The unsung art of liner notes 

It is 1967 and my buddy and I are running from our high school to make it to the record shop and back during our very brief lunchtime. We hoof it downtown, flip quickly through the racks of vinyl, pay with our lunch money and swing by his mother's kitchen to raid the larder of a tin of sardines and a can of pie filling before sprinting back to the school four blocks away. I make it to my seat in Latin class seconds ahead of the tardy bell. The payoff will have to come after school.

For us, you see, the payoff wasn't only in listening to our new acquisitions. At least half the pleasure of a new recording consisted in the printed matter on the albums themselves. The liner notes, those poor cousins of musical criticism, carried for us more weight than the words of our tradition-laden music teachers. We learned as we listened.

As the formats of marketable recordings have changed over the years, the importance of liner notes in the initial listening experience has declined, a circumstance that I've bemoaned time and again. It is widely believed that The Beatles broke some kind of ground by printing the song lyrics of "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" on that album's cover. But jazz fans know better, having already had the benefit for many years of something more important than lyrics.

When eight-track tapes came along a few years later, I passed the format up, largely because many of them couldn't accommodate the intended running orders of the original recordings. Also, I couldn't see the sense of listening to the first four minutes of a 10-minute cut that artfully increased its musical intensity, only to have it interrupted while the eight-track changed programs and backed up 24 bars to give me a phony sense of continuity. It was offensive to the ear.

I remember taking a ride with my little brother in his brand new car with its brand new eight-track player and being dismayed by this necessity as the limitations of the format became all too obvious.
"Let me see the liner notes," I said to him as we sped along some rustic byway to the strains of whatever bilge had caught his teenage fancy. "There aren't any," Kevin said. "The cartridge comes in a cardboard sleeve you can throw away. Handy, huh?"

Well. Here was yet another big difference between my age group and his. Eight years separate us in age, and by the early 1970s a major portion of the enjoyment of collecting recordings already had been lost.

Then the format shrank even more as cassette tapes gained purchase over eight-tracks, finally eclipsing them in the era just prior to compact discs. With cassettes, my longing for liner notes increased all the more, because they virtually disappeared. No more cogent discussions of the history of the tunes, or tips on what to listen for on a particular cut. The thin slip of paper that was folded inside the all-too-crackable plastic cases couldn't accommodate much more than a listing of the selections and some dinky cover art. Some attempts were made to fold an essay into the plastic shell, roadmap-like, but the typography was so small that even those of us who didn't normally require bifocals had a tough time making it out.

When CDs came along, it seemed that, although the room for discussion had expanded, the manufacturers were less interested in packaging than in getting analog recordings converted to the digital format. That was proper, I suppose, but I still pined for the days when the sleeves of my jazz recordings featured the bons mots of Nat Hentoff or Leonard Feather or Ralph J. Gleason.

Do you recall, gentle reader, the exquisite pleasure of rushing home with an LP, tearing off the shrink wrap and liberating the vinyl from the inside paper or plastic sleeve? Onto the turntable went the platter and, as the diamond-tipped needle hit the beginning of the groove, one tumbled onto the bed or sofa to pore over the words of some critic or musician or poet or just plain fan who had something relevant to say about the music or the musician(s).

If jazz is music in the present tense, then something similar colored the initial listening experience in those days.

For example, one of the most satisfying blends came to me with 1963's "Coltrane Live At Birdland" [Impulse]. On the back cover was an essay by the poet, playwright and publisher Leroi Jones, now known as Amiri Baraka, who had attended the session on October 8, 1963. Jones' remarks on the music tended to impressionism, but they went a long way to making the startling music accessible to unaccustomed ears. The album is still in print and my CD copy contains the original liner notes, in addition to some remarkable photographs of the classic Trane ensemble that included McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass. The photo of an intense and perspiring Jones alone is worth the price of admission, and it works a very nice counterpoint with the Jones essay in illuminating the music. I wish I'd been there.

But the combination was a fair substitute. I had the music in my ears and a discussion of it under my eyes. The effect was a kind of simultaneous apprehension of the sound, making sense of the sensation, consideration of Jones' argument in its favor, reconsideration as the sounds washed out of the speaker cabinets, and, finally, a resolution and understanding of what I'd just experienced. Let's see an eight-track do that for a listener.

In recent years, I've noticed that the packagers of CDs featuring the greats have given more attention to the discographical material that so enhances that first listen, so perhaps all is not lost. I hope not. Yet I can't help but yearn for the larger format album covers that became something of a separate critical library for me as my collection of vinyl grew to more than 600 albums.

I'd never argue in favor of an essay over a blues, for it goes without saying that the music is the important thing. Nevertheless, it's nice to note that the added value of liner notes is returning. Who knows? It might just bring someone into the jazz fold who might otherwise miss out on the experience. All converts are welcome, of course.