Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy: Gennett Records and the Rise of America’s Musical Grassroots is a comprehensive and meticulously researched account of Gennett Records, located in rural Richmond, Indiana. Establishing itself as a formidable player in the music industry from 1916-1934, Gennett Records also secured the foundation for explosive and legendary musicians. For example, the recording company chronicled the music of Bix Beiderbecke, Gene Autry, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lois Deppe’s Orchestra, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, Hoagy Carmichael, Bill Johnson, Johnny Dodds, and others.
Throughout, Rick Kennedy, is careful to elucidate the mutable face of the company: from an outgrowth of Starr Piano manufacturers to a recording company that was willing to distribute a diverse catalog. It included recordings of symphonies, soloists, comedic, and political speeches, just to name a few. The chapter “Rural Recordings in the Electronic Era”, exemplifies the diversity of Gennett’s catalog as it fully develops the company’s recording activity in the genres of blues, country, and boogie-woogie music. Yet Gennett Records’ paramount impact was arguably in the world of jazz and blues recordings. Accordingly, Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy knowledgeably and skillfully demonstrates the prominence and influence of Gennett Records by melding cultural history with biographies and music studies while setting both against the larger backdrop of an emerging music industry.
It’s important to note that this is the second edition of Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy. As such, the forward suggests that “Kennedy now offers a revised and enriched edition, drawing on his ongoing research into Gennett and its role both in its community and in the broader streams of American culture” (xii). Some of the information is similar to the 1994 edition, and those who are familiar with the earlier text will notice the overlap. However, Kennedy cultivates a plethora of new information, research, and material thereby furthering Gennett’s musical heritage. I encourage readers who are familiar with the first edition to read this edition, as the new material makes it entirely worth the revisit.
A major strength of the book is Kennedy’s ability to familiarize the reader fully with the music and general feel of the era. In chapter 2, “A New Wind Is Blowing Through Chicago”, Kennedy proficiently describes the sound, compositions, and style of Gennett’s music juxtaposed to the larger cultural context. For example, here he pens the description of the sound in relation to the historical context, thereby supporting the readers’ understanding and impression of the music and period:
“While employing varying tempos, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings played in a pleasant style. It was an interesting departure from the hyperactive, choppy jazz of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the primary model for all white jazz in 1922. The rhythmic ease of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings reflected their admiration for, and understanding of, the black New Orleans jazz, which was not yet recorded.” (59)
For the reader, this type of awareness serves as an essential feature because it dutifully places us, both historically and aurally, within the framework of his study. The passage quoted above also illuminates the author’s writing style: it is approachable and he never utilizes too much musicological or historical jargon.
By carefully describing the musicality, the history, and the musician’s general reactions, the author establishes a familiarity between the reader and history. For instance, Dock (Doc) Philips Roberts’ frustration regarding the short timespan allotted for recorded tracks was described by his son who said, “you’d almost have to take the fiddle away from him to make him quit playing sometimes” (182). To further accomplish this fluency, Kennedy melds analysis with industry statistics, biographies, primary sources, and excerpts from interviews to further contextualize the text. One of the most valuable aspects of the book is the list of suggested reading. This inclusion only insures the readers familarity. Thus Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy will appeal to and enrapture both aficionado and neophyte.
Geography is important in this study. It’s easy to point towards New York, Chicago, various Californian cities, or even New Orleans as hotbeds cultivating the genre. But Kennedy finds relevance and importance in the Midwest, especially in the seemingly unnoticeable Richmond, Indiana. As the author admits it might seem fantastical that small and rural areas of the Midwest impacted the overall general sound and image of music. But yet, “Gennett Records introduced American record buyers to an authentic, Chicago-based jazz from New Orleans originals and their Midwestern followers” (52).
It wasn’t unusual for towns such as Richmond to become prominent cultural centers primarily due to their relations with manufacturing and industry. In the case of Gennett Records, “it was a booming piano manufacturing complex” (2) that abetted the recording company’s success. This connection also demonstrates to researchers and readers the importance in examining all areas, not just the most popular, for important and viable histories. If Richmond housed such an extensive and significant musical history, imagine what other stories small towns across the country (or even the world) are guarding!
Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy is a study in cultural histories, music history, industry studies, and biographies. Flawlessly, Kennedy manages to balance several narratives at once, never emphasizing one element over the rest. He validly demonstrates to readers how an interdisciplinary approach is the only true method in understanding the history of Gennett Records. However, it is simplistic to suggest that Kennedy only focuses on Gennett Records. His inclusion of larger historical and cultural events, such as the impact of Edison’s invention of the cylinder phonograph, the tenuous racial relations in 1920s America, the cultural influence of labor and working class conditions, the social influence of the piano etc. only serve to further explicate this history.
Yet these interconnections also serve as a minor point of criticism. I wanted to read more on how “to a people who embraced a Protestant work ethic, the piano symbolized its virtues” (6). Or more about the history and influence of the Ku Klux Klan’s records that “were pressed with red labels and gold KKK lettering, the records often listed the performers as ‘100 percent Americans’” (38). The book is littered with such intriguing asides that could be expounded more fully. In Kennedy’s defense, he is vigilant not to overly develop these points as it would certainly render the book a collection of tangents rather than a focused history of Gennett Records. Thus, when considering the fascinating text as whole, it seems trivial to ask for the development of these digressions. And perhaps this is not a criticism at all, but rather a nudge for Kennedy to write more books on these cultural-historical artifacts.
Nonetheless, 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.