Mark Berresford has made countless hours of music possible for listeners across the globe. It’s not just his personal library of “syncopated music,” a century’s worth of ragtime, jazz and everything between, collected throughout his life and shared with the most respected providers of early jazz reissues. Berresford’s lifelong love/study of the music has also translated into pages upon pages of informative, insightful liner notes.
Even if you already own the complete Johnny Dodds’s Black Bottom Stompers, Retrieval’s Definitive Dodds album is worth purchasing just for Berresford’s commentary. If you’re downloading Timeless Historical’s From Ragtime To Jazz series, you’re missing out on his meticulous yet breezy annotation; ditto for Frog’s Johnny Dunn disc and anything else with Berresford in the credits.
He began by collecting music as a teenager in his native England, also starting to write around that time. In addition to liner notes for several labels, for twenty-four years Berresford has written for Vintage Jazz & Blues Mart (which celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in 2012, making it the oldest continually-published jazz magazine in the world). Berresford’s biodiscography of clarinetist Wilbur Sweatman received an Association for Recorded Sound Collections Award in 2011, and his liner notes to the Rivermont Records CD Dance-O-Mania: Harry Yerkes and The Dawn Of The Jazz Age, 1919-1923 were nominated for a Grammy Award in 2009. Mark does all of this while also selling “records, gramophones and associated ephemera” from his store in Derbyshire.
Berresford has not only made rare music available to a wide audience, he’s made supposedly rarefied music make sense to all those listeners. The collector, historian and writer has helped me understand and enjoy this music since I first started listening to it, so I was thrilled to speak with him and find out more about his beginnings and hopes for the future.
Andrew Jon Sammut: What was your entryway into collecting early jazz?
Mark Berresford: I started collecting 78s when I was about eleven or twelve years old. I had been brought up with vintage music around me: my grandparents had a large radiogram full of music by Fats Waller, the Dorsey brothers, Glenn Miller and many others.
AJS: What drew you to “that” music, as opposed to more contemporary forms of jazz or popular music, and how did you first start writing about it?
MB: I had grown up with “old” music and it seemed perfectly normal to me. As far back as eight or nine years old, I was taking records by Henry Hall’s BBC Dance Orchestra or Tommy Dorsey into school on Monday mornings, when we were encouraged to bring along our favorite records. This was the time of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Dave Clark Five!
As for writing, I started writing on early jazz when I was about sixteen years old. My English teacher at school was a keen jazz fan and played bass, and he encouraged me in my scribbling. There was so little about pre-1923 jazz available, either on LP or in books. I had read Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz in the school library (can you imagine a book like that in a school library nowadays?), and I wanted to share what I was enjoying and discovering about this music.
AJS: And now we have whole companies devoted to reissuing this music, such as Retrieval, Frog and Jazz Oracle, and you have written extensive liner notes for these labels.
MB: Retrieval was born out of Fountain Records in the seventies and founded by Norman Stevens, Ron Jewson, Chris Ellis and John R.T. Davies, expressly to produce sensibly programmed reissues of the highest quality. Dave French started Frog in the early nineties with the same purpose, with Davies also doing the transfers. Jazz Oracle was founded in the mid-nineties by Canadians Colin Bray (an expatriate Englishman) and John Wilby, once again with Davies, to do the same sort of thing with longer, glossier liner notes.
AJS: How did you first get involved with these reissue labels?
MB: I first got involved with reissues around 1978 or 79, when I was asked by Norman Stevens to write the liner notes for an LP of Gene Fosdick’s Hoosiers/Broadway Syncopators. I was twenty-one years old at the time. Apparently I already had a reputation as an early jazz champion, via my collecting taste as well as the articles I wrote in magazines such as The Gunn Report.
I really got involved in the reissue scene in the early nineties, when I became very friendly with John R.T. Davies and Chris Ellis at Retrieval. I had known both of them for years, but as my collection grew they realized that I was sitting on a lot of material they could use, either as whole projects or to fill in the gaps of their collections for a project. I used to go down to John’s place with a boxful of my 78s for him to make transfers for ongoing projects.
As many of the projects centered on material I knew and loved, I also became the choice to write the liner notes. I suppose that my years of writing magazine articles and editing VJM’s Jazz & Blues Mart (twenty-four years now) made me an obvious choice. Of course, I also got to suggest projects that interested me too, and am still doing so!
AJS: What criterion do you use when suggesting a project? Do you see an overarching mission for these reissues?
MB: I want to see a new audience exposed to unfamiliar or out of favor music. I also want to get established collectors and fans to go back and listen to material they had discounted, or perhaps never even bothered to listen to.
A good case in point is the four-volume set From Ragtime To Jazz on Timeless. I chose tracks that went back to 1896, and material recorded not only in New York City but also in Europe; many American collectors don’t realize the wealth of syncopated music recorded by American artists in Europe, many of whom never recorded in their homeland. An American music teacher told me that he uses these as a core part of his teaching on American popular music history.
I was also actively involved with Rainer Lotz and the German record company Bear Family’s astonishing Black Europe project. It reissued over two thousand sides made in Europe by Black performers, all recorded before 1926! For instance, Black American singer Pete Hampton was the most prolific African American singer until Bessie Smith, and he died in 1916 without ever making a record in the United States! I supplied many items from my collection. The final package was forty-four CDs, plus a three hundred page hardbound book that included photos of every record label and biographies of the artists involved. It was limited to five hundred numbered sets worldwide.
Another good example is the Harry Yerkes/Happy Six CD set on Rivermont: obscure material but an important developmental link. It was nominated in 2009 for a Grammy Award! That same determination to get recognition for overlooked performers also drove me to write my [ARSC award winning] bio-discography of clarinetist Wilbur C. Sweatman.
AJS: What do you think are some of the obstacles to getting this music heard?
MB: The biggest obstacles in the past were the companies themselves, who always tended to be conservative, and wanted tried-and-tested material that guaranteed sales. Timeless was brave when it issued From Ragtime To Jazz, but the set has sold well.
Of course Archeophone has totally moved the goalposts, reissuing the most obscure material with a “to hell with the sales figures, let’s get people listening to this material!” attitude, which of course chimes with me 100%. Needless to say Rich Martin and Meagan Hennessy are good friends now and we regularly work together. I am discussing an idea for a project with them as we speak.
So much of his music points to things-to-come musically. We can hear themes, ideas, and styles that will be picked up and carried and changed, and it is always better to know where one is coming from. People are surprised when they hear Gene Greene scat singing in 1910, or Black singer Ashley Roberts scatting in London in 1915.
Another obstacle is that often little or nothing is known about a particular artist. When I wrote the liner notes for the Frank Westphal Orchestra CD on Rivermont, there was virtually nothing in print about him (other than Sophie Tucker’s one-sided reminiscences). I had to go back to square one, but I think people will now know a little more about Frank.
AJS: So, what does “square one” look like (for us laymen)?
MB: Birth records, Census records, World War One and World War Two records, newspaper archives, photo libraries, searching eBay for photos or sheet music, etc. A lot of work goes into it, and a lot of burnt midnight oil!
AJS: Have you ever come to any total dead-ends, or is it just a matter of time, energy and patience until you find something out about the artist?
MB: Time will out! I’ve come to many apparent dead ends, but a hunch or pure luck will frequently come into play. It’s just a case of keep plugging away. I won’t admit defeat, simple as that! My website has been a boon: I upload photos of old bands and performers, and you would be amazed how many relatives find me this way!
AJS: Which performers would you like to see get more attention in jazz histories or reissues?
MB: To paraphrase Joe Venuti when he was asked what his favorite record was, whomever I’m working on right now! For example, I have recently been working with Bryan Wright from Rivermont on a Paul Specht Orchestra CD and my old friend sound restorer Nick Dellow was here doing transfers, so I’ve been immersing myself in the life of Mr. Specht!
AJS: Sort of a dance band with jazz as a seasoning rather than a main course?
MB: Correct, but careful sifting of his large output reveals some hidden gems, and again, not all made in the United States. And some surprises too. For instance, a number of the 1928 and 1929 sides have great scoring for clarinet and/or sax choruses, and when you factor in Don Redman’s little-noted quote that he enjoyed arranging for Paul Specht, one realizes that these are Don Redman arrangements! Also, don’t forget the remarkable Frank Guarente on trumpet, who swapped music lessons with King Oliver in the teens!
AJS: That brings us to tricky subject of labels. Do you describe most of this music as “early jazz, hot dance, popular music, etc.” and do you see any difference?
MB: I prefer the term “syncopated music” because it transcends the rather artificial boundaries that the other terms you mention imply. It can describe Edgar Cantrell and Richard Williams’s amazing London 1902 banjo/mandolin and vocal recordings, a crossover between minstrel, ragtime, folk and blues. It also includes material by James Europe’s Society Orchestra, George Fishberg’s stomping piano accompaniments to the Trix Sisters on their 1921 recordings and Ory’s Sunshine Orchestra equally well.
I think “difference” is a modern concept. At the time it was all the same, just as Paul Whiteman was the “King of Jazz” in the eyes of John Q. Public!
AJS: It seems many music historians use the concept of difference to demarcate what music is worth “saving” and what can go marching into obscurity. For you, what determines what should be preserved and what can be forgotten after a century?
MB: Difficult. I think that the music has to speak to people listening outside its time, or at least have the opportunity to speak to them. Straight dance music may have its enthusiasts, but it ultimately belongs in its time, with little or nothing to say to the present generation other than a feeling of nostalgia a la “Pennies From Heaven.” In that respect, acoustically recorded dance music fares even less well. That’s not to decry that music, but it doesn’t strike a chord for me.
That being said, I am also a keen fan of British music hall records, and recordings of original cast theater performers; they can shed amazing light on the time in which they were made. For instance, much of the revue material recorded in England during World War One took a very jaundiced view of the people running the war, quite contrary to the “keep the home fires burning” brigade that contemporary observers now associate with the period. So in that respect, that music is very valid now because it has a story to tell which is contrary to received wisdom.
AJS: As for the material labeled “jazz” or music that you feel influenced or was influenced by jazz, how would you characterize jazz from the period before Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, or even before Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman?
MB: I think of “jazz” from this period as rhythmically driven, multifaceted, polyphonic, creative, joyous and sometimes a little scary. If there are a few solos to liven things up, even better!
MB: Yes, I thought you might like that! What I mean by “scary” is dark and brooding, but also the fact that these artists were writing new, previously unwritten rules as they went along. Is Sidney Bechet really going to get back into line with the rest of the band at the end of “New Orleans Hop Scop Blues?” Isn’t Louis Armstrong on a different planet from the rest of Erskine Tate’s band on “Stomp Off, Let’s Go?”
AJS: Do you think jazz has kept that “scariness?”
MB: No. I lose interest when posturing and self-importance become the norm.
AJS: Are you characterizing contemporary jazz that way?
MB: Yes, and a lot of non-jazz too. Can you really listen to “Stomp Off, Let’s Go” without the hairs on your arms standing up? I can’t.
AJS: If so much contemporary jazz lacks that hair-raising quality, why don’t more contemporary jazz listeners appreciate “Stomp Off, Let’s Go” or “Knockin’ A Jug?”
MB: I think unfamiliarity and un-coolness are important factors. Yet I also think that when more material is presented in an appropriately packaged way i.e. beautifully transferred, without over-processing (which is guaranteed to turn new listeners off), the neophyte listener is more likely to come back for more. For the past few years I’ve been widening the tastes of a younger guy who came to our music via forties Jump music. He is now collecting the State Street Ramblers, Fess, Lem Fowler and Clarence Williams!
What is quite interesting is that a younger generation is getting interested in early jazz that has never been swayed by the writings of some of the more entrenched critics and authors, and are thus coming at this music with open ears and minds.
AJS: So do you see your work as chipping away at the unfamiliar and uncool, or will this music always be an esoteric pursuit?
MB: Well it beats counting how many angels can sit on the point of a needle! Personally I’ve never worried about such stuff. I remember hearing Doc Cooke’s Dreamland Orchestra for the first time at age fifteen or sixteen, and being floored by the power of the band (particularly cornetist Freddie Keppard). I needed to share this, so I phoned a school friend who was very into Led Zeppelin, and played “Here Comes The Hot Tamale Man” for him over the phone: not to him, but at him.
“Now THIS is music,” I screamed! He must have thought I was insane, but who cares? The music is all that matters.