Chicago Jazz Archive is 25 years old-but it hardly looks a century.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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."
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
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."
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.
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.
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.'"
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
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.
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."
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 (www.lib.uchicago.edu/e/su/cja/)
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
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.
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."
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.
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
Steiner: Bringing it all back home