Today’s post is by David Sager, Research Assistant in the Recorded Sound Research Center.
Marty Alexander, a chemist, collected rare 17th Century French furniture and art and also amassed one of the world’s most comprehensive and exotic collections of pre-WWII 78 rpm jazz recordings. After his death in 2009, the Library of Congress acquired the collection. It’s now part of the Library’s Recorded Sound collection.
The Alexander Collection consists of approximately 3,500 discs, nearly all original issues. About a third of the collection is composed of “race records”, records which were specifically marketed towards African American customers. Largely sold in limited quantities, many race records are scarce today.
Alexander, doggedly and consistently sought out the best possible copies he could find of these rare discs on labels such as Paramount, Vocalion, and Okeh. He assembled impressive holdings of recordings by artists both famous and obscure, such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Blind Leroy Garnett, Hot and Heavy, Kansas City Frank and his Footwarmers, J. C. Higginbotham’s Six Hicks, Jimmy Bertrand’s Washboard Wizards, and Jelly James and his Fewscians. Moreover, the song titles, often as colorful as the artist’s names- “Georgia Bo Bo,” “Goose Grease,” “Georgia Grind,” “Hoola Boola Dance,” and “Soap Suds.” were emblazoned on vibrant, eye-catching labels.
Because of Alexander’s perseverance, he also assembled the complete, or near-complete recorded collection of several very well-known and important artists such as Jelly Roll Morton, legendary clarinetists Frank Teschemacher and Johnny Dodds, and Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven.
Alexander assembled a complete collection of recordings of Joe “King” Oliver, a master of early New Orleans–style cornet and leader of one of the most influential jazz bands of all time. During the early 1920s, Oliver’s band was the talk of Chicago’s Southside and a favorite of the best musicians in town. Significantly, Oliver’s first recordings featured young Louis Armstrong, fresh from New Orleans. That this is the only complete collection of Oliver’s recordings is apparent due to the inclusion of one unique item, a sort of Holy Grail of early jazz recordings – “Zulus Ball” played by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.
To appreciate its value, one must realize how fervently collectors of early jazz recordings have sought Oliver’s discs over the decades. In the December 1923 edition of Talking Machine World, the “Advance Record Bulletins of January” list of new recordings included several titles by Oliver’s band made for the Gennett label: “Zulus Ball” and its reverse side “Workingman Blues.” The list also includes the coupling “That Sweet Something Dear” and “If You Want My Heart,” a pairing that is believed not to have been issued; no copies have been found. Also listed is the pairing of “Alligator Hop” and “Krooked Blues,” the only disc of the three that seems to have been properly released to the public.
Prior to 1944, “Zulus Ball” was a mythic recording. Found in an Alabama Salvation Army thrift store, it passed through four other collectors before Alexander acquired it in the summer of 2001. No one has ever found another and it remains a mystery why and how this one lone copy found its way to Alabama.
The recording “Zulus Ball” / “Workingman Blues” and the Marty Alexander Collection are now at the Library of Congress and available for listening in the Recorded Sound Research Center. Please note that the collection is largely unprocessed and not immediately accessible. However, we are currently digitizing some of the more rare and hard to find items. To make a listening appointment, please contact the reference librarians at [email protected], or by phone at 202-707-7833.