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Interviews

Gene Deitch: The Pen Behind 'The Cat'

By Published: October 1, 2003

AAJ: How did you first become associated with the Record Changer ?
GD: I picked up a copy at the Jazz Man Record Shop, which was within walking distance of my house in West Hollywood. The magazine was smaller, and was mainly full of listings of 78RPM shellac jazz records wanted, or for sale or trade. There were a few articles and some photos, and some interesting cover drawings. I quickly got the idea that it needed a cartoon character to satirize the intrepid collectors, and I sent a couple of sample cartoons to the editor. He was a very bright and funny guy named Gordon Gullickson. I lived in Hollywood, and Gullickson lived across the country in Fairfax, Virginia, near Washington DC. We never met personally. Amazingly, he printed my cartoons, and asked me to send more. When I did, he named my character, 'The CAT.' A 'Cat' was a jazz musician or a jazz lover. The name had nothing to do with felines. I later learned that the term 'cat' was derived from the West African word 'katta,' which simply meant, a person. Today, a musician would say to someone he admires, 'You da Man! You da Man!' It means the same thing. A 'Cat' was 'the Man!'

AAJ: Who were other noteworthy contributors to the Record Changer?
GD: William Russel, Orrin Keepnews, George Avakian, Charles Edward Smith, Rudi Blesh were among the writers of articles. Bill Gottlieb wrote and did great photographs of jazz musicians. There were other artists too, who did excellent cover drawings. I never met any of them, and don't recall their names.

AAJ: Describe your relationship with Orrin Keepnews?
GD: He was one of the main writers, and eventually an editor of the magazine, but I never met him at the time. Finally, we met in San Francisco, just a year ago. He has had a great role in the proliferation and recording of jazz music.

AAJ: What caused the Record Changer to close down?
GD: For me it began when Gordon Gullickson sold the magazine to Bill Grauer, Jr., for whom it was only a business. When other businesses became more important to him, he sold the Changer to Richard Hadlock, a musician but NOT a businessman. He apparently couldn't keep it going. As time went by, and as jazz records were finally being issued by the major companies, collecting was less of an issue. Apparently the reason for the magazine's existence, the scarceness of jazz recordings, was no longer important enough to support such a publication.

AAJ: Let's talk about music and records: How many records are in your Collection and are you still collecting today?
GD: By the time I left the states to live in Europe, I had a collection of over 10,000 78RPM records, each having of course just two sides and two tunes. LPs came and went, and now my collection consists of just a few hundred CDs, but containing more than 20,000 tunes!

AAJ: What are the top five possessions in your record collection?
GD: I don't have anything 'rare' anymore, because virtually everything is now available for anyone to buy. My tastes have broadened to include Ellington and classical music. My favorite jazz records still include many by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Kid Ory, Bunk Johnson, and Lu Watters Yerba Buena Jazz Band.

AAJ: Who are your three favorite musicians?
GD: Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Wolfie Mozart ' but I have about three hundred other favorites, all interchangeable.

AAJ: What is your favorite piece of album cover artwork?
GD: Any by James Flora. (Editor's Note: Flora's artwork was featured on late-1940s to mid-1950s recordings by Louis Armstrong's Hot Five, Kid Ory, Gene Krupa, Sidney Bechet, Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Dorsey (for Columbia Records), and by Benny Goodman, Charlie Ventura, Charlie Barnet, Andre Previn, Shorty Rogers, and the Boston Pops Orchestra with Arthur Fiedler (for RCA Victor).)

AAJ: Do you prefer the sound of music on vinyl or on CD?
GD: Now you've asked the bullshit question! I have no time for the maniacs who swear that LPs 'sound better!' There are many factors that contribute to excellent recorded sound reproduction, but LP vinylite discs are basically a negative factor in the preservation and playing of music. (Incidentally, those who now use the term 'vinyl' have almost forgotten that the actual name of the material is 'vinylite.')

During the final days of 78RPM records many of them were being pressed on vinylite, because the worst thing about 78RPM records was their brittle breakability. Vinylite was advertised as 'unbreakable.' That was not strictly true, but relatively true. But vinylite introduced a new negative factor: static electricity. The vinyls worked up static electricity from the friction of the needle and from handling, and they attracted dust that was hard to get rid of, giving birth to a whole industry producing so-called anti-static devices. Few, if any, actually worked.

78RPM records had easily visible grooves, the vibrations of which were easily seen by the naked eye, and were relatively easy to keep clean. The Records turned fast enough so that the vibrations were wide enough to handle a great dynamic range. Their disadvantage was that a ten-inch 78RPM record with a normal groove pitch could only hold about three minutes of music. LPs were sold to the public on the basis that they were 'Long Playing,' hence LP. To achieve this, the revolving speed was reduced from 78RPM to 33.3RPM, and also the groove pitch was greatly reduced and named 'microgrooves.' The combined result of this meant that the grooves and vibrations were too fine to see, and that as the record turned at a constant speed, the vibrations of the grooves became progressively mashed together toward the center of the discs, just when music was usually reaching its dynamic climax. Distortion was the inevitable result. It would have been far better if LPs had been introduced as playing from the inside outward. As it was, a race was on to develop finer and finer styli, lighter and lighter pickups with complicated little balancing weights, plus more and more sophisticated amplifiers, all attempting to compensate for the basic flaws of the LP records. No matter what you did, you found that no LP record ever played perfectly or noiselessly after ten times. Did you know that?

CD records have none of these flaws, nor the time limits and fragility of 78s. They do track from the inside out. They continuously reduce their speed as they play in order to have the digital impulses that carry the sound go by the laser pickup at the same speed from beginning to end. Nothing actually touches the CD records, so they virtually never wear out and could play almost forever at no reduction in quality. Poorly made ones do oxidize. Nothing really lasts forever. It's still a partially mechanical system, and only solid-state music carriers have the potential for perfection.

But with good speakers, good amplifiers, proper room acoustics, the CDs have the dynamic range, clarity, and absence of surface noise that simply blows LPs out the window. Those whose sense of nostalgia and love of impressive looking turntables and pickup arms have led them to a fantasy belief in the superiority of LPs are just kidding themselves. I remember that many of us mourned the passing of the 78s for similar romantic and nonsensical reasons.



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