The short of it? The short of it! Hardly a tactful way to approach a project that has occupied eighteen years (so far), filled nine volumes that rise from 1,200 single-column pages to 1,700 double, each requiring an index of 100 pages and covering upwards of 10,000 jazz records. You–as I understand Americans say–do the math.
Actually, one guy did the math, very early on in the process, and he wrote to us in a fury. He had, we were told, just purchased the first edition of The Penguin Guide to Jazz (this in 1992, so geologically long ago that the book still bore the subtitle On CD, LP & Cassette), and he was writing to say that it was clearly impossible for two guys to have listened to all those records, let alone listened to them often enough to have formed a worthwhile opinion, let alone two Brits doing it! It was the kind of letter that staff on the London Times correspondence pages will tell you comes over the transom written in green ink, apparently a reliable giveaway of eccentricity and obsession. And this guy demanded to know whether Richard Cook and Brian Morton really were the authors or whether there was a clandestine team of jazz critics involved.
Sadly, the two guys are down to one guy now. My co-author Richard Cook, as distinguished a jazz writer as ever to grace the British press, succumbed to liver cancer last summer, aged just 50. We were always aware that we might be the ones charged with obsession or with a peculiarly British eccentricity, or even with a characteristically British arrogance, to think that we might attempt a comprehensive discographical survey of a music that always was–and still overwhelmingly is, for all you’ll read in some quarters–an American phenomenon.
I’ll come to the math in a moment, but we always had a laugh about stuff like this, and about those letters expressing outrage that we’d missed a single, small-label jazz record that had been available for five weeks in 1993, with a run of 500 copies. “How can you call yourselves jazz critics when you’ve never even heard of that great trombonist George W. Cheyney’s Bazaar Blues?” The first of my annual attempts to catch Richard out on April Fool’s was a letter (in green ink, natch) claiming to have seen at least two other suspicious characters listening to jazz and scribbling notes in clubs called the Grassy Knoll. There was also a gag involving Jack Ruby and Ruby Braff, but it was too convoluted to recall. We figured that if the Brits were eccentric, the Americans liked a conspiracy theory.
In reality, and given a tail-thrust of obsession, there’s nothing suspect about the figures. When we began working on the first Penguin Guide in 1991, Richard and I had been listening to jazz since our teens and writing about it in papers and magazines for more than a decade. We felt, rightly or wrongly, that we knew our way around. In those days of LP durations and relatively few jazz imprints, we could reasonably claim that, first of all, our coverage was pretty comprehensive (the egregious omission of George W. Cheyney apart) and, more important, that our views weren’t simply off-the-cuff thumbs-ups or thumbs-downs.
Devising a scale of rankings was a side of the project that both of us, interested in a more contextualized kind of reviewing than what has become the current “download this” imprimatur, found very difficult. We were initially resistant to a system whereby we, in our authority or arrogance, assigned stars to the great stars of the music. Besides, how did a three-star Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane record convert to a three-star Bill Charlap or Tierney Sutton record? By giving some three-score records five stars–or strictly a crown–were we trying to establish some kind of canon, or Great Tradition? In time, we recognized that these were simply useful devices, visual guides. We also began to recognize that as the jazz-recording sector metastasized, mostly in the area of out-of-copyright reissues, a principle of selectivity became not only essential but also desirable. Ironically, as the market becomes ever more choked with box sets bearing the Definitive or Complete headers that are catnip to reissue labels and fans alike, we have had to drop any similar claim. Because both the amount of jazz recordings now available is uncoverably huge and the forthcoming edition is, for the reasons explained, the work of one guy rather than two, the coverage has to become more selective.