The Eccentricities of Collecting 78s

Eccentricity must go hand in hand with collecting – particularly if you have the odd hobby of collecting jazz 78s records, playing bluegrass records to the cat in the basement and love to run miles day after day while listening to an iPod full of scratchy old jazz recordings. But that’s what a seemingly young 35 year old collector; Nat Jeffries; of Pennsylvania has found himself doing – and many of his friends think he’s a little bit odd as a result.

‘Most young people are listening to rap – but Jeffries listens to scratchy old records – a collection now reaching some 3000 records.’ Said a close friend of the collector.

But as I investigated this subject further, I discovered that’s the strange nature of collecting – particularly when its 78s.

Many 78 collectors will attest to having a slight eccentricity. ‘After all, searching for old records gets into your blood until it becomes an obsession.’ Remarked a fellow collector friend – who’s own collection is now reaching 10,000 78s.

Nathan’s collection is moderately small compared to some 78 private collections.

Rumor has it that a collector in New York state has a collection nearing 80,000. When I went to visit Jeffries in his over-crowded basement, he introduced himself at the door of his basement – come ‘storage room’ as the ‘mad Jazz collector’.

While Duke Ellington blared out from a make- shift modern record player; capable of playing 78s, he prompted me to listen while he stood at the turntable in nothing but running shoes and a jockstrap! He’d just got back from an eight mile run he informed me; and while on the road, he noticed a section of the Ellington track that he hadn’t taken notice before; hence his need to quickly check it on loud speakers – as well as his modest level of dress.

So what makes you an obsessive collector of 78s, I asked?

‘It’s the thrill of the chase,’ He said. ‘You try to find the missing record to make a collection complete – but often or not, you end up finding other records which set you off in a different direction.’

His collection is mostly jazz, a bit of swing but nothing serious like classical. ‘I’ve got a friend in California that collects nothing but classical 78s.’ He added. ‘He says he has about 20,000 but it’s just not what I’m interested in.’

Why jazz?

‘It’s just great music.’ He says, shifting his jock. ‘Pure music from a time when a record company could hook up a microphone and a portable disc recorder in the field and cut a few records in an afternoon over a few whiskeys. That just doesn’t happen now – music is too manufactured nowadays, and as a result, we’ve lost some of the thrill and spontaneity of just ‘making music’ and letting music live. You get that in these old recordings – you don’t get that from your iPods or manufactured studio recordings.’

Are all collectors eccentric, I asked, looking him up and down?

‘Not all,’ He suggests. ‘But many are. They all have their particular quirks and ways of collecting. I know a collector south of here who will only collect 78s with import stamps on the labels. Another collector I’ve heard about will only collect records with blue labels.’ He later explains that that’s quite easy – as many common labels were either blue, red or black.

‘It’s not the quirk that makes collecting so appealing.’ Jeffries later adds. ‘Collecting is about the desire to preserve and play back a piece of living history – something you can hear, feel and experience – music has the power to do that. If you’re a little crazy as well – so be it!’

I have to agree with him.

He flips on a few records while we settle in for the afternoon of listening, drinking and reminiscing – but thankfully Nathan decides to slip on something a little less revealing!

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