The Abstract Truth of Sem Van Gelder or the lifetime passion of a record dealer

February 5, 2022

The root of jazz is blues. This is the “common thread” that runs through the entire history of this form of music. Jazz lovers of the past and still recognize this little grain of truth, which sounds particularly audible from grooves. Grooves in which signals spiral inwards from the edge of a plate to sound vibrations that are reproduced by the tip of a pickup. As directly analogous as the masters of blues and jazz did. Vinyl survived like blues and jazz. The digital CD, which was introduced in 1982 and replaced the good old LP, is experiencing an unprecedented loss of value today. Music lovers appreciate what the LP can do and that it preserves music much better than all the bits and bytes of the digital world. The real “aficionados” and music sellers already knew that at the time, and you can recognize them today particularly by the fact that they never sold their own vinyl collections and that they can call extensive musical treasures their own to date. Even if these dealers had to keep up with the times, redesign their record stores and make room for the compact disc. Miraculously, the record has been replacing the CD for a few years. Design in LP format and the best photos have their place again! Maybe the music god just couldn’t watch it anymore and decreed that the little pieces of silver could no longer be sold. Undemanding listeners migrate to the Internet anyway. Here they stream their bits and bytes onto their computers and mobile phones.

Almost every country in the world has its record pope, a guardian of the grail of black LPs. One of these tireless, intrepid fighters for good sound is the Netherlands-based jazz connoisseur of the genre, Sem van Gelder, who, in addition to his record shop “Swingmaster” in Groningen, also runs a blues label of the same name. Van Gelder, a sonorous name in jazz, wore it after the most famous of all jazz recording masters, Rudy van Gelder, who died in 2016. Sem van Gelder is not related to him, however, as far as can be traced. Some Van Gelder’s, however, must have emigrated to America from the Netherlands 200 years ago, that much is certain.

Before it started with Sem’s first store in 1978, he was also an organizer. He brought legends of jazz like Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis or Abbey Lincoln to the Netherlands and jazz fans enjoyed unforgettable concerts. During the evening with Abbey Lincoln, Van Gelder also met his wife Jacqueline. In addition to buying an Abbey Lincoln LP, she also took Sem home with her. From the marriage with her come two sons, both today professional jazz musicians. Ben van Gelder is an internationally recognized saxophonist who has returned to the Netherlands and now lives in Amsterdam after years of studying in the capital of jazz, New York.

End of January I had an interview with Sem van Gelder in his shop. Already in the previous month, at the beginning of 2022, the way to Groningen led me to his “Swingmaster” shop. An annually recurring ritual with fellow combatants. At the beginning of each year, the JAZZMONAUTEN, a group of German freethinkers and record collectors like myself, drive to this temple of the jazz vinyl cosmos. Some of the JAZZMONAUTEN know Sem van Gelder from the time of his first business across from the then Groninger Theater, the Stadsschouwburg. Today Sem lives with his shop in the Pelsterstraat not far from the “Grote Markt” and the “Stadshuis”, the town hall of the city of Groningen. In front of the “Swingmaster” record shop there is a wooden bench and next to the seating there is a large painted sign that shows a section of the famous “Jazz at the Philharmonic” posters from the 1950s. The exterior facade of the shop is also adorned with large saxophone graffiti. Upon entering the store, Sem greets his customers personally and offers a coffee, sometimes a glass of red wine. The atmosphere is what a jazz fan dreams of. Between the thousands of rare records and CDs there are antiquarian books about music, mostly jazz volumes and photo albums, which are also available for a reasonable price. Diverse people often sit around the kitchen table in the back private room and tell stories. Once they stop there, the music fan spends several hours enjoying the exchange of information and reminiscing about concerts and encounters with jazz legends.


On this last day of January, Sem welcomes me as usual in his warm manner and asks me to start the interview in front of the shop. It is a spring-like, sunny Saturday in the late morning and the shop is packed with rummaging customers. Of course, we sit down on the wooden bench mentioned and Sem tells me about his own private record collection, which, in addition to 200 original press releases with jazz albums designed by the famous cover designer David Stone Martin, pretty much every published record by Herman “Sunny” Poole Blount aka Sun Ra owns. In total, there are said to be around 700 master’s discs that Sem van Gelder has in stock. According to his own information, his total private collection is around 7,000 LPs.

In the mid-1980s, Sem van Gelder was at the North Sea Jazz Festival every year. He had a small, fine booth with selected LPs, which he offered on the sidelines of the concerts. There were also a couple of 78 records. Once a long, lanky man comes by and his eyes look at the covers and first presses designed by David Stone Martin. The man asks where he got these records from. “They’re from their country, the United States,” replies Sem. “Yes, I know,” replies the man, “but that’s not what I asked for.” Now the man reveals himself: it was Norman Granz himself who asked. The jazz impressario and producer of the legendary “Jazz at the Philharmonic” series finally bought all of his 78 LPs from Sem. It naturally comes to my mind to ask him which records would accompany him to the lonely island. He spontaneously names 12 records, all mono first pressings, which he calls his favorites. The order of the disks mentioned varies every week, says Sem van Gelder. This is the dozen we’re talking about:


  1. Charles Mingus – Blues & Roots / Atlantic Records SD 1305 (1960)
  2. Oliver Nelson – The Blues And The Abstract Truth / Impulse A-5 (1961)
  3. Bill Evans – Portrait in Jazz / Riverside Records RLP 12-315 (1960)
  4. Johnny Hartman – I Just Dropped By To Say Hello / Impulse AS-57 (1964)
  5. Clifford Jordan – Spellbound / Riverside Records RLP 340 (1960)
  6. Art Blakey – At The Café Bohemia Vol. 1 & 2 / Blue Note 1507/1508 (1956)
  7. Hampton Hawes – For Real / Contemporary Records M-3589 (1961)
  8. Charlie Parker – All Dial Recordings Vol. 1 – Vol.6 / Spotlite Records 101
    (Original recordings from 1948 to 1953, first time released 1970)
  9. Sonny Rollins – Saxophone Colossus / Prestige Records LP 7079 (1957)
  10. Thelonious Monk – Thelonious Monk Trio / Prestige Records LP 7027 (1956)
  11. Duke Ellington – Money Jungle / United Artists Jazz UAJS 15017 (1962)
  12. Duke Ellington – And His Mother Called Him Bill / RCA Records LSP-3906 (1968)


Yeah, these are really true milestones in jazz. John Coltrane and Miles Davis are of course also part of it, everything that these two musicians have created and published, says Sem in an interview. It therefore does not occur to him to choose individual plates. What happens to the thousands of slices, when Sem is gone, I ask him. “He doesn’t give it to an archive or museum, that is out of the question,” says Sem – it should be a music lover who will take over the Van Gelder collection one day, that is, buy it from him. That won’t be possible for a few dollars.


By the way, together with the jazz journalist Eddy Determeyer, Sem van Gelder has been moving through the Netherlands as a DJ Sem for years. Sem and Eddy have known each other for 50 years. At the fine “Zomer-Fiets” in Groningen’s surroundings, which takes place every year at the end of August, you can experience the two friends as they put on records and the people dance to it. There are 78 shellacs among them, which bring the swing music back to life by Chick Webb and other orchestras from the 1930s and 1940s.


Sem van Gelder’s “Swingmaster” is not just an institution in the Netherlands! Music and vinyl lovers should visit his shop. I’m already looking forward to the next visit J


Address: SWINGMASTER, Pelsterstraat 20, 9711 KL Groningen, The Netherlands, Tel .: +31 50 312 4020


Author: Jan Fritz