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Dizzy Gillespie: In Praise of Liner Notes

Marc Davis By

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“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” —Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell was onto something. You don't miss liner notes until you don't have them.

I admit: Many liner notes leave me cold, for two reasons. First, they're way too detailed, especially in jazz. Every take has to be scrupulously annotated. Who played third trumpet in that big band? Was that Bird's second or third take? Was that recorded in 1943 or 1944?

Phooey.

Second, the actual commentary tends to be syrupy. Has anyone ever written objective liner notes? If so, I haven't read them. Most idealize their subjects. And why not? The label pays for the liner notes. What do you expect—critical journalism?

And yet, take away the liner notes and the recording seems naked.

Over and over, I've come to this realization—and never more often than since I started collecting Blue Note CDs. Here's the problem: Many old Blue Note CDs are rare, so the temptation to just get the MP3 files is huge. For example, Gil Melle's Patterns in Jazz, a 1956 cool jazz recording on Blue Note, ain't cheap. A used LP goes for around $50. A used CD runs around $25 to $30. But the MP3 version is just $5. What a deal!

Except the MP3 version has no liner notes. And there are dozens of old Blue Notes just like Patterns in Jazz.

I love my Blue Notes. Mostly, I love the music. But I also love owning the physical LPs or CDs. Part of that is owning and reading the liner notes, including the corny, fawning publicity from Leonard Feather and other writers. Strip away the hyperbole and you still have some pretty good history.

But sometimes, even with the best of intentions, I'm missing the liner notes. That happens often with used CDs. Recently, I bought Dizzy's Diamonds, a wonderful 3-CD set of Dizzy Gillespie's best Verve recordings. Great stuff. But when I opened the jewel case—no booklet! Which means it's impossible to know who plays on what. There are 38 tunes and each one seems to have a different lineup. Who's that saxman? Sounds like Stan Getz... maybe. The piano? Oscar Peterson? Who knows?

So there's the conundrum. Buy new CDs and you're guaranteed to get the liner notes. Great! But when the price is high and the MP3s are more affordable, there's a choice to make: Get the music without liner notes? Or splurge for the whole package? And if it's used—a crap shoot.

Got your own favorite liner notes story? Share it here. And for God's sake—if anyone can copy the booklet for Dizzy's Diamonds, please let me know!

(Postscript—Since writing this column, a generous online soul, who I've never met, has sent me a copy of the Dizzy liner notes. Bless you, Tony Davidson! There's a place for you in the jazz fan's Hall of Fame)
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