In December of 1994, my girlfriend Juanita and I stopped in at one of the many music stores we used to frequent near Sacramento. I think she was picking up some stuff she had ordered from them, and I was just looking around as she paid. I noticed a small bin of old vinyl LP’s near the door, which had a “FREE RECORD WITH PURCHASE” sign on it. I started thumbing through it, and the guy behind the counter told me to take whatever I wanted. Apparently, they were trying to get rid of the stuff.
One record in particular instantly caught my eye. It had a crazy, late fifties abstract design on it, with the word “STEREO” emblazened across the top in big bold letters. I pulled it out, quite pleased that I had found such a cool-looking LP in a box of unwanted music. I wasn’t really into vinyl, but I wanted to hear what this sounded like. If the music was half as cool as the cover looked, then I’d be happy.
At first glance, the cover didn’t reveal much about the style or genre, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was called Progressive Percussion, and was by some group called the Percussion All Stars.
‘This ought to be interesting’, I thought. I noticed that there were a couple of turntables with headphones nearby; listening stations for vinyl customers. I was in luck!

“Hey, can I listen to this?” I asked.
“Sure, go ahead.” said the guy.

Juanita was still finishing up her transaction, so I had at least a minute or two. I put the record on the turntable, flipped the switch, put the headphones on, and carefully set the stylus down onto the spinning black vinyl.
The wonderful, warm crackling sound of “old record noise” emanated from the headphones, and then…

BARRRUM… BARRRRUM… BARRRUM BARRRUM BABABADUMMM…

The sound of large tympani drums filled my ears, and a xylophone quickly stepped in to accompany. It quickly built to a mini-climax before bursting into the main song, an avalanche of horns, drums, guitars, xylophones and bongos. I was immediately struck by the energy of it all, and suddenly realized that the cover design made perfect sense. “The whole album must be like this”, I thought.
…But alas, it was time to go. Juanita stood waiting by the door. I put my new discovery back into its brightly colored sleeve, and left with it under my arm. I was excited, and wanted to hear the rest of it as soon as I could.

Back at Juanita’s pad, we put it on her turntable and gave the record a proper listen. I was quite pleased to find that the whole album was as good as that first track I’d heard, and was also surprised at how much I genuinely liked the music. It was jazz, but not the Coltrane/Monk/Miles Davis kind. No, this stuff was swingin’, and heavy on the drums and percussion (hence the name). All the while, though, it was cool – even the most rambunctious or melancholy tunes were eventually smoothed out to a perfect consistency of carefree, loungy bliss.
The lack of any identifying information about the group or recording on the sleeve gave it a certain mystique; all I had besides the music itself was the crazy abstract cover. The anonymity only added to the coolness of it all. I felt as if I’d unearthed a lost treasure, a wonderful relic from the forgotten age of fifties generica. I recorded the whole thing onto a high quality cassette tape, and put the vinyl in a better protective sleeve.

Yes, I had discovered Thrift Store Jazz.
Undoubtedly, most people had written this stuff off as “elevator music” years ago… but to me, it was a priceless find. It was something that you probably would have heard in a department store in 1959, or a record that Rob and Laura Petrie might play at a low volume after putting Ritchie to bed.
I wanted to hear more stuff like it, and soon learned that the only place to find the stuff was in dusty old thrift stores or garage sales. It may have been jazz, but it was the kind that connoisseurs and collectors would make fun of. I knew that I’d never find the Percussion All Stars filed neatly between Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins in an upscale record shop. Rather, I knew right off that I’d have better luck thumbing through the endless stacks of discarded Mantovani and Ray Conniff LP’s in musty old thrift stores.
I had no problem with this, and the added bonus of being able to take home five or ten albums for a dollar at most of these places was kind of a thrill. Since these records were practically free, I got to listen to a lot of different groups and performers. After a while, I knew what was good and what wasn’t. The All Stars were still my favorites, and nothing came close to sounding as cool to me – until I discovered the outstanding Command Records label, which put out many of my now-favorite LP releases.

It blew me away that so much good music was just sitting around, forgotten and rotting away in boxes. I developed somewhat of a desire to ‘rescue’ as much of this stuff from these places as I could – and thus began my unhealthy obsession for vinyl, which continued for many years.
Fortunately for me, all this happened before the whole annoying “lounge revival” movement of the late 90’s had gotten underway. Over the next several years, I found quite a few gems tucked away in the most unlikely places around Sacramento and Redding. My favorites usually had “Percussion” in the title, but I collected tons of other stuff as well. Although I got into a lot of other kinds of Thrift Store Jazz and collected hundreds of records, I’ve never found anything that has managed to top the All Stars in overall coolness value (to me, anyway).

Paco and I really got into Progressive Percussion while we both attended Sonoma State in ’95. We’d listen to it on our way to class, or while drinking beer at our pad – which often led to lengthy discussions on the impeccable skill of the guitarist or the drummer’s acute sense of timing and rhythm.
We had terrible weather there that semester, and I think it rained every single day. It wasn’t very pleasant, and after a while the relentless rain began to affect our moods. However, Paco and I found that it was impossible to be anything but cheery when the All Stars were on the stereo. That remains true to this day, and I can’t help but grin whenever I play it in my car.

We used to ponder over the back cover of the album, which showed pictures of the other releases on the same label (Modern Records). Interestingly enough, it indicated that there was in fact another Percussion All Stars album, called Dynamic Percussion. It had a similar cover, and we made an all out effort to try and find it. Back then, there was no GEMM or Amazon or eBay, so it was pretty much up to chance whether we’d ever find it or not. It took five years and several hundred thrift store visits before it ever turned up, but that’s another story for another time.

I can now look back and see how Progressive Percussion was, for me, an unlikely introduction into the fascinating world of jazz. I later got into other stuff, and have since developed a deeper appreciation for jazz in general… but the All Stars opened the door for me, and this album will always have a very special place in my heart.