Tolley: Online

Beginnings: Jazz and Records/The 10" 78rpm Record Format

The relationship between jazz and sound recording is of significant importance. The evolution of jazz has largely corresponded with the evolution of recording technologies in the 20th century. Because of the spontaneity of most jazz through improvisation, recordings act as a snapshot of single creative moments which can never be repeated. Because no two recordings of the same song may be exactly the same, and it is relatively impossible to replicate a given performance, each recording acquires a unique value. The early beginnings of what would be known as jazz, occurring in the late 19th century and early 20th century, have largely been undocumented because recording technologies were primarily used only for communication purposes rather than entertainment. 1917 is considered the year in which the first jazz records were made and released by several different companies after ignoring the music for about 30 years. Record companies such as Victor and Columbia began to compete for jazz; they realized a possible commercial value in the music that coincided with rising labels. Various small and independent labels helped with this launch as well, such as Gennett, Brunswick and OKeh. They attracted some of the formative artists and bands of early jazz, such as King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, Bix Beiderbecke and the Wolverines, and Jelly Roll Morton. However, at the advent of electrical recording in 1925 (with the use of microphones), these labels were bought out by larger companies. Swing music flourished in the recording industry, by big-bands lead by names such as Paul Whiteman, Red Nichols, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington.

The standard commercial record disc was 10 inches in size, made of shellac, and played at 78rpm (revolutions per minute) on a phonograph. Playing time was between three and four minutes per side, therefore each side contained one song. The materials caused limitations in fidelity (the accuracy with which the original sound is reproduced by recording and playback) which reduced the dynamic range, meaning bass instruments were hard to pick up. This was also the time of acoustical recording, in which sound is played into a large horn that is connected to a cutting stylus. This cuts grooves into the wax of a disc in response to the sound vibrations.
There are a number of “master pressings” in this collection. This refers to a pressing created from the master cut of a given recording directly from a microphone or recording horn. For collector’s these are extremely valuable, especially when considering the matrix and take numbers. A Matrix number is a combination of numbers and letters assigned by a record company to a master at the early stages of the recording process. It appears etched or stamped onto the disc near the label. Take numbers are of particular significance, since two or more versions of the same piece may have been recorded at the same session and may differ significantly.


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