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Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy: Gennett Records and the Rise of America's Musical Grassroots

Rick Kennedy

Gennett Records produced thousands of records and debuted such stars as Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Bix Biederbecke, Jelly Roll Morton, Hoagy Carmichael, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton, and Gene Autry.

Excerpted from Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy, Revised and Expanded Edition: Gennett Records and the Rise of America's Musical Grassroots by (footnotes omitted) by Rick Kennedy © 2013. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Indiana University Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

Chapter 1: 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.

Despite the setbacks and leadership changes, Starr Piano had made strong progress in a booming industry. By the 1890s, the rate of U.S. piano production was five times as fast as the nation’s population growth. More than a hundred firms manufactured pianos in the United States. Many American piano manufacturers evolved into full-blown corporations fueled by high levels of capitalization and expanded distribution networks. Through its alignment with French’s established retail network, Starr Piano was positioned to become one of the industry’s major players. The manufacturing plant in the Starr Valley rapidly expanded as the owners poured money into the company; in 1897, the capital stock of Starr Piano was doubled, to $200,000.

In the new century, the Gennett family assumed full control of Starr Piano. In 1898, Henry Gennett’s eldest son, Harry, became a vice president at the mere age of twenty-one after having been mentored in the factory by Benjamin Starr. Under the tutelage of the factory craftsmen, Harry also became a capable piano builder. In 1900, the grand old man of Richmond’s piano heritage, James Starr, died at age seventy-six. Three years later, brother Benjamin died at age sixty-one after having recently been sworn in as a state senator. The brothers were both buried in Earlham Cemetery next to Earlham College on Richmond’s West Side. No Starr family members were now involved in running Starr Piano. In 1905, Henry Gennett appointed his second eldest son, Clarence, twenty-six, as treasurer of Starr Piano, and his third son, Fred, nineteen, as secretary. Henry’s wife, Alice, possessed a strong personality and continued to be closely involved in the piano company that her father had greatly influenced.

Jesse French, brother-in-law and long-time business partner of Henry Gennett, questioned the business ethics involved in the Gennett family’s swift and complete control of Starr Piano. French had introduced his brother-in-law to the piano business and was a principal investor in the reorganization of Starr Piano Company in 1893. Yet in a deposition filed in 1908, French, sixty-two years old and living in St. Louis, claimed that Henry Gennett “determined to secure the entire control of the Starr Piano Company by depreciating the value of its stock, declining to pay dividends, increasing the salaries [of Gennett family members] to such an extent, keeping the business secret, that we felt it was an uncertain quantity.” French claimed that company founder James M. Starr was afforded the same ill treatment, “until he was forced out of the directory and sold his stock.”

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