Back in October, I came across an article on a documentary about Dusty Groove, a record store I visited once long ago in the early days of the this blog. In fact, this is the 394th post on this blog but my minimal coverage on my visit to that shop is only the third, over 6 years ago. Time flies!
I'll admit that that long ago perhaps my evaluation of record stores
was not altogether well informed. I just re-read it - I barely remember this. I did not remember them asking me to check my coat and I'll stand by my statement that it is an absurd request. Often times I volunteer to check my bag and I get an odd look and an 'uh...ok' because I just don't want to carry it. For the record: I was not wearing an overcoat.
But I digress. This documentary was produced by a Chicago filmmaker and from the review I read seemed to be about the store owner purchasing collections from dying people, or from families who had lost a loved one who collected records. God knows I have spent countless hours wondering about my own collection and the poor sap that has to lug it downstairs and into an incinerator or a landfill.
I searched the internet for info on where I could see this film but came up empty. So I contacted the film maker and got a response
This was exciting! I didn't think I'd get a reply. Well a few months passed but in early February I got an email with info on a screening at the Chicago Cultural Center (the flyer is at the top of this post) and I immediately marked my calendar.
I took a half day on a Friday from work, went home and took a half hearted nap. Then I rode the Metra to Western Ave where I grabbed a Divvy and rode then ~4 miles downtown, and parked the bike at the Picasso.
I had a burrito at Qdoba and made it to the theatre by about 6:30pm. The place got pretty near capacity by the time the show started at 7pm. The lights dimmed and the film started.
This was an emotional piece, very well made with really smart cinematography. Interesting close ups of odds and ends in the midst of messy collections like a busted up framed Janet Jackson poster, or someone's worn toothbrushes really fleshed it out for me. The opening shot is Rick (the owner of Dusty Groove) digging through someone's collection with a fervor rarely seen in normal consumers. He rifles through so fast, relying presumably on the same tools I use: cover art, artists or record labels. But his own skills so well honed that his laser beam focus affords him the ability to make a living dealing records and not some other occupation. The first record of the movie seen is a CTI release
, quickly flashed across Rick's deft hands.
A big part of the movie for me was just seeing someone like Rick in action. I think of the day's I marveled at my own work at probably flipping through 1000 records in an afternoon, this guy has literally touched millions of albums in his life, probably in a single year. I had no idea that Dusty Groove was so successful, with such a ripe mail order business. I'd say I should go back and give them another chance but I remember enough to know it is not the store for me. It is a place you go to get pristine records for an appropriate price, then play them on a $1000 turntable. Hey, my records are organized and bagged and I treat them like gold but I don't have first pressings of Blue Note releases or old Coltrane stuff - I'll leave that for the upper crust. But I mean not at all to take anything away from the shop or it's owner.
I'll just touch on some of the memorable story lines in the film:
- It is revealed about 25% into the movie that Rick actually started the store with a friend named Jonathan, they were originally co-owners until Rick bought him out (but hired him as an employee). It wasn't totally clear to me but I guess he no longer has any stake in the business of any kind but certainly he deserves some screen time as part of the history of the shop. Rick recounts an amazing story about the two of them riding around 'the south' (he isn't more specific) for 'weeks' to rummage around for records and they describe finding rarities in appliance stores and other places that typically don't sell records. Rick credits Johnathan as being an expert on soul music. Later we learn that under his pseudonym JP Chill, he had an acclaimed career as an underground hiphop radio DJ. At this point things get weird as we delve more deeply into JPs personal life. Having already proven his place in the Dusty Groove history, and his own pedigree in the music business there isn't much left to touch upon as he no longer is active in the business and admits he has allowed his own massive collection to languish in shopping bags and crumpled boxes somewhere in storage. But while we never learn anything about Rick's personal life at all (which is fine), additional screen time is devoted to JP and his partner, showing them having a playful date at the Lake Michigan water front, making breakfast. Then this story line just disappears into the ether without any explanation why we explored the personal life of the now inactive partner but nothing of the guy running around the city (and beyond) following his obsession with records and his successful business. In an anticlimax, Rick eventually loads all JPs collection into a Uhaul and carts it back to Dusty Groove to be dissected and sold off but by bit.
- In reference to the 'and beyond' above, there is a great scene of Rick, having flown to Japan to buy records. He rides around Toyko on a bike, messenger bag in tow then visits a friend who owns a small shop. After the required presentation of a gift, Rick and his industry colleague touch on the large discography of Ramsey Lewis and discuss 'the business'. Rick reveals rather nonchalantly that he has 25 employees back at home to the guy who is using a basic calculator to add up your total at the register, in a store about the size of my living room. And I've been to many stores of that ilk and had great experiences, I thought revealing this was a bit tone deaf and his Japanese friend shows his shock on his face.
- Rick visits a few times a local jazz musician named Bradley Young who has 30,000 perfectly bagged and organized jazz records that he wants to sell.....for $1 million dollars. This guy is eccentric to put it lightly and has a very odd air about him. His home is immaculate and Rick seems to acknowledge that his collection very well may be worth a million, but silently relates that he probably won't find a buyer...ever, anywhere. He is polite but kind of a hulking character in a sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off, always sort of lurking around the corner as Rick pokes around in his basement.
- Dusty Groove holds a block party outside the shop, the main attraction being Jazz in the Alley. This is a recreation of an event that took place on Sunday's on the south side of Chicago for 20+ years. Besides people generally hanging out and having a good time, primitive DJ battles would take place. Neighborhood jazz lovers would bring their own home stereos, speakers and all, out into someone's local garage and a point based competition would take place between two jazz warriors who would play 5 records at a shot. Judges determined if they would lose a point for such infractions as bad needle drops, speakers feeding back and bad condition vinyl. Rick brings some of these fellas down, all of which are now in their 70s, to hold another round of battles. I was totally riveted by this and couldn't help but think of my own prized jazz collection, and what a fun arena that would be to share it in, with other jazz lovers. I would love to 'compete' in one of these battles. I'd be glad to drag my own equipment into the alley behind my building this morning but I'm pretty sure I'd lack the most important thing, which is friends and people who love these old records as much as me. I'd give anything to be a fly on the wall in 1970 at one of these get togethers. There is an excellent photo gallery here.
The most riveting story is from a 92 year old Chicagoan, since deceased, named Grady Johnson
. He was a black business owner (had a pharmacy at 47th and Ellis if I remember correctly) but was also a jazz musician who played the saw and other woodwinds. He has stage 4 cancer and Rick comes by periodically to purchase chunks of his large collection. Mr. Johnson was very articulate in offering detailed memories from his life and I was riveted whenever he was on the screen. He talks about before he owned his own business and worked at Walgreens. He had been sneaking out to do gigs during his shifts and got ratted out more than once by the snitches he worked with. He was on final warning with his boss not to do it again when the great Lester Young called him on short notice and asked Mr. Johnson to quickly assemble a band to back him! He recounted this tale by saying it was basically an offer you cannot (or do not) refuse for someone of that caliber, and he was promptly fired. It seemed to be the ultimate silver lining as he then became his own boss and had a fruitful life with beautiful children, one of which is shown at his home, beaming with love for her dad.
Mr. Johnson (I can't bear to disrespectfully call this man by his first name) reminded me so much of my own grandfather who died around the same time. These two guys couldn't have had a different background (though they both fought in WWII): my grandfather was a plumber and couldn't play a horn. But the mannerisms of someone of that age was startling to see on screen. There is a scene at the very end where Mr. Johnson comes down into the basement to check Rick's progress in navigating his old vinyl. He slowly and carefully has to come down the stairs and once he is down there he has a silent look around that says 'I haven't been down here in a while, look at all this stuff'. Kind of a wonderment at your own life and how far you've come, and how little material things mean to you at that stage. I saw my grandfather regard his own stuff in the exact same way toward the end. Maybe I am reading into this very brief look that Mr. Johnson gives around his basement too much, it was such a fleeting moment I'm sure the rest of the audience just attributed that to an old confused man who doesn't see too well. Maybe they were right.
The movie closes just a few minutes later with a very personal moment between Rick and Mr. Johnson. It was so poignant and touching I think I'd drop of the camera if I was filming this, as I'd know the importance of it in the context of the story. I won't describe it in case you get to see this yourself but I will note that even given the gravity of that situation, Rick as always remains probably Chicago's greatest jazz expert, noting the guitar playing on an old recording by complimenting 'it sounds like he is playing it inside out'. The conclusion to this film almost tore me in two. What a magical, magical moment.
The movie was followed by a Q&A with Rick, the filmmaker Danielle who's email is above, Chicago jazz DJ Al Carter-Bey and Mr. Johnson's daughter who I apologize for not remembering her first name.
The best part of this chat was Al Carter-Bey and Rick discussing more about 'Jazz in the Alley'. Al had actually been there, many times, and again I was hanging on the edge of my seat. What I wouldn't give to hang out with this guy for an afternoon and listen to him talk about jazz or make fun of my own jazz collection. Rick interjected that it is so important to note the birth of hiphop in the Bronx in the early 80s came from guys bringing their sound system into the public parks. The story of guys wiring their mixers and decks into streetlights is something I've always heard about that blew me away. Rick pointed out that there is a lineage between those events and the toasters and DJs in Jamaica prior to that, with their own sound systems. But with almost a hint of disgust in his voice, he made sure everyone in the room knew, that chronologically speaking, Jazz in Alley predates even that, but is not only largely ignored, but largely unknown. So this film has an important role in teaching people about Chicago history as it did last night for me. For that, I am grateful. This is an excellently voiced documentary that I'd recommend any record collector seek out. If you happen to be from Chicago, consider it mandatory.
After the Q&A I walked to Clark/Lake and rode to California, walked across the street and had three PBJs in short order at Boiler Room. Satiated, I got back on the L, rode a couple stops to Belmont and got on the bus. Rode #77 to the end of the line at Cumberland, then walked down Thatcher to the Metra station where my bike was stowed in it's locker. After the 1/4 mile ride home, I flung my clothes on the ground and crawled into bed. A perfect night, through and through.