Who ever would have imagined? Somehow you find yourself in, of all places, Indiana, in a town called Richmond, just over the Ohio line, about midway between Indianapolis and Louisville.
You’re heading to breakfast at a downtown cafe and notice a large mural, about two stories high, of a 1920s-vintage blues musician carrying his guitar and his cardboard suitcase. As you wonder about the mural, you wander around the corner and there’s another mural — this one depicts (their names are under the pictures, although you easily recognize a few of the faces) Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and others.
Turns out Richmond, Indiana, calls itself “The Cradle of Recorded Jazz” — and has a legitimate claim to that title. Early in the last century, the town was the home of Gennett Records and Studios, which put out early recordings by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson and Fats Waller. Really early recordings. The last commercial record released with the Gennett label came out in 1934.
I didn’t get a chance to stop by the town’s Starr-Gennett Galley, which displays artifacts and memorabilia and offers CDs of music by the label’s musicians. I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the Gennett Records Walk of Fame.
But I did visit the brick ruins of the former site of Gennett Records and the Starr Piano Company — Gennett was a division of Starr, which was famous in its own right and was founded way back in 1872 in Richmond. And as I tried to imagine the days when the place bustled with activity and reverberated with music, I also tried to get my head around the impressive roster of Gennett musicians — including Bix Beiderbecke and The Wolverines, Gene Autry, Big Bill Broonzy, blues diva Alberta Hunter, King Oliver, Lawrence Welk (yikes!) Hoagy Carmichael, country/bluegrass legend Uncle Dave Macon, and — holy moley and hosannah! — Blind Lemon Jefferson and Charley Patton!
Richmond, Indiana, where the Ku Klux Klan once thrived, where a hotel houses a collection of framed and mounted gaudy neckties donated by visiting Agway distributors and Kiwanis Club conventioneers, where the local history museum proudly displays one of only two honest-to-goodness Egyptian mummies in residence in the entire Hoosier State, which back in the 1920s and 1930s proudly proclaimed itself “The Lawnmower Capital of the World” — and where great bluesmen and great jazz musicians gave birth to great music at Gennett Records, “The Cradle of Recorded Jazz.”
Here’s Big Bill Broonzy:
Here’s Hoagy Carmichael singing “Stardust”:
Here’s Uncle Dave Mason:
Here’s Charley Patton singing “High Water Blues”:
And here’s Blind Lemon Jeffersonm, speaking for us all, singing “See That My Grave is Kept Clean”: