In 1923, the center of the music universe wasn’t New York, or New Orleans, or Chicago, either. It was Richmond, Indiana, 70 miles east of Indianapolis on the Ohio border, and it had all started with a wedding in Nashville, Tennessee.

Half a century earlier John Lumsden, who owned the south’s largest tanning and leather business, was merely doing his paternal duty. He took an active role in the social lives of his three daughters, and had already arranged for the successful courtship of the elder two by prosperous, socially respected Nashville bachelors. By all accounts his final match, made in 1876 between the youngest, Alice, and Henry Gennett was an instant hit, and they were married by the end of the year. Henry was doing well as a wholesale grocer, but his father-in-law had bigger plans for him. Noticing the remarkable success of another of his sons-in-law, who had taken a job selling pianos in Saint Louis, in 1886 John formed a partnership with Henry to create a regional network of piano dealerships.

Piano technology had matured to the point where the instruments could be manufactured cheaply, and the new railroads allowed them to be transported and marketed easily. That, combined with John’s deep pockets and Henry’s persuasive charms, quickly led to a chain of Gennett piano stores around the midwest. When in 1893 their main supplier, the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, indicated a desire to sell out, they bought the factory, and Henry and Alice settled comfortably in Richmond.

This was before the era of outsourcing, and everything that went into a piano was made on site. So the purchase included a huge industrial complex with a foundry, a sawmill, warehouses, and workshops, all down by the Whitewater River in the middle of Richmond, in a valley about 75 feet below the plane of the town. The geography was part of the secret of Gennett’s early success. “This part of the country features the largest drop in elevation north of Louisiana,” says Sam Meier, who began working in the plant for Gennett at 15 and moved through a variety of jobs with the company. Nowadays he’s a script doctor for the likes of George Lucas and Robert Towne. “In the days before electricity, falling water meant cheap power. The railroad ran right down here by the river, so there was transportation as well.”

Pianos poured out of the factory–every parlor had one in those days. The Gennetts got rich, built Richmond an opera house. They noticed that customers coming into their showrooms around the midwest had started requesting sheet music from songs they’d heard on phonographs, which were still a novelty. Seeing additional profit potential they decided to try manufacturing phonographs, and soon after began to make recordings for them. They were flush with cash from the piano business and could afford to test the market with new artists and styles: Gennett records are now prized like no others by collectors of early jazz; they’re extraordinarily rare and contain unique performances essential to American musical history. And it wasn’t just the music that made history: William Jennings Bryan’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech was recorded at Gennett.

“They built the studio building in 1920,” says Meier. The studio itself was quite remarkable–a long wooden room, at one end of which a couple of tin horns led to the control room. In the era before microphones, the sound traveled through the horn and set a small membrane at the end vibrating. The membrane was connected to a stylus that transmitted the vibrations in the form of grooves to the master, a thin copper disk, which served as a mold from which records were pressed. This system lasted until the early 30s, when Gennett built an electronic studio, and it meant that any changes in volume or balance had to be achieved by physically moving musicians around in the studio. It’s said that Louis Armstrong–who made his first recordings at Gennett, as did Jelly Roll Morton and Hoagy Carmichael–played so loudly in King Oliver’s band that he blew the needle right out of the groove; they moved him first to the back of the room and then out into the hall.

When the movies began to speak, their voices came from Gennett in Richmond. MGM’s first 25 talkies (including The Jazz Singer) used sound tracks from Gennett, whose engineers had worked out the problems that had stymied Hollywood for years: their pre-Vitaphone Q-Phone process, which relied on the playback of phonograph records synchronized with film, revolutionized the movie business. But when the optical track united sound and picture into a single piece of film in 1930, Richmond’s dalliance with Hollywood ended, and soon after so did the glory days of Gennett.

During the Great Depression, says Meier, “Piano sales plummeted. Nobody had money for records or phonographs–they didn’t have money for food.” Gennett began leasing record masters to Paramount in New York, and that provided some revenue. It began manufacturing refrigerators, too, but the timing was off: too early for the home-appliance market that would blossom after the war. Even as the Depression eased, Gennett remained at a loss: people weren’t buying pianos because fewer people played them–records and radio had eroded their role in America’s musical life. Gennett’s record business, which had been lucrative enough as a sideline, could not support the antiquated infrastructure of the piano factory, and the only recordings made at the plant in the late 40s and early 50s were of sound effects. The final blow of course was television, and by 1952 it was over. The family sold the complex to an Indianapolis company that leased some buildings to the Mercury label, which put a major manufacturing facility in them (the first 45 rpm records were pressed there); Polygram, which later bought Mercury, is still a major force in the local economy. But the Gennetts were done with the music business.

What happened to the fruits of Gennett’s heyday is a bit of a mystery. Few of the original copper masters have ever been located, and locals have a lot of theories about what became of them. Many say they were sold for scrap 50 years ago; others say they’re stashed in a barn somewhere out in the country. Still others claim they were buried somewhere. One story that makes the rounds every few years among rabid jazz collectors concerns a scrap dealer who supposedly bought all the masters and then sold them to a Japanese jazz fanatic who bootlegs a few of the classic sides every now and then, selling them at an exorbitant profit.

The last person who would know about anything like that is Laurel Gennett Martin, who was married to Henry Gennett’s grandson, Henry Gennett Martin. Her husband died ten years ago, but she remembers a time in the late 40s when he wanted to revive the Gennett label by rereleasing the original jazz recordings. He returned to Richmond from Los Angeles, where they lived, and spent the better part of a year unsuccessfully trying to track them down. “Don’t forget,” she says, “the masters were made from copper, and in the days of World War II the government was always looking for copper for shell casings and such. If those masters had been saved, Henry would’ve found them. But they were almost certainly all melted down for the war effort.”

Waves of interest in preserving what’s left of the Gennett legacy have come and gone with little effect, and now it’s almost too late. A local artist, Garret Boone, has secured federal funding to make the site into a park that will link up with a 70-mile bike trail that follows the old railroad bed to Muncie and then Marion; his plans include a museum and a performance center. But the electronic studio was removed in 1952 to make room for the new tenants’ trucks to turn around, and the building with the original acoustic studio, which sounded as magical as ever when I visited it in the early 70s, was torn down in 1979. Laurel Gennett Martin and Sam Meier are putting together a CD called Gennett Firsts–classic initial recordings by Armstrong, Morton, Tommy Dorsey, Bix Beiderbecke, and others–and expect a release by August. Listen carefully for the sound of that long wooden room: it’s the only way we’ll ever hear it again.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo with Hoagy Carmichael by William Dalby – Duncan Schiedt Collection.