Spinning the classics: Young jazz archivist Matthew Rivera will play vintage 78rpm records at the Northampton Jazz Festival


Staff Writer

Published: 09-22-2022 4:04 PM

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Matthew “Fat Cat” Rivera didn’t hear a whole lot of jazz. But what he did hear began to pique his interest.

By the time he was in high school, Rivera says, jazz had become “an obsession,” and in college he was introduced to a whole new level of it: heavy, fragile 78rpm records that featured classic jazz sounds from the 1920s into the 1950s, from Billie Holliday to Duke Ellington to Coleman Hawkins and early Louis Armstrong.

Today, Rivera, just 26, has become a dedicated jazz archivist and educator who’s built an impressive collection of jazz 78s, which he spins in radio programs and in Zoom sessions from his Brooklyn apartment. It all takes place as part of what’s called the Hot Club of New York, a name that harkens back to 1930s France, when music enthusiasts formed listening groups to check out le jazz hot on hard-to-find imported records.

Next weekend, Rivera will bring a special portable turntable, a select group of his records, and the history behind them to Pulaski Park as part of the Northampton Jazz Festival, where he’ll play the songs and talk about them; festival organizers will supply the sound system for amplifying the music.

In a recent phone interview, Rivera, who came to New York in 2014 to attend Columbia University, says the Hot Club of New York, a nonprofit group he started about four years ago, is also built around the theme of trying to introduce older jazz recordings to a wider audience — not just to consider the music and the particular sound quality of 78s, but to look at the historical and social context in which the records were produced.

“These records weren’t made in a vacuum,” he said. “They came out of an era of segregation, of labor battles, a time when musicians were fighting to be seen and heard. That era between the two [world] wars is particularly interesting because jazz was probably at the peak of its popularity … everyone listened to it.”

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The sound of 78rpm records is also distinct, Rivera noted, due to the recording technology of the day. “The volume is much louder” than contemporary recordings, he said. “There’s a lot more information … the sound isn’t compressed.”

“The first time I heard a 78, I was just floored,” he added.

How it began

His interest in jazz developed gradually at first, with inspiration coming from different places. He didn’t hear much of it at home, he says, as his parents listened “to whatever was on the radio.” But one of his grandmothers was a pianist and had grown up listening to jazz; she gave him some early piano lessons, as well as some early jazz records.

Rivera then got interested in early rock and roll and its connection to blues and jazz. By third grade he had started collecting 45s of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and other 1950s rockers, and he also made a more formal study of piano for several years, playing mostly classical music but also trying his hand at ragtime.

Another highlight came after seeing the 1959 film “Anatomy of a Murder,” which has a score written by Duke Ellington (who also appears in the movie). “After that I went to an old record store [in Louisville] to find out more about Duke Ellington,” Rivera said.

His broader jazz education began at Columbia, where he got involved at the campus radio station, WKCR-FM, which had a long history as a destination for jazz, mostly due to the work of the late Phil Schaap, a jazz expert who had some popular shows at the station. Schaap, who also taught at Columbia and other schools and was involved in numerous other jazz projects during his career, became a mentor for Rivera.

“I learned so much from him,” he said.

Schaap, who died last year at age 70, was recognized earlier in 2021 as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts. He also gave Rivera his nickname, based on the name of a man who founded a jazz festival in Manassas, Virginia, Johnson McRea, who also once ran a small record label called Fat Cat’s Jazz.

“I had found this rare record from that label, so Phil started calling me ‘Fat Cat,’ ” said Rivera. “It was kind of our little inside joke.”

Rivera actually majored in English and anthropology at Columbia, but he was active at the radio station and after graduating looked for a way to stay involved in jazz. He’s been a serious record collector for years and now has about 20,000 early jazz 78s, though he says the majority of those have been donated to him and still need to be sorted; he keeps them in outside storage units. He works more immediately with about 2,000 to 3,000 discs.

Before COVID-19 arrived, he began spinning jazz records in some clubs and other spots in New York City such as Café Bohemia in Greenwich Village. That was an important step in making that early music and its history “something that you could share through free public access,” he said.

“The Hot Club really started out with informal gatherings in people’s houses, other collectors, where someone would play records and we’d talk about them,” Rivera added. “When I started doing it on Zoom, the audience definitely increased, and that’s raised the question of, how do we build on that? How do we show what we own with everyone else?”

Rivera’s involved with another deep jazz archive project these days: He’s part of a small team that’s been commissioned by a media company to digitize, transcribe, and create analog backups of some 1,500 interviews that Phil Schaap conducted with different jazz musicians during his long career in radio.

His own enthusiasm for jazz comes bubbling through during an interview. He’s a fan of many genres (and other styles of music), from early jazz to Bebop to free jazz and the work of modern figures like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. He says Schaap helped him understand the history of the music, like the artificial barriers that jazz writers and others developed in the late 1940s between Bebop and earlier, traditional jazz.

“People were told you had to be in one camp or the other, but that never had to be the case,” he said. “Phil showed me that, and he showed me jazz always had a context, and that context is what’s really important.”

“I feel extremely lucky to be doing what I’m doing,” he added. “I’ve had an opportunity to study with some really generous experts in the field, and now I want to do my due diligence in preserving the work of all these great artists.”

Matthew “Fat Cat” Rivera will spin his 78rpm jazz records at 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 1 in Pulaski Park as part of the Northampton Jazz Festival. It’s one of several free events at the festival. Audience members can also pick up a free 78 record in a “custom Hot Club New York/ Jazz Fest sleeve.”