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Spirit of 78

One man’s obsession with shellac

By J.R. Jones

By the time Phil Pospychala was born, the music he would come to love was already in decline. Hot jazz had hit its artistic and commercial peak a decade earlier, when Louis Armstrong was cranking out his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and Pospychala’s hero Bix Beiderbecke was recording his best work. But the Depression caused sales of phonograph records to plummet, and the spread of broadcast radio created a national audience for dance orchestras that would push the more polyphonic New Orleans sound into the margins.

Now 61 and retired from a career in industrial engineering, Pospychala has spent the last few decades trying to reclaim the hot jazz era. He shares his home in Libertyville with his wife, his youngest child, two dogs, and more than 10,000 vintage 78 rpm records. “I’ve never catalogued them,” he admits, “much as some collectors do, who have them on shelves in perfect sleeves and can go right to whatever they’re looking for. I’ve never gotten it down to that, and I suspect I’ll fall over before I ever do.” He’s tried, back in the days when he owned a mere 5,000 or so. He started to alphabetize them and mark them off in a price guide. But he quit after reaching the letter O–his huge collection of King Oliver originals did him in, and before long, new purchases would render the inventory obsolete.

As a teenager growing up in his family’s home at North and Claremont, Pospychala discovered Dixieland clowns the Firehouse Five Plus Two, a group of Walt Disney animators who recorded for the Good Time Jazz label. He bought one of the group’s EPs, a pair of 45 rpm records with two cuts per side. The liner notes led him to other hot jazz revivalists, “musicians like Turk Murphy, Bob Scobey–Scobey actually moved to Chicago and played here in his last days in the 1960s–Lu Watters and his Yerba Buena Jazz Band,” says Pospychala. “I would go and buy those on both LP and EP and read the liner notes and find out that Lu Watters, for example, began recording in 1940 and patterned his music off the King Oliver-Louis Armstrong 1922-23 Creole Jazz Band that played here in Chicago.”

Browsing the racks at Seymour’s, the Wabash record store that later became the Jazz Record Mart, he’d see 78s of jazz from the 20s. “My father and mother had an old Victor,” he recalls, “and had some records from the 20s, commercial things done by Paul Whiteman and others. Who knows, Bix Beiderbecke may even have been on there, but it wouldn’t have mattered to me as a youngster.” From studying a copy of Rex Harris’s The Story of Jazz Pospychala identified more classic hot jazz artists and began spending his allowance on old 78s he found at used record stores and garage sales. When he was old enough he checked out live jazz at clubs like the 1111 Club on Bryn Mawr, the Preview Lounge at State and Randolph, the Red Arrow on 39th, and Jazz Limited on Grand.

The displays that now line the walls of his house are the envy of many a fellow collector: “They come in like Dr. Jekyll and leave like Mr. Hyde,” he chuckles. His family has more trouble comprehending his passion. He says his children in particular see his collection as an asset to be liquidated, but Pospychala has other ideas. He’d like to have it form the cornerstone of a public museum. In any case, it’s been some time since he’s been able to enjoy it himself. He’ll listen to a new prize a few times and perhaps tape it on cassette before it’s lost in the mass of shellac. At one point he sold about 600 LPs, taping each one and photocopying the sleeves, but he’s seldom even looked at those since.

The 78s remain his first love. “For some reason, for many of us, that still holds the most fascination, because it’s as close as you’ll ever get to the performer.” While LPs and 45s were vinyl, the 78s were made of shellac with a filler of clay or limestone; though easily cracked under pressure, they were extremely durable and could sustain the heavy arms and steel needles of old phonographs. Some fanatics insist on using the windup acoustical phonographs of the 20s, but Pospychala plays his 78s on a 1956 Voice of Music hi-fi set with a much lighter arm. Treated with sufficient care, he insists, “these records will play forever.”

The sound fidelity of 78 rpm records varies with the recording method. “What you have in old recordings up until the middle of 1925 is an acoustical reproduction, meaning that no electricity or electrical impulses were used in the recording process,” he explains. “So they’re sort of dead and flat; they don’t have as wide a range for playback purposes. Pianos often had to be put right in front of the recording equipment, and a bass might not be heard at all.” Western Electric introduced electrical recording in the mid-20s; this new method captured a greater range of frequencies, though playback equipment would remain acoustic for some years afterward. “If you put a record that’s recorded electrically on a turntable with some good hi-fi components, it’s amazing the beauty and resonance that you have in that record and the response,” says Pospychala. “It’ll knock you out.”

Seven years ago Pospychala organized the first Tribute to Bix, a four-day festival that draws Beiderbecke enthusiasts from around the globe, and last fall he hosted the annual convention of the International Association of Jazz Record Collectors of which he’s been president since 1995. Pospychala joined the group in the late 60s after attending one of its earliest conventions at the Ambassador East. At that time the IAJRC was a loose-knit fraternity of classic jazz enthusiasts. Since then the membership has grown larger and more diverse, and as president Pospychala spends a good deal of time negotiating between different camps, which he finds tiresome. But the association, incorporated as a nonprofit, does good work to keep the music alive: in addition to the annual convention, it publishes a 90-page quarterly journal and each year releases three or four limited edition CDs of rare recordings. Reissued artists range from popular icons like Jack Teagarden and Miles Davis to more obscure figures like World War I-era bandleader Jim Europe. (For information on the IAJRC or the Bix tribute, write Pospychala at PO Box 7791, Libertyville 60048-7791.)

The Beiderbecke festival is a project much closer to his heart. “Bix is my main man,” he admits. “Here’s a guy who was an alcoholic, with a short life, but for five years he played like an absolute bear. No one has ever quite sounded like him, just like it’s hard to emulate Armstrong.” Pospychala has an extensive collection of Beiderbecke 78s, including an extremely rare trio of records by Beiderbecke’s band the Wolverines on Claxtanola, an Iowa City label. Claxtanola licensed the recordings, which had already been released, from Indiana’s Gennett Studios and released them under a pseudonym, the Jazz Harmonizers.

Another Beiderbecke trophy nearly met with an untimely end one day as Pospychala was showing it to his father. The record, a rare copy of a 1924 Gennett release by the Wolverines, slid from its sleeve as Pospychala was trying to remove it. The disc hit the linoleum floor, leaving a black mark, but instead of shattering it wobbled and fell over. The mishap dislodged a flake of shellac from the rim, but aside from that the disc was undamaged. He shudders at the memory. “I had to lie down on the sofa,” he recalls, “until I could compose myself.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Phil Pospychala photo by Pete Barreras.