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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.

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(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

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(Above: Joseph Sanders, left, and Carleton Coon.)

By Joel Francis

The music Carleton Coon and Joseph Sanders made for a dozen years together helped put Kansas City jazz on the map. Their Nighthawk Orchestra may have broken up in 1932, but it’s two bandleaders have been silently reunited for 40 years at Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Kansas City.

Coon and Sanders first met at a downtown Kansas City music store in 1918. Tall, handsome and quick-tempered Sanders, was an amateur baseball player on leave from the Army. He was practically the antonym of the pudgy, extroverted Coon. Despite their physical and temperamental differences, both men quickly found they shared a love of jazz and complementary tenor voices.

The following year, when Sanders got out of the Army, the two teamed up, formed a jazz combo and started booking gigs around Kansas City. With Coon handling business, Sanders writing songs and city boss Tom Pendergast ignoring prohibition with his “wide open” bars, clubs and brothels, the Coon-Sanders Novelty Orchestra was soon one of town’s in-demand outfits.

Shortly after Thanksgiving, 1922, the orchestra was booked to play on radio station WDAF. The success of that performance helped launch their weekly show, broadcast from 11:30 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. When the announcer let slip that “anyone who’d stay up this late to hear us would have to be a real night hawk,” thousands of listeners spread across Canada, Mexico and most of the United States let him know that they were proud to be “night hawks.”

Sanders quickly penned a theme song “Night Hawks Blues” and the pair rechristened their ensemble the Coon-Sanders Original Night Hawk Orchestra. In 1924, they recorded for the Victor record label in Chicago and agreed to let burgeoning Chicago promoter Jules Stein book a four-week tour. Stein parlayed his profits from that tour into his own booking company, which he called Music Corporation of America, or MCA.

On the strength of that tour, the Night Hawk Orchestra relocated to Chicago where their performance opening the Balloon Ballroom of the Congress Hotel was broadcast on KYW. Two years later, they moved to the Blackhawk Restaurant where fan Al Capone frequently left $100 tips for the band. On the strength of WGN radio broadcasts and reputation built playing around Chicago (including Capone’s Dells supper club in Morton Grove, Ill.), the Coon-Sanders Orchestra relocated once again in 1931.

Broadcasting weekly from Terrace Room in the Hotel New Yorker on CBS radio, Coon and Sanders found themselves in the same Big Apple circles as Bing Crosby and Guy Lombardo. Coon loved the night life, frequenting the Cotton Club and other Harlem jazz clubs, and making friends with Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.

Sanders, on the other hand, was less enamored. He longed for the Midwest and made his sentiment plain the final number recorded by the Coon-Sanders Original Night Hawk Orchestra, “I Want to Go Home.”

Unfortunately, circumstances forced the bandleaders’ hands. Popular taste was shifting away from the Caucasian stylings of Coon and Sanders and toward all-black ensembles like the Ellington, Calloway and Kansas City’s Bennie Moten orchestras.

These circumstances, coupled with the Great Depression, forced the Night Hawks back to Chicago in April, 1932, for an engagement at the College Inn. Sander’s delight to be back in familiar territory was tempered when Coon was admitted to the hospital in critical condition. He died a few weeks later from blood poisoning from an abscessed tooth.

kc-graves_coon1

Coon’s 1932 funeral was one of the largest Kansas City had seen. Although his procession carried on for miles, his band’s legacy did not stretch so far. Less than a year after Coon’s death, Sanders dissolved the group and moved to Hollywood to write movie scores. Although Sanders was active in music for the rest of his life, he never regained the popularity he found with the Nighthawk Orchestra. In 1965, he died after having a stroke and was buried about 200 yards sound of his friend, Carleton Coon, at Mt. Moriah Cemetery.

Today, the Coon-Sanders Original Night Hawk Orchestra is a footnote in the Kansas City jazz story that includes big bands lead by Bennie Moten, Count Basie, Andy Kirk and Jay McShann, and soloists like Big Joe Turner, Mary Lou Williams, Walter Page and, of course, Charlie Parker. But Coon and Sander’s early triumphs helped paved the way for all who followed them out of Kansas City.

Ironically, the Night Hawks are most celebrated in Huntington, West Virginia, where the Coon Sanders Nighthawks Fans’ Bash has been held on the weekend after Mother’s Day for 39 years.sanders

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