A 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.
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.
Discogs 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.
As club releases, records in the Jazz Division have no original cover artwork , but a seriously cute club sleeve.
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!
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.
and bonus records received a 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.
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 February 17, 2019 – full numerical series in ascending order, missing titles entered blank as they fall.
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 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 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 449 Cool Jazz – The Stan Getz Quintet; / Cool jazz – The Charlie Parker Quintet G 450 The Fletcher Henderson All Stars Big Reunion
G 451 East Coast Sounds, The Billy Byers – Joe Newman Sextet/ The Eddie Bert Septet
G 452 Jazz A La Midnight
G 607 Cole Porter, Irving Berlin – Moods With Cole Porter / Moods With Irving Berlin