Jazz aficionados generally have little use for various-artist anthologies. They’re seen as gateway collections for beginners, whereas hardcore veteran listeners tend to want all-inclusive single-artist monoliths replete with alternate takes, unissued masters, etc. (Sony/Legacy’s Miles Davis series is an excellent example–even though the later electric boxes have drawn in some younger, non-aficionado buyers.) Exceptions are made, of course–particularly for comprehensive label overviews like Mosaic Records’ Commodore trilogy and sets that document lesser-known but important milieus or periods, such as the Wildflowers collection that captures the mid-1970s New York loft scene.
I’ve found as I advance into the middling years of life, jazz fandom, and all middling points elsewhere in the general scheme of being human, that I’m developing a real appreciation for well-done, thematic various-artist box-sets. I’ve raved about Allen Lowe’s Devilin’ Tune series before, and I rediscovered the joys of the Rhino collection celebrating Los Angeles’ Central Avenue not long ago while working on the Gerald Wilson program. Earlier this year I picked up The West Coast Jazz Box, which features, among many other tunes, Wilson’s “Viva Tirado,” in all its bullish, swing-and-swagger glory.
The West Coast jazz scene was much more diverse and dynamic than its long-running image as anemic beach-bop for languid California boys–hardly an original observation at this point, but one that still bears reinforcement. Years ago jazz historian Ted Gioia put the lie to this perception with his book West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California 1945-1960, and this Contemporary set could practically serve as the soundtrack for his work.
In addition to usual suspects such as Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, the Lighthouse All-Stars, and Bud Shank, there’s Bill Holman’s slinky, sly “No Heat,” pianist Hampton Hawes’ boppin’, Bud-Powell-filtered-through-West-Coast “All the Things You Are,” bassist Leroy Vinnegar’s playful “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” and several tracks that point to the oft-unremarked influence of Count Basie and Lester Young on this particular realm (Cy Touff, Bill Perkins, and Brew Moore). That’s not to mention Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Shelly Manne, Curtis Counce, Charles Mingus… it’s a complex and musically attractive world that this set presents, and a reminder that this once-discredited milieu produced a wealth of enduring works.
The West Coast Jazz Box is also impressive for the wide range of labels it samples; such multiple cross-licensing is a rare feat indeed. Sadly, it’s gone out of print, but you can still get it for a rather steep price through Newbury Comics’ listing on Amazon Marketplace. I’d also advise keeping an eye out for it in record shops (the few, the proud that remain, anyway) as well as at half.com.
Do you have any favorite various-artist jazz anthologies? I think the best ones, like West Coast Jazz, can appeal to both jazz acolytes and longtime listeners alike; I’d love to hear what others have to say on the subject.