Monday, April 23, 2012

Ann Arbor: A Mecca for Music

Spent a great weekend in Ann Arbor with my son, daughter-in-law, grandson and granddaughter. And in the process spent a lot of time around music, both in stores and at a performance. First the performance.

Jazz BandCall me a Pioneer High School groupie if you want, but after seeing the past week's Big Apple performance, I was fortunate again this weekend to hear them in action, this time in a great acoustic hall at the Michigan State University College of Music, where they were competing in the 32nd Annual Jazz Spectacular Program against 10 other bands from MI, WI, and IN. The MSU Music school has an outstanding jazz program headed by Rodney Whitaker with faculty including Etienne Charles, Diego Rivera, Perry Hughes, Reginald Thomas among others. The judges included Winard Harper and Scott Brown. The student bands played a 20 minute set of generally 3 songs, and then were provided master classes with one of the faculty, which families were lucky enough to sit in on. We heard most of the bands and I have to say that we heard some remarkable ensembles, sections, and soloists among them. Pioneer played a rousing "Manteca," featuring a great percussion team, and a crowd-pleasing "Jack the Bear", which featured outstanding solos by Adam Olshevski on the bass, with his rich woody tone and incredible dexterity; and Eddie Codrington, who took a few beautiful turns on the tenor sax. In the balcony, Adam's solo in particular produed a few "ooos and ahhs", "play it lord", "all right" and "uh huhs" from some very knowledgeable listeners.

In the end, Pioneer placed third, and both soloists noted above won awards as outstanding performers on their respective instruments. First place went to the band from Byron Center for the third year running, and second to the band from Northview High School in Grand Rapids. The winning band then played an evening session as the opening band for the terrific Clayton Brothers.

Back in Ann Arbor it was time to explore the riches of not one, two, or three, but FOUR outstanding local record stores, each with a plethora of interesting CDs, and new and old vinyl/LPs to pore through. Too bad I didn't have the time to really dig in, but even short visits to each and short explorations resulted in some nice pick-ups. I have to say that the folks who run these shops, like all the others I have been visiting, are a dedicated bunch who clearly are in love with the music and love to talk about it, are very helpful, and really are part of a tight little music community with their custromers.

I found out that Ann Arbor may be rich today with four stores, but not more than 10 -15 years ago there were at least a dozen record stores in the city catering to all genres and customers. Gradually, LPs went away in favor of CDs, and the internet and streaming drained away customers. But collectvely, each store is seeing the resurgence of new vinyl once again, and coupled with used LPs are finding that part of the market growing, even as the CD market is shrinking due to downloads and the internet. The true customer for these stores are audiophiles, lovers of LPs and newly found listeners to vinyl, and collectors looking for out of print recordings to fill their collections. All the stores noted that the demographic is not what I expected, which would have been lots of college and high school students, but rather seems to be shifting to an older demographic of collectors who still remember LPs fondly, remember browsing their local stores for hours, and remember having sound booths to sample music in the best of the stores. A couple of the store owners noted that a large proportion of their customers are from out of town, coming to Ann Arbor as a place that has these four stores as well as antiquarian bookshops and even a mystery book store, rarities in this day and age with the internet and Barnes and Noble stores et al pushing out the independent sellers in most markets.

So Ann Arbor is a record and book lovers delight, as well as a center for live music. Here is a quick tour through the shops:

My first stop was Wazoo Records saturday morning, probably because I knew it best, having purchased about a dozen discs last time I was in town for a day in 2010. Wazoo is right in the heart of the State Street area, through a yellow awning and up one flight of stairs. Inside is one of the coziest places you could imagine, filled with paraphernalia on the walls and shelves and bins full of LPs and CDs. The collection is deceptive for CDs because the jewel cases are in back, allowing for a lot of covers in a small area. All genres are covered, and vinyl -- both old and new -- is the big draw here, along with Wazoo's service to its customers.  Wazoo has been a landmark since 1974 when the store first opened, and since 1996 has been owned by John Kerr, who has worked there since 1978, and  “This is my dream job. I feel that doing this is a service, because I know music plays a big role in my life, as I’m sure it does in [the lives of] others.” At Wazoo, I picked up a Scott Hamilton, "Afterhours  " and a Vincent Herring "All Too Real" to add to my collection; both were out of print CDs. I could have spent hours here but unfortunately had to settle for about 30 minutes -- after all I was in Ann Arbor to see my son and his family -- right?

On to my next stop, which was Underground Sounds late saturday after returning from the Jazz Competition. Underground specializes in records, particularly all the new releases coming out on vinyl, as well as used LPs. Its jazz CD selection is small and is not really a specialty. But its staff were great and we had an interesting conversation about the resurgence of vinyl, the older demographic buying it, and how this store was really a labor of love for its owner, Matt Bradish. As everyone in the four stores said and Bradish reiterated, this is not a dollars and cents business but rather a labor of love, a crusade to keep the music alive, and a passion. Matt puts in a lot of time at the store, and on Record Day, which is when I caught him, he was particularly tired but happy with the traffic that the day brought, and was closing at 9:00 PM SHARP so he could eat and collapse. I bought the Record Day Leonard Cohen special EP, and for my grandson a Muse CD.

Sunday the stores opened at noon, and I had to leave town by 3:30, but I still squeezed in two more shops without totally ignoring my family, who somehow put up with me and my manic obsession. We had a nice breakfast at home and a good Mexican lunch, conveniently located right next to Encore Records, my third stop on this whirlwind tour. Encore is totally overwhelming, with mountains of discs and LPs (and 45s) in all genres, and is by far the largest store of the four. Encore has been around for years, beginning down the block as Liberty Records, and under new ownership in the past year. I cold have easily spent hours perusing the shelves and still have not seen half of what interests me -- jazz, folk, rock basically. The jazz collection is substantial and worth the time to really study to find those hard to get recordings you are missing from your collection, or the classics that everyone should have. CD or LP, this place is well stocked, and, as with all the stores, the owners -- Bill McClelland and Jim Dywer --  and staff are knowledgable and friendly, whether the talk is specific to an item or just a general conversation about music. They had a CD player and earphones set up to sample the music. I had under an hour to look around, but since my grandson had just played "Manteca" and "Jack the Bear" in Lansing, I picked him up a Dizzy and and Duke CD. For myself, I found a very rare recording by Mulgrew Miller and NHOP from 1999, called ""The Duets" and featuring the music of Duke Ellington, recorded by Bang and Olafsen evidently as a marketing tool. It seems to not be in the basic discographies and is known to jazz collectors as a very hard CD to find, so I consider myself very lucky. I also picked up Duke's "Anatomy of a Murder", "The Bud Shank Quintet Plays Arlen" on the obscure Jimco label, and Eri Yamamoto's "Cobalt Bles" to add to my collection of her music that I wrote about last week.

My last stop, and an extremely short one, was at PJ's Records and Used CDs, the only one of the four stores located a bit out of the downtown area, though easily within walking distance. Another second floor shop and another wonderfully retro, cozy place. I spoke with one of the two owners, Marc Taras, who owns it with his brother Jeff, and we bonded immediately over the love of the music, the need to keep the vinyl and CDs -- the tangible -- alive, and the remarkable new market springing up for vinyl. PJ's jazz CD collection was small but the collection of jazz vinyl was amazing. And note, none of the stores are trying to gouge the market by presenting their LPs at collector's prices; they are all pricing the music to be played. They each have some rarities, etc., but for the most part this is music to listen to, not look at. I didn't have time to buy anything but I promise to return to spend more time browsing next visit.

So there it is -- four great stores in two days. [And apologies for anything I got wrong in this writing] A true  buying trip really needs two full days to browse them all, to talk to the people working the store and the customers, to really feel the camraderie that these stores have. They are truly golden places in this day of the internet, reminders of what music really is and how it should be heard -- as a communal activity with friends, not a solitary activity of bits and bytes and earphones.

All of the stores say they are solvent and will be around for a while. None are making big money, but that isn't the objective for the owners I talked to. Thanks to their dedication, sweat equity, and passion, we all are benefiting. To each, owning a record store isn’t a business — it is a place of communal activity that keeps art alive and well. Each store is a supporter as well of the local music scene, a place to trade information, share new finds and new music, and to bond over shared memories of days gone by. 

I remember where I was when I first heard Crosby Stills and Nash, and rushing to Cutler's Record Shop in New Haven CT to get it. Same for Surrealistic Pillow, Revolver, and the first Led Zeppelin. Later it was McCoy Tyner's "Passion Dance." I hope as readers you have the same type of fond memories and are keeping them alive at your local record stores. Don't let the stores die. Each time one disappears, we lose a little more of that camraderie, that sense of community that music brings us, and we are all a little diminished.

And to all the kids at MSU this weekend from all the schools, thanks for keeping the music playing and the tradition alive.                                                

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