Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Duke Ellington’

By Joel Francis

I hope everyone is staying inside and remaining healthy while we traipse through my album collection.

Chico Hamilton – The Further Adventures of El Chico (1966) Chico Hamilton was a drummer who played with Count Basie, Lester Young, Gerry Mulligan and Lena Horne. For this album he is joined by Clark Terry (another Basie alumnus) and Ron Carter. The set mixes jazz standards (“Stella by Starlight,” “Who Can I Turn To?”) with blues, a few originals and covers of then-contemporary pop songs. It works well for the most part, but the jumps to the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream” and the Mamas and Papas’ “Monday, Monday” are jarring and remind of the exact moment the album was recorded. The pop covers aren’t bad on their own – although they cling pretty faithfully to the original charts – but they work against the rest of the material.

Van Morrison – Three Chords and the Truth (2019) A friend summed it up perfectly: Van Morrison’s output for the past three decades is always good, rarely great. I couldn’t tell you that Three Chords and the Truth is any better than the two albums he released the year before this, or even the two albums he released the year before that. I could tell you that all but one of the tracks are new Morrison compositions. I can also tell you that guitarist Jay Berliner, who played on Astral Weeks, is back in the band. His distinctive guitar lines color the album effectively. With four full sides of music there is a lot for Morrison fans to digest. I don’t think this will win any new fans, but if you like anything he’s released since his classic run in the 1970s, there’s a good chance you’ll like this, too.

Ella Fitzgerald – The Duke Ellington Songbook (1957) I’m generally not a fan of lyrics being added to instrumental songs. This album is a delightful exception. Ella Fitzgerald scats and floats across Duke Ellington’s enduring melodies like a spring breeze kissing laundry on a clothes line. Of course having Ellington’s orchestra on hand doesn’t hurt, either. Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson also pop up. You already know most of these numbers, now hear them anew with Ella and the Duke as your tour guides.

I got this double-album set at an estate sale. The previous owner wrote down the date, location and price of album on the inside of one of the sleeves. I love these little touches that show how these songs were here long before we came along and will exist long after us as well.

Warren Zevon – self-titled (1976) The album that introduced Warren Zevon to the masses (or at least his devoted cult) plays like a greatest-hits album. Linda Ronstadt covered no less than four of the 11 tracks performed here. Jackson Browne produced the album and plays on most cuts. Members of Fleetwood Mac, Eagles and the Beach Boys also pop up in the musician credits. You may think you don’t know Zevon, but I bet you’ll recognize at least a couple songs here. And if you like that laid-back, 1970s L.A. singer/songwriter vibe, you’ll love everything here. A true classic.

Various Artists – American Epic: The Soundtrack (compilation) The majority of the 15 songs in this collection were recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Fans of early folk and roots music will be familiar with most of these songs. What they likely haven’t heard is the clarity of these performances. The compilers cleaned up all the hiss and noise that usually comes with primitive recordings like these. The songs here by blues, country and folk pioneers aren’t just a nice collection of Depression-era musicianship. They are an essential part of who America is as a nation today. To learn why, you’ll need to watch the American Epic documentary. Enjoy.

Neil Young – Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live (2018) Tonight’s the Night was the first of Neil Young’s so-called ditch trilogy, his non-commercial response to watching “Heart of Gold” hit No. 1. The studio version was held by the label for two years before finally seeing release. This live album comes from the same period (1973) but is less bleak than its studio counterparts. The songs are Young’s responses to the death of two close associates from drug overdoses. Their spirits hang heavy over the night, but the intensity is dissipated by Young’s stage banter about topless women, burlesque dancer Candy Barr, Perry Como and label honcho David Geffen. The band also goes into a short rendition of “Roll Out the Barrel.” The heavy emotion in the songs never flinches, but onstage Young allows the audience to take breaks. These moments of release are what makes Roxy a compelling bookend to the studio edition.

Read Full Post »

By Joel Francis

Welcome to another installment of spelunking in my record collection while the world … well, who knows what’s happening out there. Let’s just stick to the music.

A.K. Salim – Afro-Soul/Drum Orgy (1965) I knew nothing about this album that wasn’t on its packaging when I bought it. I don’t know much more now. But this much is certain: If you want lots of African percussion with blasts of free jazz swooping in and out, this is the place to be. It’s not for every day listening, but at the right time this always does the trick.

Nas – Illmatic: Live from the Kennedy Center (2018) Illmatic is such a great album that this edition marks the third time I’ve purchased it. After owning the original CD and album, I passed on the 20th anniversary edition and rolled my eyes when I heard an orchestral live version was coming out. Then I heard a track and knew I was going to have to buy this again. Hearing these performances with the National Symphony Orchestra takes the album to another level. It’s almost like watching The Godfather in a 1972 theater, then viewing it in IMAX. The jazz organ underpinning the original “Memory Lane” becomes a swirling concerto complemented by the DJ Green Lantern’s scratches. Earlier, Nas shouts out his dad’s original cornet solo on “Life’s a Bitch.” There’s amateur footage on Youtube of Kendrick Lamar doing a similar performance with the NSO. Cross your fingers this someday gets official release.

McCoy Tyner – McCoy Tyner plays Ellington (1965) This is essentially an album by the celebrated John Coltrane quartet without the legendary leader. Without their leader’s sheets of sound, everyone else gets more room to shine. Tyner was usually the person keeping Coltrane’s songs from falling apart – think about his insistent piano line in “My Favorite Things” while Coltrane scrapes the stratosphere. Finally out front and on his own, Tyner showcases and ability to pay tribute to a genre pioneer in Ellington while applying the some of the touches he showed with the futurist saxophonist. We lost a giant when McCoy Tyner died earlier this month.

The Raconteurs – Help Us Stranger (2019) The Raconteurs have always been my least-favorite Jack White project, however their by-the-numbers approach made for a refreshing listen after White’s previous release, the bizarre solo album Boarding House Reach. Help Us Stranger arrived more than a decade after the Racontuers’ previous release. While I didn’t really miss them, it is nice to hear White doing some straight-up rocking without all the cutesy tricks and gimmicks.

Marvin Gaye – Here, My Dear (1978) Here’s a question to pull out when the party gets dull (or maybe when you want it to end): Who had a better 1970s, Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye? At first glance, it looks like Wonder in a landslide. He won all the Album of the Year Grammys and graduated from opening for the Rolling Stones to recording with Ella Fitzgerald. A second look reveals that Gaye’s decade was every bit as incredible, even if he didn’t win as many trophies. Of course What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On are the twin pillars, but I Want You and Trouble Man are very, very good, even if they tend to get lost in the shadows. Then there’s Here My Dear, Gaye’s final album of the decade and a bitter kiss-off to his ex-wife (and label boss Barry Gordy’s sister) Anna Gordy.

Gaye knew going into the recording sessions that Anna Gordy would receive all royalties from the album’s release, as per the terms of the divorce. Undaunted, Gaye recorded the longest album of his career and used that time to dissect the relationship, peel open Gordy’s heart and spray lemon juice on the wounds. Here, My Dear isn’t only a bitter album, though. Gaye slides between soul, gospel, funk and jazz as he bares his soul and examines the wreckage. At the time, it seemed few wanted to go on Gaye’s deeply personal journey. The album didn’t sell well initially, but eventually even Gordy came around to appreciating Here, My Dear.

Roy Ayers Ubiquity – A Tear to a Smile (1975) The first time I saw Roy Ayers in concert I didn’t get it at all. I was expecting a jazz vibes player in the tradition of Lionel Hampton or Bobby Hutcherson. Instead, I got what I thought was a smooth jazz crooner going on about sunshine and searching. The second time, I got it. If Louis Jordan is the link between Louis Armstrong and Ray Charles, then Ayers is the cog that connects Milt Jackson with Tupac.

Tom Verlaine – Words from the Front (1982) I think I spotted this at a yard sale for a song a picked it up on a whim. While I like Television, this is the only album I own from the Verlaine catalog. I always enjoy this album while it’s playing, but it leaves my mind almost immediately after it’s done. Sorry, Tom.

Various Artists – The Afro-Peruvian Classics: The Soul of Black Peru (compilation) I got this album in a bundle when Luaka Bop celebrated its 25th anniversary. Dismiss this collection as a mere toss-in at your own peril. You can hear everything from the roots of Celia Cruz and the samba to songs like “Son de los Diablos” that wouldn’t be out of place on the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack. Afro-Peruvian music originated with the slaves brought over from Africa and forced to settle in Peru. There’s no trace of this horrific history on the 15 hip-shaking cuts here, but it does explain why some of the music sounds like a flamenco band got kidnapped by an aggressive drum circle.

The Dead Girls – Out of Earshot (2010) The Dead Girls were Kansas City band who weren’t afraid to proclaim their power pop influences. This is their second release and as far as I know the only one that made it only vinyl. You can hear a lot of Big Star, the Replacements and Thin Lizzy on this release and while the album plays more like a tribute act than saying something on its own, it’s still a very fine listen.

Paul Simon – Stranger to Stranger (2016) Paul Simon started taking his time between albums after Graceland took off, which is to say more than 35 years ago. Appropriately, Stranger to Stranger sounds like it has been crafted by a patient perfectionist. Simon spent an entire 40-minute podcast breaking down how he built “Werewolf,” the opening track, around the rhythms – but not guitars – of Flamenco music. Other tracks employ the experimental instruments developed by Harry Partch or the laptop sampling of Clap! Clap! “Cool Papa Bell” marries the rhythms and mood of Graceland with the profanity of The Capeman. It’s cerebral stuff to be sure, but also infinitely hummable and pleasurable.

Joe Strummer – 001 (compilation) The 2018 collection 001 is both an overview of Joe Strummer’s career opportunities outside of The Clash and a treasure of unreleased material from his archives. The ten-year jump from his pre-Clash band The 101ers to “Love Kills” from the Sid and Nancy soundtrack is jarring, but other than that the collection flows quite smoothly until its unfortunate, premature ending.

Kudos to the Strummer estate for making this set affordable, instead of a trophy piece that only the super-rich or ultra-dedicated can acquire.

U2 – October (1981) The Irish quartet’s sophomore album is easily the group’s most overlooked release. It doesn’t have the promise of their defiant debut, the hit singles on War or the Brian Eno cache of The Unforgettable Fire. All bets for October’s reappraisal were off once The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby took off.

October’s status may seem harsh in this context, but it’s pretty fair. October is by no means a difficult listen, but it also doesn’t the chops to muscle its way into the conversation. That said, it is still nice to see “Gloria” and “October,” the album’s two best songs, creeping back into setlists for the first time since the ‘80s.

Read Full Post »

(Above: Ahmad Alaadeen plays for Charlie Parker at a 2008 graveside memorial service.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

I grew up in a musical household where classical was the genre of choice. Consequently, I was left to discover everything else on my own.

NPR was my gateway to jazz. The car my parents let me drive in high school didn’t have much that worked (including heat or air conditioning, which ensured I wouldn’t venture too far from home). The radio, however, was fine. On evening drives I switched between KCUR and KANU, both of which had long blocks of jazz into the night.

I couldn’t tell you who was playing at any given moment. If the song didn’t reach me, or the announcers started talking too much I’d hit the button for the other station. Although I didn’t know Mingus from Monk, I did know that this stuff was a heck of a lot better than hearing the same Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Metallica songs for the millionth time on commercial rock stations.

The other jazz fact I knew all too well was that everyone I had heard of was no longer living. Like the classical music my parents enjoyed, the genre was confined to corpses, their legacies entombed with Beethoven and Armstrong.

Ahmad Alaadeen was my entry into jazz as a living art form. My sister told me a “guy who played with Billie Holliday” was having a concert in a church near Paseo and Linwood. I convinced a couple of friends to make the trek with me, and we were all blown away. I can’t remember what he played, but I know he played in a trio and the drummer had the tiniest kit I had ever seen. At most he had four pieces, but he did more with those than any of the rock drummers with mega-kits I had seen.

After that show I started paying more attention to jazz shows around town. School prevented me from attending most, but I made it a point to see who had played and check out their music from the library. I also started paying more attention to Kansas City’s role in jazz history. As I did, I realized many of the roads led back to Jay McShann (then still living) and the horn players whom he gave his first jobs: Charlie Parker and Alaadeen. (Both men also shared the same saxophone teacher, Leo Davis.)

It seems strange to say, but I had almost forgotten about that Alaadeen performance until I saw him receive the American Jazz Museum Lifetime Achievement Award last May at the Gem Theater. Clark Terry received the same award that night and, deservedly, most of the attention. Terry, however, only sang two songs and did not play. Alaadeen was right there on the front row of the orchestra, horn in his mouth, blowing several solos during the evening’s tribute to Duke Ellington.

A couple days later, Alaadeen’s neighborhood threw a celebration in his honor. I was able to convince one of my friends who saw Alaadeen with me over a decade before to join our party. As we congratulated Alaadeen on the award, I reminded my friend of that show.

Alaadeen didn’t play that night. He seemed content to sit in his lawn chair, greet fans and take in the neighborhood funk band. We had hoped he would play, but weren’t too disappointed – there would be other opportunities.

None of us could have predicted that in a little more than three months Alaadeen would be gone. Next to the frail Terry on the stage of the Gem, he seemed immortal. Shortly after that weekend he was hospitalized for nearly two weeks. News of his cancer only emerged a few weeks ago before his passing.

In hindsight, this award came at the right time. It was the final show of the 2009-2010 Jammin’ at the Gem series. Who knew he wouldn’t live to see the opening of the next season?

When Alaadeen received another award to honor his work as an educator at the neighborhood party he seemed overwhelmed by the weekend. He stood silently at the mic for a few moments, as if recording everything in his mind. Finally, he spoke.

“I’m at a loss for words,” he admitted. Then he paused. “I will never forget this.”

Me neither.

Keep reading:

Sho’ Nuff: Alaadeen’s blog

Clark Terry’s Last Stand

Remembering Rusty

A tour of KC’s Women in Jazz

Read Full Post »

(Above: A somewhat recent performance of Clark Terry’s signature song, “Mumbles.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Perhaps only baseball reveres its heroes of the past as much as jazz. Each year, Stan Musial, Ted Williams or another bygone star is paraded around the field before the All-Star Game. Likewise, the songbooks passed down from Miles, Duke, Satchmo, Monk and others are considered sacrosanct.

Unlike baseball fans, however, jazz traditionalists are loathe to replace their legends with up-and-comers. This makes it frustratingly inconvenient when the links to that halcyon era keep dying.

Fortunately, Clark Terry was up to the task Friday night at the Gem Theater for the American Jazz Museum’s Duke Ellington celebration. The 89-year-old trumpet master played with Ellington for 10 years, led Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show band, and recorded with Oscar Peterson, J.J. Johnson, Thelonious Monk and scores of others throughout his eight-decade career.

Fellow Ellington orchestra alum Barrie Hall, Jr. introduced Terry by reminiscing when he was able to record with his hero on the soundtrack of the “Fabulous Baker Boys.” Stationed in a wheelchair, Terry appears from the backstage recesses of stage right, hidden in the wings.

As the applause built, Terry’s son, standing behind the chair, frantically waves his arms, as if to call the celebration off. The museum’s two-day tribute to Ellington has been building to this moment. Has something gone wrong? Will Terry not be able to appear after all? Killing time, Hall nervously sings a few stanzas of “Do Nothing ‘Till You Hear From Me.”

Clark Terry recieves the American Jazz Museum lifetime achievement award from museum CEO Greg Carroll in Kansas City, Mo. on April 30, 2010.

Finally, Terry emerged, slumped in his chair, wearing a dark suit and white yachting cap reminiscent of Count Basie’s favorite headwear. A clear tube of oxygen runs beneath his nose, resting atop his albino moustache. A trumpet case is tantalizingly set next to Terry’s wheelchair, but it’s obvious he won’t be able to play even before the announcement is made.

As the band, led by Hall, kicks into “Full Moon at Midnight,” Terry rests his hands on the cane that stands between his knees. He takes in the saxophone solo by Ahmed Alaadeen. The esteemed Kansas City jazz fixture is another Ellington alumnus who received the museum’s lifetime achievement award earlier that evening.

When the song ended it was time for Terry to receive his own lifetime achievement award. His son pushes the wheelchair near the podium. As chief executive officer Greg Carroll reads a biography, Terry fiddles with his wristwatch, seemingly unsure of where he is. When the award is presented, he looks at the miniature bust of Charlie Parker in wonder as Carroll holds it up. Terry’s grip is too weak to clutch the statue.

While the camera flashes fade, Carroll looks at Terry and suggests a song. Terry looks so frail It seems an imposition to ask this much, but he graciously accepts the mic that has to be placed in his right hand. The band launches into “Squeeze Me,” one of Terry’s signature numbers with the Ellington orchestra. His warm voice starts out thin and strained, but grows stronger with each verse. The years fall away as he starts scatting the final verse, his left knee rocking up and down.

The applause is still strong when Hall looks at the band and blasts the intro to “Mumbles.” Terry joins right in and his nonsense spoof of blue singers brings laughter from the audience. He’s into it now, rocking back and forth and even backing his chair up so he can look Hall in the face as he supplies fills on his trumpet. Hall and Terry trade riffs back and forth from voice to horn and back like a jazz version of an Abbot and Costello routine.

The audience jumps to its feet with the final note, and a broad smile beams from Terry’s face. Wheelchair or not, it is obvious that when Terry is put onstage and given the mic he still knows exactly what to do. He has no difficulty conjuring smiles and making everyone happy. As his son wheels him offstage, Terry blows kisses and doffs his hat. A few songs later, Terry’s son and a nurse escort him quietly out of the building.

(Below: Clark Terry blows his horn on the Tonight Show in 1980.)

Keep reading:

Review: Sonny Rollins

Review: Oleta Adams

Review: Kind of Blue turns 50

Remembering Gennett Records

Releasing Jazz from Aspic

KC Recalls: The Coon-Sanders Night Hawk Orchestra

Buck O’Neil: Sweet times, sweet sounds at 18th and Vine

Piano Men: Dave Brubeck, Dr. John and the Jacksonville Jazz Festival

Read Full Post »

(Above: Don’t read “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll” expecting author Elijah Wald to bash the Fab Four.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Elijah Wald’s provocatively titled book slipped into the marketplace about the same time the much-ballyhooed Beatles remasters slammed retail shelves. But Wald isn’t trying to turn fans against their beloved Fab Four. He’s trying to reinforce their importance by approaching their arrival with a magical mystery tour that examines music from a populist perspective.

For the most part, Wald’s narrative manages to ignore critics and historians and answer the greater question of “Why did people like this?” Starting 100 years ago with ragtime, Wald walks through the growth, progression and trends that emerged in the first half of the 20th century.

Wald focuses on the Beatles because they were able to make artistically respectable music while staying true to their genre. Their foil is Paul Whiteman, who despite accomplishing the same feat, has been forgotten.

Whiteman was a Caucasian big band leader who crowned himself “King of Jazz.” Despite earning the endorsements from Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and selling millions of records, Whiteman’s career has been largely dismissed by jazz historians because his arrangements were so genteel. Indeed, part of Whiteman’s mission was to sand the rough edges off of jazz and respectable, if unchallenging, middle-brow dance music.

By eschewing the conventional narrative based on critical favorites, Wald shows how mainstream performers and tastes shaped the progression of music. Traditional viewpoints and assumptions are confounded again and again as Wald shows how the popular persuades the acclaimed. For example, Wald tells how Guy Lombardo’s arrangements influenced Armstrong’s celebrated Hot Five and Hot Seven records.

He also builds interesting parallels between celebrated trendsetters and those who are slighted for their foresight. In one instance, romantic crooner Vaughn Monroe was savaged in the press when his stage shows were little more than reconstructions of his singles. Yet only a few years later, as recorded music replaced live interpretations on the radio, it became what audiences expected.

Wald covers a lot of territory in a hurry, but it rarely feels like any corners are cut. Although the history is told in a linear fashion, Wald is a master of connecting previously unseen dots. The lines he draws between the Bennie Moten Orchestra and Elvis Presley, or Parlimanent-Funkadelic and Benny Goodman are both ingenious and obvious in retrospect. While not all of Wald’s parallels or arguments work, they are worth pondering.

In a way, “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll” is the natural outgrowth of Wald’s previous book, “Escaping the Delta.” That volume examined the curious arrival of Robert Johnson as the figurehead of “authentic” pre-war blues. In looking at Johnson’s forgotten peers like Peetey Wheatstraw and Bumble Bee Slim, Wald not only places Johnson’s music in context, but draws attention to arguably more deserving performers.

Admittedly, Wald may be giving himself the upper hand by focusing on unheard and unheralded performers. But while Wald’s arguments are contrarian, they are also well-researched and measured. In fact, the only argument Wald fails to back up is his title. Not only does Wald leave the Fab Four’s legacy intact, he doesn’t address them directly until the final two chapters. Fans of the British Invasion and Boomers looking to relieve their adolescence are bound to be disappointed.

Armchair historians and musicologists are bound to be the most pleased with this text. Wald is not encouraging the reader to explore Whiteman’s catalog or discard his or her favorite performers, only look at them through a longer lens.

Keep reading:

A Conversation with Elijah Wald

Talking King Records with author Jon Hartley Fox

Review – “King of the Queen City”

Talking Motown with author Bill Dahl

Key King Artists

The True Story of Cadillac Records

Read Full Post »

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

I visited the historic Gennett Records recording studio and the Gennett Walk of Fame in Richmond, Ind. on March 2, 2010. Here are my photos from the trip. (Don’t miss The Daily Record feature “Remembering Gennett Records.”)

This is all that remains of the Gennett building today. Most of the structure was torn down in the 1960s and '70s.

This sign points the way to the Gennett building, but it's easy to miss if you're not looking for it.

Close-up of the Gennett parrot still visible on the tower today.

This plaque is mounted on the Gennett building to the left of what appears to be the former main entrance.

There isn't much to see inside the building. The structure has been gutted.

Detail work of the marker celebrating Jelly Roll Morton on the Gennett Walk of Fame.

Hoagy Carmichel's plaque on the Gennett Walk of Fame.

Blues legend Charlie Patton's marker on the Gennett Walk of Fame.

Duke Ellington is also honored on the Gennett Walk of Fame.

Jelly Roll Morton's plaque on the Gennett Walk of Fame.

Close-up of the mosaic honoring Charlie Patton on his plaque on the Gennett Walk of Fame.

Read Full Post »

(Above: A rare Gennett Records 78 featuring Edna Hicks singing “Satisfied Blues.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

From the highway, Richmond, Ind. looks like any other blip on the highway between Indianapolis and Columbus, Ohio. It’s not quite blink-and-you’ll-miss it – the town does have five exits from I-70 – but there’s nothing enticing about it, either.

The music made in this unassuming locale eighty years ago, however, is still captivating. Thanks to the efforts of Henry Gennett and his label, Gennett Records, this blip on the Indiana-Ohio border is known as the “cradle of recorded jazz.”

Like most label heads, Gennett was not a music man. The Nashville businessman bought the highly successful Starr Piano Company from a trio of Richmond entrepreneurs who started the business 20 years ago.

By 1915, Starr Pianos were one of the most prestigious brands in the country and Gennett was selling 15,000 instruments a year. The winds of change were blowing, however, and Gennett sensed the piano paradigm was about to be usurped by the phonograph.

Charlie Patton was one of many then-unknown musicians to record for Gennett.

By the end of the decade, Gennett was not only manufacturing his own brand of phonograph, but cutting original material for prospective customers to play on their new appliance. Since Victor and Columbia had snatched up the biggest names in music to exclusive contracts, Gennett grabbed lesser-known musicians passing through town on their way to gigs.

The artists Gennett recorded in the ‘20s were unfamiliar at the time, but read like a jazz hall of fame today: Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, the King Oliver band – which included a bottle green Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and Hoagy Carmichael. Gennett also recorded bluesmen Big Bill Broonzy, Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and future country legend Gene Autry and other hillbilly pioneers Fiddlin’ Doc Roberts, Vernon Dalhart and Bradley Kincaid.

Ironically, at the same time Gennett was recording many of the biggest names in African-American music, Richmond was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. At one point, 45 percent of the white men in Wayne County, which includes Richmond, were Klan members. This market was too lucrative for Gennett to ignore, who secretly recorded these bigots in the Gennett Records studios and released them on private labels.

Gennett paid his artists a flat fee of $15 to $50 per session and sold the records for $1. The label’s slogan, “The Difference is in the Tone,” was something of a joke. Heavy drapes hung on the walls could not hide the sounds of passing trains, and purists noted Gennett platters did not sound as good as singles cut on the coasts. For a while, though, the Gennett parrot was ubiquitous. In 1920, the label sold three million records.

Just when it looked like Henry Gennett had successfully stayed ahead of the technology curve, radio came along. Suddenly, fans didn’t have to own every song they wanted to hear. The coupling of radio and the Great Depression buckled Gennett Records and the Starr Piano Company. In 1935, the label was sold to Decca; in 1952 the largely inactive Starr Piano Company was sold at auction and the Richmond factory was shut down.

The Gennett studio is partially intact today. Although the building was once five stories tall, all that remains is part of

Ths tower is all that remains of the Gennett building today.

the façade – still proudly sporting the Gennett Records logo – and the gutted first floor. The Starr Piano Company’s 60-foot smokestack stands defiantly several yards away from the remains of the studio.

Across the street lies the Gennett Walk of Fame. It was snowy on the day we visited, but someone had taken the time to clear off the markers of several celebrated musicians. The round plaques are meant to resemble a 78 record, and sport a tile mosaic of the artist. A bronze plaque below the 78 contains a brief biography.

It seems most of the Richmond’s current 40,000 residents have forgotten about Gennett Records. The first person we asked for directions had never heard of it, and the only nod to the label outside of the old building and walk of fame was mural on the side of a the 4th Floor Blues Club on the way out of town.

It’s easy to miss the sign for the Gennett memorial. The narrow road is hidden behind a railroad bridge and tucked next to row of businesses. But if you’ve ventured far enough off the beaten path to stumble into Richmond, go a little further and rediscover some great music.

Keep reading:

A Gennett Records photo gallery

KC Recalls: The Coon-Sanders Night Hawk Orchestra

Buck O’ Neil: Sweet times, sweet sounds at 18th and Vine

More Jazz writing on The Daily Record

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »