I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. If you’re not familiar with the newsletter already, click here to find out more.
I’m constantly trying to think about unexpected places where music journalism happens. For those who grew up in a completely digital world, you wouldn’t expect liner notes to be a place for it. But I’ve often found great writing and information you can’t get anywhere else printed on the back of an LP or stuffed into a jewel case. Each year, the Grammys highlights a fraction of this writing in their Best Liner Notes category. I reached out to all of the nominees this year to chat about their work. Colin Hancock wrote the notes to Gus Haenschen, The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us from Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business.
Can you please briefly describe the release for those that may not be familiar with it?
The release is titled The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us from Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business, on Archeophone Records and looks at the life of musician/jazz pioneer, A&R man and radio champion Walter Gustave “Gus” Haenschen.
Though historically overlooked, Haenschen has a fascinating story. Born in St Louis in the 1800s, he helped support his family by playing the piano and crossed the color line by studying with the great Scott Joplin. He payed homage to his mentor by making among his earliest recordings in 1916, the only recording of Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” recorded by a Joplin associate during his lifetime (Joplin himself only made piano rolls, and never recorded).
Later, Haenschen helped bring Brunswick Records to the national forefront as its director of recording, shaping the sounds of modern American music and breaking out of New York City to record artists on the West Coast and in the Midwest. The CD focuses on this early period, with an emphasis on the first six tracks made in 1916, which are remarkably rare and feature many embryonic elements of Jazz music appearing on record for the first time, nearly a year before the famed recordings by the Original Dixieland Jass Band.
Have you done much writing like this before? How did you get into it?
I have not written liner notes before, but I have done historical essays. My first one was on the cornet player and jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. When I was a senior in High School, I started experimenting with Wax Cylinder technology from the turn of the previous century. Hal Smith, a famous drummer and jazz musician, suggested I do a Buddy Bolden recreation since Bolden was alleged to have made cylinders in New Orleans around 1905. So I gathered a group of pros from across the country and we studied up on Bolden’s music and recorded the cylinders.
David Sager from the Library of Congress guided me in my research as well, and has since become one of my greatest mentors. I wrote about the whole thing for Tulane’s Jazz Archivist Journal, and the film we made of it made it into South by Southwest film festival! Since then I’ve done the same thing for the Original Dixieland Jass Band’s centennial, and a few other smaller projects
What sort of primary material did you have to work with to write the liner notes?
I had a few amazing contributions that helped make the project what it was. First, I worked with Jim Drake who knew Gus in the 1970s personally and interviewed him extensively. The entirety of those interviews is available on Allen Sutton’s blog, and they’re simply remarkable. There’s so much great info!
But of course, I cross referenced it with other interviews of Gus in newspapers and a famous one by Cecil Leeson in the early 70s. Jim also put me in contact with the Haenschen family which was truly an amazing experience. I also used a lot of prior research on Gus by Tim Gracyk, David Sager, Allan Lowe, and the team at Archeophone records. And going through the old newspaper archives was really cool, it felt like I was a detective or something!
What's the most interesting thing that you learned while researching this music?
Definitely what Gus’s experience as a bandleader in the 10s was like. He was a real go-getter, and an innovator to say the least. He always was looking to get ahead and that kind of mentality is what got him far. It’s a personality trait that exists in every period of his life really. In the 1900s he knew to improve on piano he had to study with the best: Joplin. In the 10s he knew he needed to find the latest hits and that meant working in a record store, which is how he ended up being able to record his own band! In the 20s he knew he had to record artists outside of New York to expand Brunswick’s sound and distribution, and later still knew that Radio was the next medium of importance.
I must also mention that being able to hear the accompanying soundtrack in such stellar sound, and to see it all come together in such a beautiful package would not have happened without Archeophone. Rich and Meagan know how to get it done, especially when it comes to recordings from the ‘acoustic era,’ (i.e. made with a horn rather than a mic), and I was honored to work with them on this project. They and Sager also helped me a great deal in turning the essay from an academic paper into liner notes. Woohoo for great mentors!
What's next for you?
I have a ton of projects lined up to work on, but the next one I plan on getting finished is the one this project stemmed from, which is focused on College bands of the jazz age, and their impact on the music.
So many bands formed at or around colleges like Jimmie Lunceford’s band, McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Ted Weems’ band, and others. It’s an integral part of the jazz story but one that’s been overlooked, so I’m glad to be working to change that. It’s also helped me build strong relationships with the music departments at a ton of schools. The soundtrack was provided by my own collegiate ensemble, the Original Cornell Syncopators, which are still going strong as a University Club at Cornell!
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