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John Steiner: Bringing it all back home

PHOTO:  Bringing it all back homeOne might say John Steiner lived the life of a superhero-a mild-mannered chemist by day, a roving rescuer of Chicago jazz by night. "Widely regarded as the world's foremost authority on early Chicago jazz," according to a June 9, 2000, obituary in the Chicago Tribune, Steiner amassed a tremendous collection of material from 80 years of devotion to the genre.

Born in Milwaukee in 1908, Steiner spent his teens haunting Chicago's clubs, taking the train to the city on weekends, sleeping in the station after all-night excursions, and returning on Sundays, pockets bulging with ticket stubs, flyers, and other items. After earning a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he worked for several laboratories and taught at the University of Illinois-Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s.

Steiner's day job allowed him to feed his passion as a jazz enthusiast and a friend to musicians. He helped found support organizations such as The Hot Club of Chicago and the Jazz Institute of Chicago, and in 1944 co-founded S.D. Records, later buying the Paramount Records catalog and reissuing recordings of artists such as Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

One of his most important contributions to jazz was his collection of oral histories and live shows. He once lugged a recording machine to the Civic Opera House, dangled a microphone from a catwalk above the stage, and captured the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Decades later he gave the recording to the Ellington family who released it on CD.

While the majority of Steiner's collection now rests with the U of C, other material is housed at or bound for the University of Wisconsin, Rutgers University, and Columbia College. - C.S.

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  APRIL 2001

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