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  Written by
  Chris Smith

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  Ted Lacey

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All that jazz
The Chicago Jazz Archive is 25 years old-but it hardly looks a century.

PHOTO:  Jimmy McPartland, Louis Armstrong, and Muggsy Spanier, 1950s; Tickets from the Grand Theater on South State Street; Louis Armstrong's Esquire All-Stars, early 1950s (L to R:  Cozy Cole, Jack Teagarden, Louis Armstrong, Arvell Shaw, Barney Bigard, Earl Hines) ; Poster from Jimmy and Marian McPartland concert at the U of C, 1990; Lindsay's Sky Bar, Cleveland Ohio (L to R: John Collins, guitar; Slam Stewart, bass; Art Tatum, piano; Jimmy and Marian McPartland); Harry Dial's Blusicians collectors album; Sheet music, 1929

Chicago, Illinois, the awkward teenage years of the 20th century, a time of conflict, rapid growth, and possibility. Thousands migrate from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago's South Side in search of a more promising future. The black population in the city triples in a decade. Every night throngs crowd into the cabarets along a strip of nightlife on State Street where music from hundreds of open doors and windows mingles in streets teeming with whites and blacks, children and adults, gawking tourists and savvy locals. In 1918 Langston Hughes visits from New York and writes that "midnight was like day." In 1919 the Volstead Act stumbles through Congress prohibiting the sale of alcohol, bringing an air of danger as scene-seeking youth and blue-collar club-goers rub elbows with bootlegging gangsters and undercover police on a nightly basis. And Chicago jazz-the New Orleans infant that would split the Windy City for New York as soon as it got its driver's license-begins its run as the theme music for a generation. A trumpet held up in the air along State Street, band leader Eddie Condon later claimed, would play itself.

Chicago, Illinois, the inaugural year of a shiny new 21st century that is still bubble-wrapped and barely out of the box. In an office on the third floor of the Regenstein Library, Deborah Gillaspie, AM'88, talks about 1920s Chicago as if she has just come from seeing a young Louis Armstrong perform at the Savoy. The attitude befits someone in her position. As curator of the Chicago Jazz Archive, her job is to keep history alive, to simultaneously look to the past and the future, so researchers in the 2020s can look a century behind them and see the sweat dripping off Benny Goodman's brow.

The archive, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, spans nearly a century of Dixieland, swing, bebop, avant-garde, fusion, and other siblings of "traditional" jazz. Its holdings range from 1905 piano sheet music to photos and recordings of current performers.

PHOTO:  Compilation album of Lil Hardin Armstrong; Glenn Miller's Gift Certificate; Savoy Ballroom, late 1920s or early 1930s; Wax master disk, 1950s; Recording cylinder, 1910s

Unlike most collections in the University Library, the archive was not established in direct response to a faculty need. When Benny Goodman was invited to campus in 1976 as part of a program on the conductor's art, his lecture inspired Mary Ward Wolkonsky and Robert Semple, members of the Visiting Committee to the Department of Music, to gather other enthusiasts together and found an archive that focused on the birth of Chicago jazz from 1910 to 1920. Although there was no jazz curriculum at the U of C, nor even a jazz-oriented professor in the music department, the archive was successfully launched with items donated by a number of musicians and jazz aficionados whom Semple and Wolkonsky knew, including legendary cornetist Jimmy McPart-land, bandleader Richard Manning, and Jimmy Durante's clarinetist Jimmy Granato. The initial archive was mostly a collection of 78s from 1917 to 1920, but since the library didn't have the equipment to play them, the room was little more than a storage facility.

Over time, however, the archive grew in size and scope with regular album and memorabilia donations from other musicians and collectors. The Jazz Institute of Chicago contributed its Don DeMicheal archives, which included the collections of JIC president Ed Crilly and JIC president and Downbeat editor Don DeMicheal. Jamil Figi brought local memorabilia to the archive with his gift of materials from the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a free-jazz movement that originated in Hyde Park in the early 1970s. In 1982 the archive added a reading room with funding from Benny Goodman and the Peter Kiewit Charitable Trust.

As time went on, the archive grew by bits and pieces. Sometimes entire collections were donated, sometimes a single item. Mary Ward Wolkonsky has remained an active member of the visiting committee and has arranged numerous donations over the past two decades. Jimmy McPartland and his former wife Marian, a jazz pianist, contributed Jimmy's private collection and gave a benefit concert on campus in 1990 to support the archive. These additions over the years have ensured the survival and steady growth of the archive, but on the eve of its 25th year, it received an infusion of material that may yet make it the place to study Chicago jazz.

In Nat Hentoff's 1974 book Jazz - a collection of essays by a dozen critics and scholars-John Steiner opens his chapter with the statement, "The aphorism that art reacts to its time and place was never more substantiated than in the case of Chicago jazz." Like the hollers, spirituals, and blues that preceded it, Chicago jazz blossomed from uniquely American roots, a collision of races and classes, vice and virtue, Southern Dixie and urban vaudeville, an expression of what it was like to live in the early 20th-century American city.

And few would know better than Steiner. As a teenager growing up in Milwaukee in the 1920s, Steiner would take a train to Chicago and spend all night touring the jazz clubs, collecting flyers, photos, ticket stubs, and other bits of ephemera that would become-along with his album collection and his own recordings of shows-one of the nation's most important assemblages of Chicago jazz. Although he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and worked as a chemist most of his life, he was immersed enough in his hobby to own a string of small record labels in the 1940s and 1950s. Steiner's enthusiasm for 1920s- 1950s Chicago jazz never waned, and shortly before his death in 2000, he donated the fruits of his lifelong obsession-four moving-van loads worth-to the University's Chicago Jazz Archive.

Steiner's personal collection tripled the archive's size, filling a room and a half with boxes upon boxes (literally upon) boxes of photographs, press clippings, sheet music, show flyers, album cover print blocks, stock arrangements, framed artwork, labels from album pressings, hundreds of taped interviews with early Chicago musicians, more than 1,000 song sheets, and approximately 40,000 recordings-the collection ranging from the beginnings of Chicago jazz in the early teens to the advent of Dixieland revival in the 1950s. Steiner's gift dwarfs the other 27 collections in the archive, says Gillaspie. "This stuff is crammed into the aisles. Right now we can't even get to some of it."

Although the trucks arrived in June, the surface of Steiner's contribution has barely been scratched, with less than 1 percent having been cataloged while unknown treasures lie within unassuming cardboard boxes that had been stored in the basement of his Milwaukee home-the same home from which he embarked on his weekend excursions as a teenager-for more than half a century.

The sight of the overflowing storage rooms makes Gillaspie simultaneously cringe and salivate. As the archive's only full-time employee, she faces a daunting task: organizing, preserving, and cataloging another person's life work-fascinating and historic as it may be-one item at a time.

John Steiner's donation has brought attention to the archive at a fortuitous time. Although there is still no jazz-studies program in the music department, the past decade has seen an increasing number of ethnomusicology students interested in the study of jazz. "The archive doesn't feel like it's something 'over there' anymore," says Richard Cohn, chair of the music department. "It's much more front and center for what the music department students are studying."

Current graduate student projects include studies of racially integrated female bands in the 1930s, the growth of jazz in Germany after World War II, and the interest in jazz in Korea following the Korean conflict. Cohn hopes the department will eventually hire a full-time jazz professor to bolster the University's status as a center of study for Chicago jazz. "I would like to see Chicago become the place of choice for students who want to study jazz as an academic discipline," says Cohn. "I want this to be the first place they think of, and I think that's within reach."

The study of jazz as an academic discipline-as opposed to performance, which is the realm of conservatories-certainly speaks to Chicago's strengths as an interdisciplinary institution. Jazz-themed projects have recently surfaced in a spectrum of departments, including anthropology, sociology, economics, cinema studies, history, and English. "The archive is beginning to be seen as a resource for interdisciplinary research on campus, because an awful lot of what we're doing is not necessarily within the music department," says Gillaspie. Indeed, with the University's proximity to the adolescence of jazz, the recent acquisition of the Steiner collection, the growing interest among music students, and the new University president's hobby as a jazz musician, jazz seems to be seeping from the very pores of the institution. "I have a sense that the University of Chicago can quickly develop as a center for jazz studies," says Cohn, "and that the archive is a seed for that development."

While the interest in jazz studies germinates in the music department, the archive itself has already taken root, and its branches have grown to reach all over campus and elsewhere in the city. As the de facto jazz expert on campus, Gillaspie is regularly invited to speak as a guest lecturer in classes on race, music, film studies, and history. This summer she will be teaching two classes for the Graham School of General Studies: one on the South Shore Jazz Festival, the other on the Chicago Jazz Festival.

Her duties as curator extend beyond the classroom as well. Gillaspie is currently working with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on an upcoming Louis Armstrong exhibition, and with the University's Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture on a jazz conference scheduled for May. Ken Burns's recent documentary Jazz relied to some extent on Gillaspie's research, as did Woody Allen's 1999 film Sweet and Lowdown, a comedy about fictional 1930s jazz guitarist Emmett Ray.

"We get that kind of stuff all the time," she smiles. "What did clubs look like in a certain period? Do you have inside shots? Where do we go to find out what people were wearing? That and the seventh- and eighth-grade Chicago history projects: 'Please send me everything you have on jazz.'"

Providing these kinds of services to scholars, students, and enthusiasts goes a long way toward promoting the archive, but the omnipresent dual clouds of institutional reality threaten to block the sunshine: lack of money and lack of space leave the archive unable to mine the rich depths of its collections. Despite support from the library system and donations from the music department, there is simply no room to properly organize the archive materials, and even if there were, there is no budget to hire employees to do the work. Other than some work-study students who lack the training necessary to evaluate and process rare and fragile materials, Gillaspie flies solo at the archive, spending most of her time answering reference questions, processing research requests, and attending meetings, and very little time actually organizing and cataloging the collections.

For some of the more fragile items, lack of attention could lead to missed opportunities. "The large 16-inch broadcast disks are basically potato chips-you look at them and they snap," says Gillaspie of the disks used in radio broadcasts. "What we really need is a full-time processing archivist who can work on specific collections, going through one collection at a time, one item at a time. Students can't do this work because they don't know what is significant from a researcher's point of view." The current priorities are to transfer the acetates-acetate or acetate-coated recording disks that have become very fragile with age-onto fresh tape and CDs to preserve the recordings, and to process and catalog the paper materials for research purposes.

Unfortunately, the archive cannot simply shut its doors to visitors to "catch up." While some archives function primarily to preserve and store rare materials, the Chicago Jazz Archive considers making the materials accessible to researchers a high priority. "It's a hybrid," says Gillaspie. "The archival function is to save the stuff-to find it, get it in here, and preserve it, so that the second function can happen, which is to have the materials here for researchers to use."

For now, Gillaspie says she is just "keeping the trains running on time," which leaves few spare moments for treasure hunting in the back room. To make the collections more accessible, she has turned to the Internet, establishing a Web site ( with answers to frequently asked questions, finding aids for the collections that have been cataloged, a page of jazz research tools, maps of Chicago jazz clubs from 1915 to 1930, online exhibitions of jazz collections, and progress reports on the cataloging of archive material.

Of the 17 individual collections in the archive, only three-Jimmy Granato's, Franz Jackson's, and Jimmy and Marian McPartland's-have been completely cataloged. Granato was a Chicago clarinetist who played "traditional" or "Dixieland revival" style jazz with Art Hodes, Jimmy Durante, and Smoky Stover, among others. Jackson, a saxophone player and clarinetist, is one of the last living Chicago jazz legends to have learned from the originators. He is still an active performer on the Chicago and international scenes. Jimmy McPartland was a member of the "Austin High Gang"-a group of teens that included future jazz greats Bud Freeman, Mezz Mezzrow, and Gene Krupa-who would venture into the clubs in the 1920s. They would sit reverently in front of the stage, literally learning at the feet of artists like Bix Beiderbecke, Joe Oliver, and Baby Dodds, soaking up the urgent phrases and two-bar explosions that set the rooms on fire night after night. After achieving his own fame on cornet and trumpet, Jimmy met Marian at a USO show in 1943, and they were soon married (they performed at their own wedding). Although the marriage was brief, they remained lifelong friends until Jimmy died in 1991. Marian continues to perform and to host Piano Jazz, one of the longest-running weekly programs on NPR.

As Gillaspie digs through the masses of unsorted material in a windowless room under the buzz of fluorescent lights, the stories behind the objects lead to brief but frequent pauses. A Lil Hardin Armstrong album sends her into a monologue about the classically trained pianist who was one of the major female bandleaders of the era, and taught husband Louis Armstrong how to read music. She died at the piano in 1971-two months after Louis-during a tribute concert in his honor ("There are a lot of musicians who say that's the way they want to go," says Gillaspie). The archive's copy of Livery Stable Blues, recorded in 1917 by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band-the very first jazz album-makes Gillaspie chuckle. "There's been speculation that if Freddie Keppard had been less paranoid, he could have been first into the studio," she says of the Creole cornetist who brought a dominating, brassy trumpet style to jazz. "But he was so afraid of being copied that he would play shows with a handkerchief over his hand so people couldn't see his fingering. He didn't want to go into the studio for fear that people would steal his stuff."

Thousands of these stories rest on tapes and photos, in boxes and album jackets, under shelves and on top of worn orange carpet in two storage rooms on the third floor of the Regenstein Library. Before Steiner's collection was added, only 10 percent of the archive had been processed. With the addition of his life's work, some of the recordings will not be heard for years to come.

But enthusiasm is high in the archive; students are taking interest, grants are being requested, and sleeves are being rolled up for the long excavation ahead. Gillaspie may claim one day, years after the job is done, that an album of trumpet music-held up in the air in the midst of a century of jazz history-would play itself.

John Steiner: Bringing it all back home

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