Hot jazz and air raids

The birth of record collecting in the UK

The bomb that nearly killed Brian Rust made a rasping sound as it fell, that Saturday afternoon in mid-July 1944. He had been looking at a box of records outside a shop in central London when he heard it, a whirring, mechanical noise. The sound grew louder as it fell, and changed pitch. He ran inside, and sheltered behind a pile of 78s. The blast destroyed the shop front, and the box outside, and showered Brian in glass and brick dust. The 78s protected him. “I think those records probably saved my life,” he told Vintage Jazz Mart, years later.

Although people often said Brian looked like an “academic” – the little illegal jazz magazines called him “The Sage of Edgware” – he was a junior clerk at the Bank of England. His voice, which became deeper with age, was still clipped and light. He had circular, owlish spectacles wrapped around prominent ears, and wore woollen jackets, shirts with long collars, and woven ties. He was twenty two, and lived with his mother. Despite the wax, his hair had a habit of coming out of place.

Brian was one of Britain’s most well-known “junkers”, one of a growing number of record collectors who haunted junk shops through the thirties and forties, looking for jazz and blues issued fifteen or twenty years earlier. Although classical collectors had their well-worn networks by then, it was these wartime “junkers” who established what record collecting would look like in Britain. By the end of the war, they had founded the first magazines, labels and shops aimed at collectors. Their love of old black, American music lingered through the decades, often unacknowledged. Their “traditional” jazz clubs spawned skiffle, British r’n’b, and “mods”. In scene after scene, their attitude lived on — Northern Soul, acid jazz, crate-digging — but their story has largely been forgotten.

When Brian died, aged eighty eight, the diaries he kept meticulously for much of his life passed to his son, Victor. “He was resolute in detailing everything connected to his ‘junking’ exploits,” Victor says. The diaries outlined the story of the bomb outside the record shop, and how he was twice knocked off his feet by “hot air” from other blasts, on his way to work. When he was eighteen, he wrote about being “buzzed” by a Heinkel as he was junking in North London, watching the German plane overhead and picking late apples from a tree.

He had left school shortly before, the day before his eighteenth birthday, six months before war was declared. His eyesight, he said, and “a widowed mother to look after,” meant he was never called up. According to Victor, in quiet moments at the Bank, Brian would “happily write, concoct lists of records, create label discographies and so on.” Occasionally, he would take colleagues to look for records at lunchtimes, but he told the few that asked that he preferred going alone, so he could “focus.”

Each night, Brian typed up the day’s notes, using ticker tape from the Bank to make an index, before putting the details into his discographies. He would complete his diary, and work on a novel, which remained unpublished. He was, Victor says, “a bit of a loner.”

During the Blitz, he also volunteered as an auxiliary fireman, often reading record catalogues before the Luftwaffe came. He saw the law courts destroyed in 1941, the night the House of Commons was hit, two days after Ken “Snakehips” Johnson was killed onstage, the leader of the best black jazz band in the country, with his saxophonist and 32 others. A bomb hit the Bank tube station a few months earlier, killing 51 people and leaving a huge crater near Brian’s office. Although he rarely talked to his children about the war, Victor remembers that “he did once let slip that he had witnessed maimed bodies.”

“This is why I find his exploits so remarkable,” Victor says, “all the horrors of war, witnessing scenes like this, being kept up at night with air raids and sirens, and yet he calmly went about his extracurricular passions without turning a hair. I guess after a while you become inured to it, but this is the reason why he and so many others simply went about their daily business.”

These wartime conditions seemed to prompt the boom in record collecting. By 1945, some friends of Brian were calling it “the Jazz Renaissance.” In the early forties, a Yorkshire businessman, signing himself “a gramophone addict,” wrote to Gramophone magazine, to say that he was buying more records than ever. The home defence rules, he said, the black-out, the lack of petrol, and the unreliable wireless programmes, meant it was the only way of hearing good music. The circulation of Gramophone, home to much important early jazz writing, doubled during the war.

As new records became harder to find, many collectors were pushed into buying second-hand. Between 1942 and 1944, the American Federation of Musicians banned most new recordings, and even those that were released were subject to 100% sales tax, and issued to strict quotas. The British Musicians Union banned visiting musicians. There were mass deletions from record company catalogues. Edgar Jackson, the jazz critic for both Gramophone and Melody Maker, reported that staff shortages at pressing plants meant hundreds, possibly thousands, of orders for Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump” remained unfilled. In passing, he mentioned that his own copy had been destroyed in the Blitz.

As well as the practical considerations, amidst the widespread destruction, a desire to preserve the previously mundane spurred on many collectors. Recognising this, in 1942, the BBC began broadcasting Desert Island Discs on the Forces Programme, now the longest running programme on British radio. Its presenter, a jazz collector called Roy Plomley, had fled Paris in 1940, leaving almost everything behind, grabbing just a suitcase of possessions.

The interest in jazz and old records spread particularly quickly among men mobilised by the war. Some of these collectors were mentioned in the thin pamphlets and magazines which began to appear: a left-leaning army doctor in the East Africa Command who listened to Bessie Smith and Khachaturian; an intelligence officer in the Chindits who played jazz guitar; a back-room corporal at an out of the way radar station, who wanted more Billie Holliday; a fireman stationed at Newport, who founded the South Wales Jazz Society; a young RAF wireless operator, the founder of the South of Scotland Jazz Society, who died on a mission in Germany, aged 24. A childhood friend of Brian’s joined the Navy, taking a list of records with him as he sailed for America. (He brought back Sidney Bechet’s “Georgia Cabin”, for Brian, which had never been issued in the UK.) At Anti-Aircraft Command HQ, a classical composer called Norman Demuth acted as “musical adviser.” He had been injured at the Somme in the previous war, and published a number of books: Harrying the Hun, A Manual of Street Fighting, and a guide for collectors called Forming a Basic Library. Those medically unfit to fight, like Brian, or those in reserved occupations, often wrote to the collectors’ magazines, offering friendship to servicemen far from home.

Most of these collectors have now been forgotten but a few, who became famous for other reasons, had chance to recall their wartime collecting. The poet Philip Larkin, who became jazz critic for The Daily Telegraph, wrote that “there was nothing unusual” in his love for jazz during the late thirties and early forties; “it was happening to boys all over Europe and America. It just didn’t get into the papers.” His friend, the novelist Kingsley Amis, whose love of records developed alongside Larkin at Oxford, also occasionally wrote about jazz. The musician Humphrey Lyttelton remembered discovering jazz at Eton in the thirties, and playing in different bands at each wartime posting with the Grenadier Guards, wading ashore off an Italian beach with a trumpet wrapped in a sandbag. The comedian Spike Milligan recalled playing in similar bands, and listening to his Chocolate Dandies records in the Tiger’s Head pub.

Brian recalled his own early record collecting days in My Kind of Jazz, an idiosyncratic history of jazz he wrote in old age, which is now out of print. When he was three or four, he remembered, he had swapped his train set with his cousin, for a gramophone and a few discs. According to his diary, he began collecting records “officially” at the age of five, on 29th August 1927. At first, he traded cigarette cards with his friends for cheap nursery rhymes or dance band sides. His father, an assistant headmaster and languages teacher at Brian’s school, had encouraged him, taking him to see The Jack Payne Orchestra at The Palladium. Brian was eleven when his father died. According to Victor, Brian “coped by focusing more on his beloved records.” He found some solace in the labels of his classical 78s, written in Italian or German or Cyrillic. He dreamed of expensive operatic sides, 8/6 each, but only got six pence a week in pocket money. Sometimes, his mother or an aunt treated him, and his collection grew.

He was fourteen when he bought his first jazz record. One Tuesday, he wrote, 31st March 1936, “shortly after four o’clock,” a friend took him to the piles of thick, cracked shellac in the junk shops in Camden Passage, not far from their school. Brian bought nine records for seven pence from the old man at the counter. One looked a little different, he remembered, on His Master’s Voice, with a brown, gold and white label. It was by a group that he didn’t know, The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, one of the earliest jazz records, which had been issued in his father’s youth. Greyed and chalky, it hissed on his second-hand portable wind-up gramophone when he got it home. His mother made him disinfect it. He loved it, and he began scouring the junk shops for more.

Later that year, Brian heard Spike Hughes, a record company man and musician, on the radio, talking about swing music. Swing fuelled the revival of hot jazz and blues – Benny Goodman hit with a Jelly Roll Morton song, Jelly Roll was found in a bar in Washington, smaller revivalist bands sprang up – but Brian dismissed it. “He doesn’t like Dixieland jazz”, he wrote in his diary, still only fourteen, “who does?”

On New Year’s Eve, Brian had the radio on again, and he heard Armstrong’s “Chop Suey” and King Oliver’s “Dipper Mouth Blues”. Even in old age, he remembered “the attack, the fire, the deep emotion that cut through the distortion of an obviously worn record.” He soon sold his remaining cigarette cards to buy two of the earliest books on jazz: Charles Delaunay’s Hot Discography and Hilton Schleman’s Rhythm on Record.

Gradually, like many of his age, Brian met others who shared his taste in music. One friend, Jim Godbolt, wrote his own memoir, All This and 10%, and the fascinating A History of Jazz in Britain. During the war, Jim remembered, he spent Monday evenings in the room above the saloon bar of the Station Hotel, Sidcup, with nine teenagers in Oxford bags and sports jackets, scribbling illegible notes beneath blacked out windows. They could hear the bombs and anti-aircraft fire outside, above their portable gramophone which bothered the regulars downstairs. On the way home, he would press himself against the brick walls if the bombing began again, with his friend Wally Fawkes, covering their heads with their records and cardboard sleeves as the shrapnel fell.

This was their “rhythm club”, Jim said, Melody Maker “affiliation number” 161. There were rhythm clubs like this all over the country then: number 1 in central London, number 29 in West London, number 107 at Brighton and Hove, number 130 for Bexleyheath and District, number 174 in Putney. “An underground movement,” he called it, “a rebellion of limited scale.”

In large part, the idea of “rhythm clubs” had been popularised by a man called Bill Elliott. He was older than Brian and Jim, with thining hair and full features, but both looked up to him. His record collection was modest by some standards – just one and a half thousand sides, he told Jazz Tempo magazine in 1944 – but he had a lasting impact on British collecting. He edited a feature called “Collector’s Corner” in Melody Maker, and broadcast Radio Rhythm Club on the BBC, and supervised releases for the Brunswick Sepia Series. During the war, he managed the Harry Parry band, the most important British jazz band of the time. (Brian never liked them, complaining about their “clever-clever inventions with curious titles, none of which had any closer affinity to real jazz than the average “swing” band pretensions.”)

The first meeting of Bill’s rhythm club was held in June 1933. A register was taken, and forty five people attended. With support from the music press, the club grew. Jim Godbolt included a picture of an early meeting in A History of Jazz in Britain: men and women dressed smartly, behind heavy wooden tables, listening to Carlo Krahmer, the blind drummer and collector who would later release Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Collectors played rarities to each other during “record recitals,” and there were “jam sessions.” They called the club the No 1, and the idea spread.

Many of the members of the No 1 became influential, and well-known on both sides of the Atlantic. Leonard Feather was one prominent early member. After moving to America in the late thirties, he became the leading jazz critic for Esquire, where he helped to define and popularise bebop, and record collecting more broadly. He dismissed those who liked traditionalist jazz, including his old friends in London, as “moldy figs,” a term he had picked up from letters written by servicemen to Esquire. He pitched them against the “modernists,” who bought new records, like him.

Stanley Dance was another early member of No 1, and another important critic. He was deaf in one ear, and worked in his father’s tobacco factory and for the Observer Corps, during the war. His first essays on jazz – in French – were published by Parisian collectors in Le Jazz Hot in 1935, and he helped Hilton Schleman compile the earliest jazz discography, which Brian had bought as a teenager. After the war, Stanley would marry Helen Oakley. They had met in the forties, when she was working for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. Oakley was a pioneering collector, promoter and producer, who had founded the first American rhythm club, in Chicago in 1935. She had almost certainly visited the No 1 early on, having been in London for Duke Ellington’s concerts shortly before Bill Elliot’s first meeting. (Ahmet Ertegun, who would found Atlantic Records, had also been at the Ellington shows, aged nine.) Stanley and Helen moved to the United States in 1959. They recorded, promoted and wrote about jazz together until they died, Stanley in 1999, and Helen in 2001.

Following the lead of Bill and the No 1, more rhythm clubs sprouted up through the thirties, each with their own honorary secretaries and presidents and treasurers. Sinclair Traill, who started the long-running Jazz Journal magazine, ran Leamington Spa. Croydon had 40 members by 1934, and there was an Ellington Society in Glasgow. A Mr Woolfenden ran the Ipswich club, and owned a music shop and married a church organist. In 1943, the Northern Society for Jazz, based in Dewsbury, reported that rhythm clubs were being considered in Grantham and Newton-Le-Willows.

The collectors who frequented these clubs were mostly young, white, and male. Despite their avowedly liberal politics, many betrayed problematic, sometimes conflicted, attitudes to race and gender; Leonard Feather had first come to prominence in a series of letters to Melody Maker enquiring as to the whereabouts of female jazz fans. In reply, Bill Elliot, in a letter quoted in Christina Baade’s Victory Through Harmony, insisted that Feather was mistaken, as there were female collectors “equally as keen as any of the males.”

Similarly, in the 1944 bulletin of the West London Rhythm Club, after thanking Gladys, Doris and Mavis for collecting the sixpence admission on the door, the club secretary wrote about “the essential democracy” of the club. Caribbean musicians, and American servicemen, and others brought to London by the war, were apparently welcomed. “Here are people from every walk of life,” he said, “from all parts of the world. Whatever their colour, whatever their race, they meet here and are friends.”

Nevertheless, just a few pages later, Rex Harris, a sharp-eyed, bearded optician who would manage important black British musicians, wrote a satirical account of the “The Great Black v White War,” between those who preferred “Black” and “White” jazz. “Secret agent Rust,” he wrote, had “sympathies with both Blackers and Whiters.” In A History of Jazz in Britain, Jim Godbolt remembered “palefaces from the suburbs” going to the few jazz clubs where black musicians played, “thrilled at the prospect at entering haunt so atmospheric.” “We were all so determinedly pro-black we gave the band, very rough and out of tune, more credit than it deserved,” he suggested.

Uneasily, many collectors tried to come to terms with the racial background of the records they bought. In another publication, Rex Harris wrote of jazz music as the “folk music” of “oppressed people.” In a Workers’ Music Association booklet on blues, one of the first critical appraisals of blues in Britain, Ian Lang, a foreign correspondent for The Times, wrote that “it is not the music of a race but of a class, of a proletariat which is both black and white.” According to Christina Baade in Victory Through Harmony, appreciating and preserving black American music became “a potent example of ‘what we are fighting for’” for many wartime collectors.

Inevitably, Brian was drawn to the rhythm clubs, and soon became well-known. He became a well-respected “recitalist,” and was billed as one of the “Brains Trust” in Jazz Tempo, published by the North London and Southgate Jazz Society, answering discographical queries sent in by readers. His discographies began to be included in the small magazines that were published in contravention of the paper rationing regulations: he wrote on “Black” jazz, and “White” jazz, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Lonnie Johnson and Bessie Smith and Okeh. (Some of these publications are now available to read online at the National Jazz Archive.) He wrote letters to fellow enthusiasts, and to the BBC and US and UK record companies, assigning each letter a reference number.

By then, many of the more serious collectors had taken on an academic, sometimes political, tone. The Jazz Sociological Society, and its magazine Jazz Music, were founded by Max Jones, with a floppy fringe, and Albert McCarthy, who was bald and wore a cravat rather than a tie. In Nottinghamshire, the Jazz Appreciation Society was founded by James Asman, moustachioed with a severe hair-cut, and Bill “Foo” Kinnell, a one-armed pipe-smoker. Their booklets, and their Jazz Magazine: For The Jazz Enthusiast, talked sympathetically of the “negro problem” across the Atlantic, and the oppression of Jim Crow. They started a small label, simply called “Jazz,” one of the first independent collectors’ labels in the country. They released sides by revivalist British jazz musicians, and issued rare, old American music on “vinylite”, costing 15 shillings each, five times the price of a normal shellac record.

Asman and Jones also supported the Challenge Jazz Club in London, which was backed by the Young Communist League. One Jazz Appreciation Society booklet reported on gum-chewing boys accompanying slightly older, smoking girls to their concerts and record recitals. From a tall brick building on a back street between Leicester Square and Covent Garden, the Workers’ Music Association started the Topic label, which celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2014, the oldest independent label in the world. In 1946, Brian wrote a poem for Pickup magazine, quoted by Jim Godbolt in A History of Jazz in Britain, dismissing this political trend, observing sarcastically that “the player is dead, but his records live on, so long as there are plutocratic fatheads like us to collect them.”

Like Brian, and many of their friends, Jim prided himself on his junk shop finds. “Junkers” became a “phenomenon”, he recalled, “a sort of archaeologist, not excavating ancient sites for pottery, bones or coins but scrabbling his way through a tangle of old sinks, broken chairs, dog-eared books and reproductions of ‘Monarch of the Glen’ in junk shops to seek out records.” Decades later, he recalled his best finds, which he discovered while on shore leave in Cape Town. He remembered the labels that had never been released in England – Paramount, Bluebird, Okeh – and names that quickened his pulse: Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake and the Dixie Syncopators and Will Ezell. He bought one hundred and fifty records, at a shilling apiece. “This haul must rank as one of the greatest ever,” he wrote.

In lieu of these kinds of rarities, many other collectors specialised in jazz or blues issued pseudonymously on the old, cheap British labels of the twenties. (Louis Armstrong’s first British release, for example, as a member of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, was issued as “The Original Black Band” on Guardsman.) The keenest collectors worked on the Junkshoppers’ Discography, compiled in 1944 by John Rowe and Ted Watson of the North London and Southgate Jazz Society. They listed as many “hot” releases as they could find on those old labels: American jazz artists issued as dance bands, as “Ukelele Ike” or “The Blue Racketeers” or “The Dixie Plantation Orchestra” or “Harlem Hot Shots”, on Dominion, Regal, Imperial or His Master’s Voice. The editors wrote that “every collector of note” collaborated in its production. Brian, a recognised authority, was on the “advisory panel.”

Percy Pring, the Assistant Secretary of the West London Rhythm Club, was another contributor. He worked for the London Electricty Board, and was known for his wit, and stylish dress. During the war, he helped organise “riverboat shuffles” down the Thames, where he met his wife. They married in 1945, and started a family. They put gramophones in most rooms of their house, and the birth of their children was announced in Melody Maker. Rex Harris became godfather to Lee, their eldest. Dale, their second daughter, was given the middle name of Louisiana, the state where the original jazz riverboats had sailed from, where jazz had been “born.” When Percy died in 1964, aged fifty six, he left the bulk of his collection to Brian. Percy’s son Felix, who was six then, still remembers the wind-up gramophone that Percy gave him and the few records, “including a Jelly Roll Morton.” According to Lee, record collecting was “the most driving love of his life… I wish my father knew that there are people who are still as interested.”

Owen Bryce was another of these well-known contributors to the Junkshoppers’ Discography, and another of the Jazz Tempo “Brains Trust”, alongside Brian. Jim Godbolt wrote about Owen in his memoir, and remembered his brown corduroy trousers pulled high by braces, and his often sockless feet. Photographs showed his unparted hair, brushed straight back, and his dark, long eyebrows, large ears, and the bulb at the end of his nose. He was, according to Jim, a proselytising vegetarian and part-time pig breeder. There was a sign fixed to his van: “jazz trumpeter, composer, arranger, talent-spotter, band-leader, business man, farmer, family man.” His house suffered bomb damage during the war, and he was forced to pile his boxes of notes high in one room, as he and his wife cared for Wendy, their new born daughter.

In his spare time, Owen played second trumpet for George Webb’s Dixielanders, Britain’s first major revivalist jazz band, based at Bexleyheath and District Rhythm Club. Jim’s old friend Wally Fawkes was in the band, with men who worked at the munitions factory nearby. Jim managed the group. In My Kind of Jazz, Brian described their “brand of raw, rough but exciting jazz,” which some thought was “as démode as antimacassars and wax fruit under glass.” Humphrey Lyttelton, who joined the band after the war, remembered Owen as “a vegetarian of sturdy but ungenerous build”, who indicated his parts “with sharp jabs of his elbow.”

Owen supplemented his income by selling second-hand records through his radio repair shop in Woolwich, one of the few places where you could buy old hot jazz in Britain during the war. He called it The Hot Spot, one of the first shops to specialise in second hand pop music. There was Readings too, at Clapham Junction, and Doug Dobell started selling records at his father’s book shop, when he was discharged from the forces.Dave Carey opened the little Swing Shop in Streatham, after leaving the RAF. John Rowe, who edited the Junkshoppers’ Discography, managed the Jazz Record Shop in Piccadilly, a couple of minutes from where the No 1 had first met.

Ralph Venables was another in this circle of collectors, part of the “Brains Trust” with Owen and Brian, and one of the Junkshoppers’ Discography “advisory panel.” During the war, he lived alone in Tilford, Surrey, with his four thousand records. He insisted people call him “Rafe”, and wore white gloves while junking. Jim remembered his constant assertions about the importance of white musicians. According to a wartime issue of Jazz Tempo, he was a “writer of forthright and bitingly sarcastic articles,” who neither drank nor smoked, and was “by hobby an archaeologist.” He liked motorbikes, and drove “his Aston Martin about the country lanes at quite impossible speeds.” He had been injured in a crash before the war, so was never called up. After the war, he became a motoring journalist. In old age, according to one collector friend, Ralph suffered from motor neurone disease and “when driving a car became a problem he purchased a four wheeled souped-up invalid carriage, upon which he raced around the village to the dismay of elderly ladies and the Vicar.” Not long before he died, he told a journalist from Trials and Motorcycle News that he worried what would happen next: “who will look after my jazz records?”, he said.

Ralph was something of a lynch pin in the network of wartime collectors, seeming to value the friendships he made as much as the music he listened to. He acted as proof-reader for the Collector’s Catalogue, a 1943 compendium of more than 150 significant British collectors, compiled by Ken Brown, from Glasgow. During the thirties and forties, Ralph often invited his collector friends to his house. Brian visited, as did Percy Pring, and Mary Lytton and Bettie Edwards, two pioneering female collectors who wrote about jazz together in the early thirties and produced radio broadcasts during the war. The visits, Ralph wrote in Jazz Tempo, “provide an opportunity for playing my records – a thing which I but seldom have the time or inclination to do when alone.” After Pearl Harbor, he wrote of his delight, thinking that American jazz fans would soon be stationed in the UK, but he became frustrated by how few “righteous” servicemen he actually met.

As the war progressed, more young collectors discovered jazz and blues, following in the footsteps of Brian and Ralph and their friends. In Cross the Water Blues, the distinguished blues writer Paul Oliver remembered peering through the fence of an American airbase in Suffolk when he was fifteen, wearing his Boy Scout uniform, and hearing the black soldiers singing field hollers. His friend, Stan Higham, told him that this was “the blues.” According to Paul, Stan left “quite a good collection of jazz” when he died in the war, with fifty blues records kept in an old orange crate. Paul soon bought his own copy of Sleepy John Estes, released on Brunswick by Bill Elliott. He read the Junkshoppers’ Discography, and formed the Jazz Purists Society. He found Ian Lang’s Workers’ Music Association booklet on the blues while at art school, and began writing. In Brighton, he went to a shop run by Derrick Stewart-Baxter’s, an old friend of Brian’s, and watched him smoke his pipe, and saw his first Robert Johnson record.

Many older collectors reacted uneasily to this surge in young interest. According to a 1945 Jazz Appreciation Society booklet, it was as if “awakening to find the walls of one’s bedroom to be made of glass.” Some were certainly, often ironically, curmudgeonly. Brian, then only aged twenty three, was already calling himself an “old fogey”, an “atavist”, in a reply to a letter published in the bulletin of the Society of Jazz Appreciation for the Younger Generation. (The society was founded by a sixteen year old and a fifteen year old from Hertfordshire, pictured inside in circular glasses, jackets and woollen ties, of the type that Brian wore.) In the letter, Brian decried “progressives”, and dismissed Leonard Feather as “the apostle of craven lunacy in Mickey Mouse music.” “What the youths of seventeen to nineteen today are interested in,” he said, “is no concern of mine, as I am by no means in their category, mentally or agedly.” “Publish this if you dare,” he signed off.

This kind of provocation, normally self-aware and at least a little tongue in cheek, became widespread. A little older than Brian, Stanley Dance had been dismissive of the rise of the rhythm clubs; in 1943, in Jazz Tempo, he suggested they had been “established throughout the kingdom for godless reasons. The best are those situated near public houses... In the club the twitching herd listens to record recitals and to what are known as ‘jam sessions’. These jam sessions are indescribably awful.” Through the letters pages of Pickup magazine in 1947, Jim suggested that Brian had once broken records over the head of a “co-recitalist” at one club. Brian wrote back, denying it. “I do remember that this little frolic was committed before my eyes somewhere,” replied Jim, “and can only blame my old subconscious which, for some reason or other, linked your name with the incident.” A popular 1948 collector’s guide, after recommending Brian’s writing on jazz, observed wearily that “the seasoned collectors have probably gone through the junk-shops in your neighbourhood.”

Shortly after the war ended, Brian was sacked from the Bank, apparently for practising trombone in the lunch room. He soon got a job at the BBC Gramophone Library, through Valentine Britten. She had managed the “foreign records” department at HMV on Oxford Street, and had shown Brian his first Victor record, a Boyd Senter. Brian met his wife, Mary, at the BBC, and they had three children: Angela and Pamela, and Victor, named after one of Brian’s favourite labels.

Not long after the birth of the children, in the early fifties, Brian sailed to America. He took a long coat and a suitcase full of European records to sell, and spoke with jazz men and label staff, gathering information for a vast discography of pre-war jazz that he was working on. His masterpiece, the compendious, comprehensive discography Jazz Records: 1897 to 1942, was first published in 1961. Before this, according to Victor, “in 1958, his skiffle band, The Original Barnstormers’ Spasm Band, recorded a number of tracks for George Martin at Parlophone, releasing an EP of material with little commercial success.”

As he aged, Brian’s house, and then his garage, filled with records. There were seven thousand or so, then eight thousand, then ten thousand, bolstered by bequests and arranged on neat rows and precarious piles on the carpet. There was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band from the Camden Passage junk shop, dance bands, Bechet and Bix, and opera records. “What he detested more than anything were bagpipes and Hawaiian guitars,” Victor says, “basically, he went for labels more than the artists themselves.”

Over the years, Brian’s brand of “hot jazz” collecting gradually became less fashionable, even as black American music became more popular. Writing in 1968, when both he and Brian were forty four, Philip Larkin described these collectors in painful, self-deprecating detail; “sullen, fleshy inarticulate men,” he wrote, with “cold-eyed lascivious daughters on the pill” and “cannabis-smoking jeans-and-bearded Stuart-haired sons,” “men in whom a pile of scratched coverless 78s in the attic can awaken memories of vomiting blindly from small Tudor windows,” their “first coronary is coming like Christmas.” They “drift,” he said, “loaded helplessly with commitments and obligations and necessary observance, into the darkening avenues of age and incapacity, deserted by everything that once made life sweet.” (In the same piece, an introduction to All What Jazz, a collection of his jazz reviews, Larkin also praised Brian as one of the few jazz writers he still enjoyed.)

There were still rhythm clubs of a sort then, although the music had fragmented. At the folk clubs, young men played traditional melodies learned from Topic LPs, carrying Bob Dylan albums produced by John Hammond, the American jazz collector and critic who used to visit the No 1. There were traditional jazz clubs, still frequented by some of the hardiest wartime collectors, and modern jazz clubs. Some of the “mods” began to listen to soul, on Atlantic or Okeh. The Rolling Stones first found fame at the blues club run by the local “blues association” in the backroom of the Station Hotel, Richmond.

For years after the war, Brian hosted gatherings and “record auctions” for his remaining collector friends. “Initially, it was in our front room, with several cigar and cigarette-smoking men clouding up the atmosphere,” Victor remembers. “So popular was it, and so many were the records, they eventually started using the local Girl Guide hut (my mother was a guider).” Some friends drifted out of this group, and appeared less often in Brian’s diaries. In the diaries, names “fade away over the years,” Victor says. “With respect to Jim Goldbolt, my dad stayed in touch and had regular record sessions with him.” After the first edition of A History of Jazz in Britain was published, in 1984, Brian wrote to Jim, with some factual corrections, in the friendly, pedantic style they shared: “you gave Monday 24 June 1933 as the opening date of the No 1 rhythm club. This can’t be – 24 June was a Sunday that year.”

Throughout this time, Brian’s research continued, and he published fifteen book length discographies, on jazz and music hall, and the dance bands he had first heard as a child. He wrote long, detailed sleeve notes for the vinyl reissues that began to appear in the sixties. In the seventies and eighties, he presented a radio show on Capital, patiently explaining the personnel details of the records he played. According to Victor, he “had a near eidetic memory, and could happily recall details about all of his records, who was on them, when they were recorded, where.” He remained sure of the importance of record collecting. “The only hope for jazz rests with those who collect it in its recorded form,” he wrote, in old age. “They understand.”

Eventually, Brian retired to a quiet seaside town in Dorset, and died in the first few days of 2011. His work merited an obituary in the New York Times: “the father of modern discography, Mr Rust embarked in the 1940s on a rigorous, deeply personal project that continued long afterward.” Jim died two years after Brian, and Owen Bryce two years after that. Ralph Venables had died in 2003. “I am glad that my father’s memory lingers,” Victor says, himself now a discographer.

The New York Times obituary retold a story of Brian’s, which he had first mentioned in an annotation in one of his discographies, of the time a rare King Oliver record was stolen from his house. At the subsequent trial, in the mid-sixties, the barrister had asked Brian how he could be sure that the disc that had been recovered was his own copy. Brian, in his forties and still-fresh-faced, answered calmly, telling the barrister about the noticeable click in the seventeenth bar of the third chorus. “Any minor blemish (visually or orally) would have been very easy for him to recall,” Victor says.

From somewhere, an old portable gramophone was found, to confirm Brian’s evidence. King Oliver’s music filled the court room. It was an important early jazz record, issued the year after Brian was born, and he knew it particularly well. He had written a book on Oliver, which had been praised by Larkin, and used the pseudonym “Oliver King” after the war, writing for Gramophone. He had turned up an Oliver recording on Panachord in the forties, billed as “Jack Wynn’s Dallas Dandies,” which he had listed in Junkshoppers’ Discography. In My Kind of Jazz, he wrote of “the immortal music of King Oliver’s Jazz Band… the model of the quintessence of jazz that would stand for all time.”

On the court room gramophone, the label of the Oliver record revolved a few hundred times, and the gold text blurred: Okeh, foxtrot, General Phonograph Corporation, New York, Sweet Baby Doll, with the Spanish translation underneath, “Mi Dulce Muneca”. Lil Hardin’s piano played, and Baby Dodd’s insistent drums. Louis Armstrong was there, preserved at twenty two, the same age that Brian had been when the doodlebug nearly killed him a couple of decades earlier. Brian counted silently, unsurprised and content, and the imperfection sounded, as the cornets echoed in the public gallery.

You can read more stories by J.P. Robinson here.

Fanatics and Collectors, a collection of true stories about music by J.P. Robinson, is available now via Few Press.

Twitter: @MrJPRobinson

Recommended by Longreads, Digg, The Guardian. Most Popular pick by Longform, Medium. Fanatics and Collectors out now via Few Press. Twitter: @MrJPRobinson

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store