"Kennedy’s passion for and years of in depth research of the Starr Piano / Gennett Record label story shines brightly in the new edition of Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy. Not only is it the definitive account of the company’s history, but of the tipping point in both the birth of the modern record business and the introduction of American culture and music to the world." —Charlie B. Dahan, Associate Professor, Recording Industry Studies, Middle Tennessee State University
Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy, Revised and Expanded Edition: Gennett Records and the Rise of America's Musical Grassrootsby Rick Kennedy
In a piano factory tucked away in Richmond, Indiana, Gennett Records produced thousands of records featuring obscure musicians from hotel orchestras and backwoods fiddlers to the future icons of jazz, blues, country music, and rock 'n' roll. From 1916 to 1934, the company debuted such future stars as Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, and Hoagy
In a piano factory tucked away in Richmond, Indiana, Gennett Records produced thousands of records featuring obscure musicians from hotel orchestras and backwoods fiddlers to the future icons of jazz, blues, country music, and rock 'n' roll. From 1916 to 1934, the company debuted such future stars as Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, and Hoagy Carmichael, while also capturing classic performances by Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, Uncle Dave Macon, and Gene Autry. While Gennett Records was overshadowed by competitors such as Victor and Columbia, few record companies documented the birth of America's grassroots music as thoroughly as this small-town label. In this newly revised and expanded edition of Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy, Rick Kennedy shares anecdotes from musicians, employees, and family members to trace the colorful history of one of America's most innovative record companies.
"One spring day in 1923, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong spent six long hours on a train getting to Richmond, Indiana. But once they had arrived at the Gennett studios, Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band made what are now universally regarded as the first great jazz recordings. This is just one of many stories in Rick Kennedy’s exhaustively researched and lovingly detailed history of Gennett. Highly recommended." —Krin Gabbard, author of Hotter Than That: The Trumpet, Jazz, and American Culture
"In this revised and expanded edition, Rick Kennedy's extensive research and vivid writing bring to life hillbilly fiddler Doc Roberts and WLS star Bradley Kincaid, as well as the label's Alabama recording studio where William Harris's classic blues sides were cut, and the discovery of Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and others who recorded at Gennett's Richmond, Indiana, studio." —Holly George-Warren, author of Public Cowboy No. 1: The Life & Times of Gene Autry
"Kennedy’s book comes highly recommended. His writing style is entertaining and informative. By describing the personal characteristics of Gennett’s principal owners, the reader can easily keep all of the various characters straight. Further, Kennedy’s wide-ranging appreciation for American music makes the reader want to hear these recordings. The Gennetts may not have fully appreciated the music they recorded, but Rick Kennedy makes up for that many times over." —Jazz History Online
"Kennedy eloquently and informatively connects all these pieces together to form a clear, informative, and delightfully entertaining read. He breathes new life into the legacy of Gennett Records and fully enmeshes the readers into a world when then unknown musicians rambled to a dusty Midwestern piano factory to record their music. Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy will surely satisfy an audience of jazz buffs, historians, or anyone seeking a revealing account of a greenhorn music industry." —PopMatters
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Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy
Gennett Records and the Rise of America's Musical Grassroots
By Rick Kennedy
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Richard L. Kennedy
All rights reserved.
A Music Dynasty in Victorian Indiana
The rise of the formidable Starr Piano and its fabled Gennett Records label from the small Quaker town of Richmond, Indiana, smack in America's heartland, sounds improbable today, if not fantastic. Yet it wasn't unusual. Richmond was among several small towns in Indiana and Ohio that gave rise to nationally prominent manufacturing companies during the decades after the Civil War. From the late nineteenth century up to the stock market crash of 1929, a plethora of industrial innovations sprang from the region – the mass production of pianos and lawn mowers in Richmond, farm implements in Springfield, Ohio, the Wright brothers' revolutionary airplanes and mechanical cash registers in Dayton, and the ornately crafted Cord and Duesenberg luxury automobiles in the small Indiana cities of Auburn and Connersville.
In each of these industrial towns, similar social dynamics were at work. European entrepreneurs and skilled tradesman flocked to the Midwest, a region bolstered by untapped natural resources and growing populations. The cultural traditions of Old World craftsmanship were being meshed with America's emerging, mass-production technologies. Finished products, distinguished by handcrafted workmanship, rolled off the assembly lines of the Midwest in large quantities. Because of the nation's newly established railroad network, products from the small industrial towns of the Midwest could reach virtually every market in America and overseas. Often capitalizing on cheap labor costs, the families who owned these manufacturing firms made huge fortunes as evidenced by their grand mansions in these towns, where they exerted considerable influence as civil leaders and cultural patrons.
It was amid these social and commercial dynamics that Richmond developed into one of Indiana's first industrial centers. Settled primarily by Quakers beginning in 1806, Richmond was founded along the Whitewater River in east-central Indiana. On the eastern fringe of America's grain belt, close to the Ohio border, Richmond is sixty-eight miles east of Indianapolis and seventy miles north of Cincinnati. Richmond's transportation channels enabled the village's industrial base to develop quickly. The Whitewater Canal along the Whitewater River helped link Richmond with the Ohio River valley. Among Richmond's first manufacturers were cotton and wool mills that utilized the river for power. During the nineteenth century, the National Road (now U.S. 40) was routed through the heart of Richmond. The National Road became a primary passage for wagon trains crossing the central states to the West. By the Civil War era, the small, self-sufficient village had its own paper mills, tanneries, foundries, iron factories, and a neighborhood German brewery, as well as farm implement and carriage manufacturers.
The exhaustively detailed History of Wayne County, Indiana, published in 1884, proclaimed that Richmond "stands without a rival in the beauty of her location, the wealth of her surroundings, the solidity of her growth, and in the refinement, culture, and hospitality of its citizens." The proud authors describe Richmond as a frontier-style Garden of Eden, attributing its low death rate to the pure air, which "gave energy to a man and elasticity to his steps," and to an absence of "stagnant pools and miasmatic bottomlands." Within a few years, however, it wasn't pure air, hospitality, and solidity of growth that gave the small community of ten thousand people a growing reputation for excellence with consumers well beyond its rural Indiana borders. Rather, it was a booming piano manufacturing complex along the banks of the Whitewater River.
THE RISE OF STARR PIANO COMPANY
Piano making began in earnest in Richmond in 1872 when an Alsatian craftsman named George M. Trayser partnered with two business leaders in town, including a scion to one of its founding Quaker families, to establish a modest manufacturing company.
The middle-aged Trayser arrived in Richmond with an impressive resume. He had apprenticed in piano building in Germany and France, and then had traveled across the American frontier to open a storefront factory in 1849 in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana. It is believed to be the first piano manufacturer west of the Allegheny Mountains. He built pianos and melodeons, the forerunner of the pump organ. In the 1860s, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Trayser patents for piano technology, which, he claimed in newspaper advertisements, enabled his pianos to stay in tune longer than those of his competitors. Later that decade, he moved his operations 165 miles southeast to Ripley, Ohio, east of Cincinnati. Situated along the Ohio River, Ripley was a tobacco-trading town of five thousand people where Trayser partnered with Milo J. Chase, a piano maker of considerable financial means from New England. They formed Trayser Piano Forte Company in a building two blocks from the river, a major commercial route for steamboats. Even though the piano company took Trayser's name, Chase was its president and general manager, and he established a second location across the river in Maysville, Kentucky.
In 1872, Trayser moved to Richmond, 125 miles northwest of Ripley, after securing backing from James M. Starr and Richard Jackson. Starr was from one of Richmond's most prominent families; his father, Charles Starr, was a wealthy Quaker importer from Philadelphia who had helped to develop the town. In 1818, Charles had journeyed alone on horseback through the territories west of the Allegheny Mountains and connected with an enclave of Quakers in the new village of Richmond. He and his wife Elizabeth eventually settled there in 1825 when the population was less than seven hundred people. He purchased 240 acres in the heart of the village for $6,000 and sold off parcels at $100 per lot, on which homes and factories were built. He constructed Richmond's first hewed-log house. He also established a cotton factory and further developed the downtown. In 1853, he was a prime driver in incorporating the Cincinnati, Richmond & Muncie Railroad and provided land for the town's first railroad depot at North Tenth and E streets. It gave Richmond greater access to large urban markets with direct routes to Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
James Starr was the third of his parents' seven children to reach adulthood. He was nine months old when the family settled in Richmond. His early jobs included traveling book merchant and downtown grocer. As a young man, he was no stranger to heartbreak. In 1850, his wife of three years and a nine-month-old daughter both died. In 1853, he married Sarah King, and they became one of the town's prominent couples. After Charles's death in 1855, James managed his father's considerable holdings in town and continued developing the residential and business districts. Described as a handsome man with a strong personality, James in 1863 bought controlling interest of the Richmond Gas Light Company, which, by 1868, illuminated 228 street lamps and 1,000 buildings.
Starr's business associate in the piano enterprise was Richard Jackson, a hard-driving Irishman who arrived in America in 1843 as a teenager and soon moved west. By the 1850s, the young Jackson operated a dry goods store in Richmond, considered the town's first to operate strictly on a cash basis. He made a comfortable living and expanded his influence in town by financing the construction of several downtown buildings. After the Civil War, he operated a mill in Richmond, which burned to the ground in 1871.
The following year, the Trayser Piano Company opened on property Jackson secured on North Fifth Street, near the railroad depot. Trayser served as president and Jackson as secretary-treasurer. The Trayser and Jackson households, as well as the factory, were all situated within a couple of street blocks of each other. Richmond proved an excellent location for the new enterprise as a growing village with numerous European wood craftsmen, especially from Germany. Trayser Piano sold the highly ornate pianos directly to consumers from the factory. In its literature, the firm offered a five-year guarantee on its pianos and claimed to have developed a sounding board that produced a beautiful tone, especially on the high keys.
In 1878, the piano company reorganized and expanded. With Trayser well into his 60s and retiring, his former partner from Ripley, M. J. Chase, took over the factory operations. The firm, renamed Chase Piano Company, was recapitalized with a $100,000 stock issuance. James Starr rose to company president, with Jackson as secretary-treasurer. They established a sales room downtown at 710 Main Street. After the stock issuance, the owners purchased twenty-three acres of land on First Street, along the bottom of a vast gorge formed by the Whitewater River. They constructed a six-story brick factory on the east bank of the river, which supplied critically needed waterpower. While just a stroll from Richmond's central business and residential neighborhoods, the factory was isolated from view in the gorge. As the company grew from one factory into a mammoth complex, this stretch of the Whitewater gorge came to be known in Richmond as Starr Valley. (During the 1920s era of Gennett Records, it also assumed such nicknames as Banjo Valley and Harmony Hollow.)
In 1880, Jackson became seriously ill from an undiagnosed brain ailment, which "baffled the skill of some of the ablest physicians in Richmond and elsewhere." He died a year later at age fifty-four. James Starr's youngest brother, Benjamin, a thirty-eight-year-old Civil War hero, replaced Jackson and became a company owner. Born in 1842, Benjamin was nineteen years old when he answered President Abraham Lincoln's call for three hundred thousand volunteers to join the Union Army. On August 21, 1861, Benjamin and another of his brothers, Joseph Starr, enlisted in the Second Indiana Cavalry. A year later, Benjamin suffered a near-fatal head wound in battle, followed by a bout of typhoid fever. Joseph was briefly captured but escaped from the Confederates. Returning to Richmond, Benjamin partnered in a stove retail store, and then joined his older brother James as a part owner of Richmond Gas Light Company. Like brother James, Benjamin was widowed before age thirty in 1868. He remarried in 1873. By the time Benjamin joined Chase Piano Company, he was also highly visible in town, having served as a local school trustee and as a city council member.
The piano company expanded along the Whitewater River. New buildings were added, and employment grew to 150 employees by 1883. However, Chase, who also obtained piano technology patents, had other plans. In the mid-1880s, he and his sons pulled up stakes in Richmond and established a piano factory in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (The Chase family became leading piano makers in Michigan for several decades.) His departure prompted yet another company reorganization in Richmond, and the Starr brothers further asserted themselves. The company was renamed James Starr & Co., with James as president and younger brother Benjamin as factory general manager. For several months, the factory continued to produce Chase brand-name pianos using the existing inventory of materials. Then the Starr brothers briefly produced the Queen brand piano, but by 1886, the pianos bore the Starr name.
For James Starr & Co. and other American piano manufacturers, opportunity abounded in the late nineteenth century. For America's emerging middle class, the piano embodied a respectability and civility to which many people aspired. While the wilds of the American frontier captivated Europe, Americans, on the other hand, sought to emulate the values and cultural refinement associated with England's Victorian lifestyle. In photographs of American homes in the nineteenth century, the piano was a central element in rooms elaborately decorated with furniture, rugs, and draperies. Before the age of phonographs and radios, the piano was a fixture in the parlors of America's middle class, a social centerpiece, particularly for women, who were expected to master the instrument out of what seemed to be a sense of cultural duty.
A common image of courting in nineteenth-century advertising literature was the woman seated at the piano, playing sentimental classics to her anxious male caller. Certainly, the minds of these young couples were on other things besides Chopin nocturnes, but the piano stood as a moral institution. To a people who embraced a Protestant work ethic, the piano symbolized its virtues.
ENTER THE GENNETT FAMILY
By the early 1890s, the Starr brothers' enterprise would be transformed once again when their handcrafted pianos were shipped in great numbers to outlets of the Jesse French Piano & Organ Company, based in St. Louis. Founded in 1873, the Jesse French company was a pioneering piano retailer in Middle America, with a chain of stores throughout the Southern states. During the 1880s, French's retailing base expanded rapidly by selling several brands of pianos including the respected Starr keyboards. The tie between French and James Starr & Co. soon proved lucrative to both the retailer and the supplier. That relationship radically altered Starr's position in the industry, after two associates of Jesse French company, John Lumsden and his son-in-law Henry Gennett, began merger negotiations with the Starr brothers in 1892.
Born in 1852 as the eighth child in a family of nine children, Henry Gennett was the son of a prominent Italian entrepreneur in Nashville, Tennessee, who had operated a wholesale grocery business in the city since 1833. Henry was four years old when his father died. As a young adult, he joined his older brothers in the family business. At age twenty-three, he married Alice Lumsden, a member of a prosperous Nashville family. Her father, the England-born John Lumsden, had established a successful tannery business in Nashville, operated an insurance company, and held extensive land assets. For a brief period, Henry and Alice Gennett lived with the Lumsdens in their Nashville mansion. Lumsden's other sons-in-laws happened to be Jesse French and Oscar Addison Field, French's partner in the piano retail business. Through Gennett's personal relationships with these three men, he also became involved in the retail piano operations. In the late 1880s, Gennett teamed with Lumsden in operating a chain of retail music stores in the South. By 1891, Gennett moved his family to St. Louis, where he became vice president of the Jesse French company.
Lumsden stayed in Nashville, but he maintained significant holdings in the Jesse French Company, despite his expressed concern with French's aggressive, and potentially unsavory, method for retail markup. In a revealing letter to Gennett in the 1890s, Lumsden warned of price gouging in a French retail store. "We have in the store a good stock of cheap pianos," Lumsden wrote. "Mozarts cost $83, Waverlys $100, Majestics $100, so you can see we have a house full of trash. And these pianos are priced from $250 to $350. The better grades only come in when these can't be forced off. I want to give you the facts so that you may see the drift of the business."
By 1892, the Jesse French executives sought to align with a piano supplier closer to its southern operations. A primary supplier, James Starr & Co. had continued to build upon its solid reputation, winning awards at the Chicago World's Fair of 1892. Back in Richmond, Benjamin and James Starr were eager to establish an alliance with the French executives. Gennett and Lumsden soon began merger negotiations with the Starr brothers.
On April 7, 1893, the new Starr Piano Company was organized and significantly recapitalized with a $100,000 stock issuance. Gennett and Lumsden acquired about half ownership in Starr Piano, and along with French, joined the Starr brothers on the company's board of directors. Benjamin Starr, Lumsden, and Gennett were the newly organized company's primary officers, with Lumsden as president. French never actively participated in Starr Piano, but he remained a director for several years.
While the company reorganized, the white-bearded James Starr, now seventy years old, continued to slow his business activities. He removed himself from the day-to-day operations of Starr Piano and sold his holdings in the local gas company. (Two years earlier, his and wife Sarah's adopted son, Edward, had died at age twenty-eight.) He continued to serve on several boards and remained a beloved local philanthropist in town, financing the public Starr Park near his mansion on North Tenth Street. In 1895, he financed the construction of a small Baptist church for local African Americans. After Sarah died in 1897, James Starr took a second residence in Washington, D.C.
Initially, the Starr brothers must have felt jinxed by their new Southern partners. In early 1894, a huge fire in Starr Valley nearly destroyed the entire manufacturing complex and halted production for several months. Not long after the facilities were back up and running, a Whitewater River flood shut them down again. With the demands of putting the operations in Starr Valley back on solid footing, Gennett sold his interest in the Jesse French operations in St. Louis and moved his family to Richmond. After Lumsden died in 1898, Gennett assumed the presidency of Starr Piano.
Excerpted from Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy by Rick Kennedy. Copyright © 2013 Richard L. Kennedy. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Rick Kennedy is a veteran communications manager with General Electric Company and a former journalist. A freelance music writer for more than 30 years, he is author (with Randy McNutt) of Little Labels–Big Sound: Small Record Companies and the Rise of American Music (IUP, 2001).
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