Bridging the racial divide: Indiana’s incredible music history

Jazz great Louis Armstrong who celebrates his 71st birthday on July 4, practices with his horn at his Corona, New York home on June 21, 1971. It was the first time since Satchmo had been allowed to play the horn since his hospitalization over two months ago. Doctors have restricted him to daily one and half hour warm-ups. (AP Photo/Eddie Adams)

RICHMOND, Ind. (WISH) — In the 1920’s and 30’s, even though Indiana was not a slave state, blacks and whites were still very much segregated.

As 24-Hour News 8 celebrates Indiana’s history, we found that music seemed to bridge the divide.

It was the time of prohibition, and a time when jazz was moving from small dives and smoky bars into the mainstream.

At the forefront of creating that music was Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana.

“Richmond was open to all kinds of music, all kinds of musicians; they loved talented people,” explained Bob Jacobsen, secretary of the Starr-Gennett Foundation.

Located close to the train tracks, Gennett executives would travel to Chicago and sometimes Tennessee to find untapped talent for their studio. Many of the them were black artists that the world would come to know.

“The New Orleans Rhythm Kings,” Jacobsen said, giving an example of a Chicago group the studio discovered. “Also out of Chicago, King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band. Oliver and Armstrong also recorded other places a little bit later, but they started here at Gennett.”

And, yes, he’s talking about Louis Armstrong. It was a time when not a lot of black artists were recording. We asked Jacobsen if it was controversial to record black artists back then.

“Well, these guys had great talent, you know, and as long as Gennett could sell the records, they would record,” he answered.

Gennett, which now has a walk of fame where the actual recordings took place in the 20’s and 30’s, would go on to record Jelly Roll Morton, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Delta Blues Guy. At first, they used the mills in the area to power recording. Later, electricity got the job done.

“They would record the same song three times in a row,” Jacobsen said. “And then pick the best one and then go to the next one [and] record it three times. That way they get the timing down. If there’s any flubs, there’s no cutting and pasting, it had to be perfect from second number one to the three minute mark.”

For about 20 years of recording, the only color Gennett saw was green.

“A record would cost 75 cents or a dollar and people were only earning 50, 60 cents an hour at that time,” Jacobsen explained.

When the depression hit, radio answered; and that shut down the Gennett Recording studio and parent company Starr Piano.

But not before they exposed the country to some of the most incredible black jazz and gospel artists.

Right now, the walk of fame is part of a walking trail that passes through the Starr-Gennett Historic Site in Richmond’s Whitewater Gorge Park.

But the Wayne County Historical Museum is home to a lot of Starr-Gennett artifacts.

Some of the others who recorded there are Hoagy Carmichael, Gene Autry and William Jennings Bryan.

For more information on the history of Starr-Gennett, click here.

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