Remembering Sally White (And Her Record Store)

With two partners, I started a record store in Fairfield, Connecticut, circa 1975. It was called Trident, because there were three partners—one of whom was my twin brother. The two of us had just graduated from the University of Connecticut, where we took not one business course.

Sally White

Sally White gets a plaque from Westport First Selectman Gordon Joseloff in 2013, when her store closed. “When you think about how long I’ve been around,” said White, who was then 84, “how many can say they’ve been around 50, 60 years, doing what they love to do?” (Westport town photo)

We had a plan—we would pioneer the sale of used records in Connecticut—but beyond that we didn’t have a clue how to set up and stock a store. Fortunately, we had a friend, Sally White, then running the record haven at the downtown Westport, Connecticut department store Klein’s. Far from stocking just the hits, Sally made sure that the store was bulging with jazz—including albums from players who lived in the area, Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan (and, later, McCoy Tyner and Max Roach).

We called her, and she came over to talk business. Despite the fact we were planning to compete with her, Sally held forth all evening on all aspects of dealing with suppliers, getting credit, buying a cash register, handling returns, and was endlessly helpful.

I was thought of this episode on learning that Sally White died this week. She had closed her store, Sally’s Place (which succeeded her long stint at Klein’s) in 2013—a victim of the digital revolution. I’m sure not being able to greet her many friends took something out of her—she’d sold records for 57 years!

record store

The “record store” is making a surprising comeback. It’s just CDs nobody wants. (Moody Man/Flickr)

I’m part of the problem. I didn’t get down to Sally’s Place often enough, and I too started getting addicted to digital downloads. Sure, the music was cheaper that way, but nothing replaced talking to Sally in the store about her favorites—Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington. I once bought a June Christy record from her, and to be sure that was a purchase she approved.

Perhaps ironically, record stores are coming back as 2017 turns into 2018. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, Americans are buying LPs again, even as CD sales plunge to the zero point. Around my neighborhood on the Lower East Side, there are five LP-only stories, and nary a one that sells CDs.

Noting this trend, I decided it was time to sell my stash of 1,500 LPs. I called my friends at Academy Records on 18th Street in Manhattan, and they came up and surveyed. As it happened, they offered me a very nice price, but a comparable pittance for my 6,000 CDs. Nobody wants CDs!

jim's records

I’ve been collecting these records for about 50 years. And now it’s time to say goodbye. So long, old friends! (Jim Motavalli photo)

I’ve been collecting those records for 50 years at least. Gone, Lothar and the Hand People, gone the first Velvet Underground (with Nico) record—complete with unpeeled Andy Warhol banana. Gone the battered country music compilation I bought in a drug store when I was 14. The records are mostly rock, country and folk, since I sold the jazz albums years ago. I wish I’d held onto them a bit longer, because they’re five times as valuable now.

I can’t think of another example in which Americans have embraced an outmoded audio technology. It’s like eight-track tapes coming back. Maybe that’s next, because I’m seeing a tentative embrace of cassettes.

I asked John Corbett, the author of Vinyl Freak: Love Letters to a Dying Medium (Duke University Press), about the LP resurge. “It’s a boutique thing,” he said. “Rare records are a little more expensive and sought after. Recorded music begs to be accompanied by something—and the square record album format has the space for the full visual art, liner notes and lyric sheets. Records are cool—people like having them.”

Corbett has basically stopped collecting. He’s found most of the holy grails. When he wants to flip through records now, he goes down to his Chicago basement. I asked him if there’s anything he really, really wanted, and he mentioned a super-obscure record (pressing of 10 or thereabouts) by avant-garde British guitarist Derek Bailey. His crazy collector friend has two of them!

Vinyl Freak is a collection of Corbett’s columns from Downbeat, which lasted until 2012. The albums profiled, almost all jazz, and most exceedingly rare, are the stuff of dreams. In a half century of flicking through the bins, I’ve never seen Elmo Hope’s Live at Riker’s Island, Kenny Graham and his Satellites’ Moondog and Suncat Suites, Herbie Fields’ Sextet Live at Kitty’s, or Rufus Jones’ Five on Eight. Of course, I’m nuts enough myself to own (or have owned) about a dozen other entries in the book.

I interviewed Corbett on my WPKN radio show, and used as background music saxophonist Sonny Criss’ Sonny’s Dream/Birth of the New Cool (Prestige, 1968) with arrangements by Horace Tapscott. I’ve never seen another copy of this magnificent big-band album, but Corbett knew all about it—and waxed enthusiastic. I have it on CD, and have no burning desire to also own the vinyl, which I guess is what separates me from the true collector.

I mostly care about the music, not the object. I have 160,000 MP3s, and they’re not too cuddly, but they do have the sounds I want to hear—in a format that makes finding the exact right song very easy.

That’s progress, I guess. Goodbye Sam Goody’s, Goodbye Tower Records. It’s not likely I’ll mourn the passing of these corporate superstores, but I will shed a tear not so much for Sally’s Place, but for Sally herself. A real mensch.

Here’s a loving video tribute to Sally, by Claire Bangser:

Back to the Basics: A Portrait of Sally White from Claire Bangser on Vimeo.


Jazz at the Synagogue (During Hanukah)

A hip jazz concert in a synagogue? Why not, for gosh sakes? As jazz shows go, this was one of the hippest, featuring a one-time-only assemblage of top-drawer players assembled for a good cause.

greg wall

Greg Wall wails. Baum is on left, Anderson behind Wall, and Nussbaum at the rear. Absent from the photo: pianist Brian Marsella. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Congregation B’Nai Israel in Bridgeport is the home synagogue for Connecticut native, flautist and composer/arranger Jamie Baum. Playing tenor and soprano saxophone was Rabbi Greg Wall, who knows Baum from the New England Conservatory of Music (where they studied under the late pianist Jaki Byard).

Jazz is a shared language, so adding some seasoned players to the evening’s fare ensured a spicy meal. On bass was Jay Anderson, the veteran of something like 400 recordings (Michael Brecker to Frank Zappa), and a frequent collaborator with the ace drummer, Adam Nussbaum, a Norwalk native. The pianist, Brian Marsella, is an eclectic young player whose debut album is called The Clocks Have Gone Mad.

I didn’t ask them if they rehearsed, but they’re all so busy that if they did, it was only once. But this is jazz, and the evening—bringing out a full crowd during Hanukah—came off flawlessly. And for a good cause, too.: the synagogue’s music program, and the Irving Moorin Memorial Scholarship Fund. Launched in 1971, the fund “grants a yearly award to a high school student from one of the schools in the Greater Bridgeport area who, but for the award, might not be able to attend college.”

Michael Moorin described the fund started in his father’s memory and even sat in on timbales. That particular piece was of Jewish liturgical origins, I gathered, but was done up in Latin jazz style. Playing congas was Andres Forero, whose day job is as a drummer for the hit play Hamilton.

Actually calling Hamilton a “hit” is a little like saying “Like a Rolling Stone” is a pretty nice song. It’s a mega-smash, and for that reason—and for the sake of the scholarship—Forero was able to raise an additional $4,000 for four show tickets (with backstage benefits).

Jazz doesn’t inspire frenzied ticket bidding, but it’s music for the ages. Jaki Byard’s “Strolling Along” was a good opener. Baum has kept up her devotion to the compositional side of Professor Byard with her Yard Byard project. Nate Chinen wrote in the Times of that aggregation, “The music was all Byard’s, played lovingly and a bit loosely…Most of the songs in the first set were fine examples of standard form gone just slightly haywire. The absence of a pianist in the group is good strategy…”

yard byard

Baum’s Yard Byard carries on the Jaki Byard experience.

Wall is a fiery player with a big sound who reminds me of the young firebrands who upended this music in the 1960s—a touch of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a sprinkle of Pharoah Sanders, a dash of Coltrane, but all flavoring his own thing. On records, he spices that thing up with electronics, but has been more straight-ahead in previous live performances I’ve caught.

The mainstream jazz influences mix with Jewish devotional elements in Wall’s playing. Skewed one way, that results in klezmer, but Wall is more in the tradition of one of my favorite musicians—clarinet player Anat Cohen.  In 2002, Wall released From the Belly of Abraham, with Hasidic New Wave and Senegalese master drummers Yakar Rhythms. It was named one of the 10 best CDs that year by Jazz Times magazine. A recent world music project is the pan-cultural Unity Orchestra.

Honoring the fathers, Wall brought out one of Kirk’s most memorable compositions, “Bright Moments,” the highlight of a 1973 double live album.  I used to sign off my letters, “Bright Moments.” Here are some of Rahsaan’s personal bright moments:

“Bright Moments is like . . . eating your last pork chop in London, England, because you ain’t gonna get no more . . . cooked from home. Bright Moments is like being with your favorite love and you’re sharing the same ice cream dish. And you get mad when she gets the last drop. And you have to take her in your arms and get it the other way.”

My favorite:  “Bright Moments is like hearing some music that ain’t nobody else heard.” That’s definitely a Bright Moment for me too.

bright momentsI enjoyed a suite of songs about light, appropriate to Hanukah—represented by a lighted menorah on stage. Baum (a Guggenheim winner and McDowell Colony denizen) got a spotlight on Hubert Laws’ “Shades of Light.” She’s a cooler, more cerebral player than Wall, and always has one ear out for how her playing fits into a larger arrangement.

Nussbaum has great control of dynamics. He’s not a flashy player, and definitely doesn’t have the biggest kit on the block, but he’s expert at bringing the music to a boil. Wow, I’m using a lot of food metaphors here, aren’t I?

Nussbaum, the composer, was represented by a gorgeous melodic number I think was called “Insight/And Light.” He’s yet to release a solo album, despite appearing on countless CDs, but that’s about to change with The Lead Belly Project, which is coming out in the New Year on Sunnyside.

Both Wall and Baum brought in arrangements of Beatles songs, “With a Little Help from My Friends” (her) and “Norwegian Wood” (him). What impressed me is the way both versions were about teasing out the jazz in these exquisite pop melodies. Believe me, jazz can pander to pop, and it often does to Lennon-McCartney. Marsella really excelled on this medley.

That’s about it. Nussbaum’s product is here. He’s going to be on my WPKN radio show in February, and back with Wall and other friends (including Fairfield County guitarist Bill Bickford) at Westport 323 January 11. Wall plays there regularly with a shifting cast. Check here for the schedule.

The Connecticut-based Irving S. Moorin Charitable Trust is here. It would be a very worthy cause even if it didn’t bring quality jazz to liven up winter on one of the longest days of the year.

Here’s some nice video from that night. The performance is their version of Byard’s “Strolling Along”: