It may be difficult to recall the incredible excitement that greeted the release, in 1973, of Martin Williams’ The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, a mail-order phenomenon that, to the slight embarrassment of the institution that financed it with tax dollars, went double-platinum. One of the things that made it newsworthy was the cooperation of many record labels, allowing Williams to freely choose selections. In those days, record companies acted like feudal lords, and in most instances were no more interested in combining forces than Sunni and Shia.
Hardly anyone paid much attention when Columbia and Verve allowed their catalogs to be plucked for a series of 2001 reissues under the brand name of Ken Burns. By then, cooperation was no longer novel. In any case, the issue had been largely mooted as labels swallowed each other and were, in turn, swallowed by larger corporations that had tangential ties to music, if any. Still, a lack of imagination in rethinking the potential for jazz reissues as, for example, Prestige, Riverside, Contemporary and Fantasy huddled under one umbrella, and Verve, Impulse!, Decca and Mercury huddled under another, was dispiriting.