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RICHMOND, Ind. — Music Gennett Records recorded here decades ago influences the music we hear today.
A new Wayne County Historical Museum exhibit celebrates the Gennett Records story and the company's impacts. "Gennett Records: The Birthplace of Recorded American Music" debuted with a gala dinner Saturday and a public opening Sunday.
It tells the story of the Gennett family from manufacturing Starr pianos to establishing a recording empire that spread the work of influential American musicians.
Karen Shank-Chapman, the museum's executive director, was drawn as a child to the Whitewater Gorge ruins of the Starr piano and Gennett recording buildings. Her father, Steve Shank, who worked five decades for WKBV radio, told her the Gennett story.
When she became the museum's director in 2018, Shank-Chapman realized she had the platform to share Gennett's story. She said that story is “a very personal story for myself, but I see how much it’s touched so many others, as well.”
The music Gennett recorded – from artists such as Bix Beiderbecke, Hoagy Carmichael, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Gene Autry – influences current rock, blues, country and jazz, but Gennett also changed the music industry.
Gennett's work is recognized by musicians throughout the world, said filmmaker Todd Gould, who created the documentary “The Music Makers of Gennett Records.”
“Musicians I have spoken to all over the world call this place their Mecca,” Gould said. “And I am not exaggerating.”
Gould said the Starr Piano Company produced a full-sized piano in 12 minutes before it began recording music that it sold at its Starr piano stores. Then, it created the Gennett Records label that enabled sales through other retailers, as well.
The company used a new lateral groove recording and pressing method that invited a lawsuit from the giant Victor Talking Machine Co., which had patented the method, said Rick Kennedy, the author of “Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy: Gennett Records and the Rise of America’s Musical Grassroots.”
A hundred years ago, federal district and appellate judges ruled that Victor did not invent the lateral groove process and could not prevent others from utilizing it. Other small recording companies also could then record with lateral grooves.
As much as Gennett's recordings influenced American music styles, Kennedy said the lawsuit victory leaves an even bigger legacy.
“They changed the whole industry,” he said. “It’s much more important than just the records they made.”
Those recordings reinforced to the musicians that their music meant something and inspired other musicians, said Charlie Dahan, a professor at Middle Tennessee State University. Those influences furthered music's growth.
“The music that continues to sell today was first recorded here for the world and many generations to hear and to be an inspiration,” Dahan said.
While some artists Gennett recorded, such as Armstrong, enjoyed long careers with generations hearing their music, others, such as Beiderbecke, had short careers heard by few.
Beiderbecke died in 1931, leaving only 94 known recordings, according to Nathaniel Kraft, the director of the Bix Beiderbecke Museum and Archives in Davenport, Iowa. Without recordings such as those by Gennett, Beiderbecke's music by now would have disappeared.
Kraft said that Gennett's recordings, and others like them, must be cherished to commemorate artists.
The new exhibit is just one way Gennett's story is displayed in Richmond. The Starr Gennett Foundation will soon begin a fundraising campaign to revitalize the gorge's Walk of Fame that celebrates Gennett recording artists.
Elizabeth Surles ran the Starr Gennett Foundation before becoming an archivist at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. She was part of the Walk of Fame's genesis and said it remains import
“Richmond is still investing in this history and continues to invest in this history,” Surles said. “It’s important. This is internationally significant — Richmond, Indiana.”
This article originally appeared on Richmond Palladium-Item: New museum exhibit celebrates Gennett Records legacy, impact