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Jazz Heritage

Starr Piano Company & Gennett Recording Industry

Hoosier, Hoagy Carmichael is quoted in his biography, “Sometimes I Wonder” as stating “The birthplace of recorded jazz was a rambling brick building on the banks of the Whitewater River gorge on the edge of downtown Richmond, Indiana. The factory was the home plant of the Starr Piano Company and tucked away in one unused corner was the tiny phonograph recording studio that the firm called its Gennett Records division. It was primitive, simple and effective . . . And truly a pioneer.”

Ready for some jazz? In September, be sure to check out the Festivals and Events listing for more detailed information on the annual Jazz Fest held each September.

Starr Piano Factory

In 1872, an organization of prominent business men headed by James M. Starr began manufacturing pianos in a small factory near the Whitewater River. At this time, the city had two banks, a public library and gas lighting. The next year, when the first piano was produced, Richmond became the county seat of Wayne County and had a population of 10,000.

The first structure built for the piano works was a two-story pitched roof building. Over the next fifty years some thirty additional structures were added. Today, all but one of those buildings are gone, but a portion of the original 1872 Starr Piano Factory building remains, a silent reminder of a bygone era.

The piano factory, allegedly the first west of the Alleghenies, had prospered, employing 35 craftsmen in 1878 and producing fifteen pianos a week by 1884. But in 1893, the company was reeling from the general economic panic and suffered from a severe capital shortage. An article in that year in the Evening Item reports a rumored takeover of the Starr by a "foreign" interest, the Jesse French Piano and Organ Company of St. Louis. This link up was soon sealed with the large southern music retailer, which took on the Starr piano line, complementing the Midwest market rapidly being covered by Starr salesrooms. The licensing agreement was the first of many arrangements which spread the Starr reputation across the country and the oceans.

In 1893, it became incorporated under the direction of Benjamin Starr, John Lumsden and Henry Gennett. The business eventually developed into the largest plant in the world devoted to the manufacture of high grade pianos-grand, upright and player.

The Starr Piano Company was manufacturing an average of 25 pianos a week when a disastrous fire struck the first week of January, 1894. The Evening Item reported that "the loss is heavy, the entire plant ruined despite the hard fight of the fire department". The Gennett’s were not easily discouraged, however, rebuilding the factory, this time with a sprinkler system.

By 1906, Henry was president of a 600-employee concern. A 1912 memoir of Wayne County states that "with ware-rooms covering the central, southern and extreme western portions of this country, agencies have been established in practically every community. The foreign trade has recently advanced by great bounds . . . The total number of instruments made is in excess of 90,000. The average daily output is forty pianos."

Gennett Records Begins Production

In 1915, Starr expanded into the record business, forming the Gennett Records Division. The building was a one story wood structure with a tar paper roof, alongside a railroad spur leading to the shipping warehouse. Starr bought masters and obsolete recording equipment from a bankrupt Boston company. The early studio was primitive, the master turntable was powered by gravity, through a system of counterweights, and the music was amplified through on or more horns mounted in a wall or a curtain. (Accounts differ, but period photographs show a curtain.) The sound waves upon passing through the horns, directly moved the stylus on the wax master. The setup was naturally tricky, requiring much trial and error before producing a workable master recording. Regularly, boxcars filled with pianos, phonographs and refrigerators would rumble by on their way to dealers, causing all recording activity to cease.

Records made between 1915 and 1918 were used under the "Starr" label. However, in order to prevent confusion with Starr pianos, Henry Gennett suggested changing the record label to "Gennett." The most successful year for Starr-Gennett’s was 1922, producing 15,000 pianos, 35,000 spring-driven phonographs and more than three million records. The last Starr piano was built in 1949 and the final record was pressed in the early 60's.

Among the artists who recorded in Richmond were King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band (featuring Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo), Jelly Roll Morton, Hoagy Carmichael, Tommy Dorsey, The Mills Brothers, Duke Ellington, Glen Miller, Lawrence Welk, Mary Lou Williams, Bix Beiderbecke - the list goes on.