La Grande Histoire du Jazz & the Public Domain


Over a number of different internet forums, I have been involved in a number of heated debates over the last year or two about the forthcoming changes to the copyright law in the EU, which sees copyright in sound recordings being extended from 50 to 70 years in November of this year.  Many have berated the current situation, citing endless cheap and cheerful reissues of fifty year old hits and albums and suggesting that they are somehow demeaning to the work of Elvis, The Beatles, Cliff Richard and others.  And it is true that they add little to the legacy of these major players in the main.  But, to more discerning music-lovers, and those with an interest outside the obvious hit-makers, the law which brings recordings into the public domain after fifty years has been nothing less than a miracle.

This is particularly true if you are a jazz fan.  1950s jazz was about far more than Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald.  It was also a time when many of the musicians who were around in the earliest days of jazz were encouraged to enter the recording studio once more and make recordings of their songs and arrangements in superior sound quality, recordings which, they would have been told, will cement them forever in the history of jazz.  Away from these musicians, and the big-hitters of the day, there were other, less well-known but often equally as interesting, jazz musicians who were recording on a regular basis.  The problem we have now is that these recordings are not re-released by the main labels as they would not be big sellers.  Other than that, we also have the so-called “orphan” recordings which, though in copyright in America, there is no way of learning who the recordings are actually owned by.  These are often from long defunct small labels of the period.

The so-called fifty-year-rule in Europe has allowed for this music to be heard once again.  Labels specialising in high-quality, well-mastered, releases of jazz obscurities from the period have prospered in the UK and mainland Europe and given jazz enthusiasts the chance to hear music that would otherwise be sitting in a vault and never heard again.  Many of these releases are relatively modest, such as those by  a label such as Avid, who release double disc sets by a jazz performer which contains remasters of 3 or 4 original albums for a price tag of around £6.  Other labels and releases aim higher.  One such release is La Grande Histoire du Jazz on the French Le Chant du Monde label, containing 1677 jazz performances over 100 discs split into four boxes.

If I was to vote for the best public domain release ever, it would be La Grande Histoire du Jazz.  This is a set which starts in 1898 and, in strict chronological order, presents the listener with over 130 hours of jazz taking us up to the end of 1959.  All the artists you would expect are here:  Basie, Ellington (LOTS of Ellington, one of the compilers was clearly a fan), Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Bix Beiderbecke, Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker et al.  And, while there are some rarely heard recordings by these big names, it is with the forgotten artists that this wonderful collection comes into its own.  Who, even among jazz fans, have heard the names Billy Arnold, Gerald Wiggins or Herbie Harper?  OK, some of you no doubt have, but I certainly had not.  And here they are, present and correct, and their work does not pale into significance alongside their contemporaries.

Anyone who knows their classical music will know that the high status of one composer and the obscurity of another is often down to timing and luck.  As I sit writing this post, I am listening to a symphony by Raff, and wondering why that composer’s wonderful music is not as well known as that by Tchaikovsky or Liszt.  The same is very much true of jazz performers.  La Grande Histoire du Jazz attempts to right these wrongs, and those lucky enough to wade through these 100 discs will no doubt soon be going online to find out more about certain performers they know little or nothing about – and possibly purchasing a full CD…if one exists.

This is public domain releasing at its very best.  Andre France and Jean Schwarz, the compilers of this massive venture, are likely to already be known to European jazz fans for their previous compilations, but this set is really something else.  Yes, there are questions raised as to why one track was included over another, or why one performer is clearly favoured over another – after all, early 50s Ellington is hardly essential when compared to both his earlier and later periods.  And, despite finishing at the end of 1959, there is not even a nod to Nina Simone here, which seems a little strange, for example.  But these are minor quibbles, as are the questions of whether much of the music on the very first disc is actually jazz at all.  The set finishes at the end of the 1950s due to the copyright issue, although 1959 is as good a place to finish as any, being such a pivotal year.

Sadly the ending of the fifty-year rule means that there will never be follow-ups to this set, and the vast legions of lesser-known jazz musicians of the 1960s will find their recorded legacy all-but-forgotten.  If only we could ask these musicians the inevitable question:  “would you rather your music be heard, or would you rather it sit in a vault?  Royalty cheques won’t be forthcoming either way”.  The change in the law is, no doubt, going to be wonderful for Cliff Richard and Paul McCartney who will get richer with each cheque, but one can only wonder if they really had the best intentions of all musicians in mind when they pushed for this change.  Now instead of seeing their music on the shelves, or being able to release their music themselves (away from the label they recorded for), their wonderful sounds may well be silenced for good.


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