frank Rehak tb, Al Cohn and John Coltrane ts, Donald Byrd tp and Gene Quill as.
    no evidence of USA or European origin.
    pictures available

  11. A couple of additions to the above list:
    G 427 Drummer Man – Gene Kruper
    G 449 Charlie Parker
    Maybe this would form another post, but following Geoffrey Wheeler’s mention of Jazztone Records, here is a list of associated albums:
    J-1201 Coleman Hawkins All Stars (Emmett Berry, Billy Taylor, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones, Eddie Bert)

    J-1206 Mary Lou Williams — A Keyboard History (Wendall Marshal and Osie Johnson)

    J-1208 Max Kaminsky and His Windy City Six (Pee Wee Russell, Miff Mole, Joe Sullivan, George Wettling, Jack Lesberg)–Chicago Style

    J-1210 Swinging with Ruby Braff (Sam Margolis, Billy Byers, Marty Napoleon, Milt Hinton, Jo Jones) (original session)

    J-1211 Jelly Roll Morton

    J-1213 Sidney Bechet/Omer Simeon –Jazz A La Creole (Simeon session for Jazztone)

    J-1214 Charlie Parker–The Fabulous Bird (reissue of Dial releases)

    J-1215 Tony Parenti–Happy Jazz (Red Allen, Tyree Glenn, Hank Duncan, Milt Hinton, George Wettling) (original session)

    J-1217 Joe Newman and Billy Byers–New Sounds in Swing (Gene Quill, Lou Stein, Milt Hinton, Osie Johnson)

    J-1219 Jazz Concert (Red Norvo, Krupa-Ventura, Teddy Wilson (1945 Town Hall concert)

    J-1220 The Count’s Men Featuring Joe Newman, Frank Wess, Frank Foster, Benny Powell, Sir Charles Thompson, Ed Jones, Shadow Wilson

    J-1226 Charles Mingus, John LaPorta, Teo Macero, etc.–Jazz Experiment (reissue of Period release)

    J-1229 Maxine Sullivan and members of the John Kirby Band–Flow Gently Sweet Rhythm (Charlie Shavers, Buster Bailey, Russell Procope, Billy Kyle, Dick Hyman, Specs Powell, Osie Johnson, Aaron Bell, Oscar Pettiford) (original sesssion)

    J-1236 Sammy Price in Concert (Emmett Berry, George Stevenson, Herbert Hall, George Foster, Freddie Moore) (original)

    J-1239 Bob Brookmeyer–Zoot Sims Quintet–Today’s Jazz (reissue of Storyville release)

    J-1241 Jimmy McPartland’s Chicago Rompers/Paul Barbarin’s New Orleans Stompers–Dixieland Now and Then

    J-1256 Don Elliott Quartet/Sam Most Sextet–Doubles in Jazz (reissue from Vanguard)

    J-1258 Comparative Blues (anthology of other Jazztone releases)

    J-1259 Slidin’ Swing, The Trombones of Vic Dickenson and Urbie Green (reissues of Vanguard releases)

    J-1263 Kai Winding/Sonny Stitt–Early Modern (reissue of Roost recordings)

    J-1268 Cootie Williams and Rex Stewart in The Big Challenge (Coleman Hawkins, Bud Freeman, Lawrence Brown, J.C. Higginbotham, Hank Jones, Billy Bauer, Milt Hinton, Gus Johnson)

    J-1271 Charlie Mingus–Jazz Experiment (same as J-1226)

    J-1277 Cal Tjader Quartets/Red Norvo Trios (reissue of Fantasy releases)

    J-1279 Elliot Lawrence — Big Band Modern (reissue of Fantasy releases)

    J-1281 Clifford Brown/Art Blakey–Jazz Messages (reissue of Pacific Jazz releases)

  12. In addition to the records and inserts, ARS also mailed promo brochures to record buyers announcing forthcoming releases. I have a small stack of these. They give a good idea of ARS thinking about record releases.

    The other big record club not affiliated with an established brand (think Columbia Record Club) was Jazztone, a subsidiary of Concert Hall Society that was devoted to classical music–first on 78, then on LP. Jazztone produced LPs sold to buyers in album jackets featuring a generic photo of the Salt City Five taken by Robert W. “Bob” Parent at Childs Paramount Restaurant on Broadway in New York City. The photo was shot Thursday, November 27, 1952. As used on the Jazztone record covers, the photo is two negatives flopped, the second consisting of a photo of the New York skyline shot from the roof of Parent’s apartment building. The only publication of the two photos in correct orientation appear on the cover of my book “Jazz By Mail: Record Clubs and Record Labels,1936-1958.”

    The International Association of Jazz Record Collectors (IAJRC) also released a series of more than 50 LPs sourced from members’ personal collections, ranging from early jazz to modern. In several cases, modern recordings are drawn from individual concerts in the late 1940s and are the only issues of these recordings. In the early 1990s, IAJRC discontinued the program and segued into issuing more than 20 CDs, some of which represents concert material. That program, too, has been discontinued. Some LPs and CDs are still available through Ebay and several U. S. retailers. Many of the Jazztone LPs offer material leased from small independent labels with limited distribution. Through Jazztone, more jazz fans and collectors became aware of recordings they might not otherwise have seen in retail stores.

  13. I suppose you realize that you provide a valuable service but I hope you also appreciate – as should we all – how the value is growing in this age of (a) music via electronic file or download, far too frequently mislabelled and/or lacking in recording/personnel information; and (b) generally vanishing knowledge of musical history and culture (ironic in what otherwise appears to be an age of vast and free information). Collectors of recorded music, who were once so well served because an inherent part of the product being collected was the archival information (who played, who wrote, song titles, etc.), have, over time, been more poorly seved by a music industry which has failed to properly and diligently discharge its custodial duties (hastened and abetted by other forces, of course). Now we are awash in a sea of easily available music through channels both legit and illegitimate (depending on your point of view, I suppose) but with no guarantee that we actually know to what we are listening. LJC, site and auteur, provides valuable information and services in this regard, including curation and preservation of the historical record, no pun intended.

  14. Here are some of the catalog numbers missing from the above list, or in the case of G 404, identifying the Jam Session tunes.
    G 404 Jam Session (Funky Blues, Jam Blues No. 1)
    G 410 The Progressive Big Band Jazz of Woody Herman
    G 424 All-Star Tribute to Tatum
    G 428 Intimate Portrait by Stan Getz
    G 430 Sweets
    G 446 Easy Swing (Nat Pierce Band)

    • OK Geoffrey, I’ve replaced the initial discography copied direct from Discogs with something in proper ascending order, with blanks where there is no title known as yet. One of the problems of Discogs is the sort order is dumb. It treats G 407 as different to G-407.The hyphen doesn’t mean anything but it affects the order in which records are listed there. It also has no entry for blanks. Not unreasonable, but the blank is the best way to identify unknown entries and numbers that were unissued. Initially I was lazy, as punishment I have put it right.

      If anyone has entries for the blanks, let me know and I will update.

  15. Thank you for your informative and detailed coverage of the ARS venture and catalog. All I can say is: God, that was quick! Thank you also for mention of my book. A fulfillment house in the Bronx provided ARS with the same mailing list used by Jazztone. I was told this by a guy who worked for the firm. Started by Concert Hall Society, Jazztone was developed as a “continuity” club based on the sales model used by the owners whose real business was selling vitamins by mail order. In the late 1950s, the drug company moved its headquarters to Switzerland and set up parallel mail-order music operations under license in various countries under the Jazztone name. The exception was Guilde du Jazz in France. Two brothers ran the operation. One came to have his very own symphony orchestra in England.

  16. Who knew? They were all great and the price was right! No great covers ,but the music……. Liner notes which you showed an example of, were far more intresting than the originals on the back covers. I especially liked the 2 Stan Getz records.

  17. I own a handful of these. I first stumbled on the Tal Farlow (my, those images look very familiar!!). I thought it looked cheesy at first, then checked out the booklet, then saw RVG in the deadwax and knew it was worth $3!

    Your research here is wonderful, I had previously only found the Jazz Collector piece, and someone else indicated to me that perhaps Norman Granz even released a few on this label prior to release of his own (Norgran, Clef, Verve)?

    Several months back there was a nice 3-ring binder of ~25 titles if memory serves, that went for next to nothing in an eBay auction, it was shortly after I discovered the Tal Farlow… They were complete with the funny bags and inserts, allegedly all in great condition.

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