Discovering the treasures of the Chicago Jazz Archive

By Eric Benson

“There are things in there that only have been rumored to exist,” a record collector once told Deborah Gillaspie, the curator of the University’s Chicago Jazz Archive. After peering into the archive’s thicket of 10-inch LPs and dusty sheet music and listening to its scratchy recordings and oral histories, it’s easy to imagine a cache of unearthed treasures lying in its undocumented depths.

The Chicago Jazz Archive was started in 1976 by several members of the Visiting Committee for Music, enthusiasts of early Chicago jazz who wanted to see that fading era preserved for posterity and research. Since then, the archive has served as a resource for scholars, musicians, and audiophiles seeking to learn from the nearly forgotten sounds of the 1920s “Chicago period” of jazz and its revivalists, who continue to play music in that style to this day. Peruvian singer Susanna Baca wanted to create a community of musicians modeled on early New Orleans, and she came to do research at the archive after Hurricane Katrina rendered impossible her planned visit to the Big Easy. Chicago jazz pianist Willie Pickens has been known to drop by the archive to listen to old recordings of songs that he’s slated to play, and scholars often come in to research everything from the verse structure of “Bye Bye Blackbird” to girl bands during World War II.

Over the years, the archive has built up a modest but important collection, buoyed by donations from everyone from jazz royalty—Jimmy and Marian McPartland gave a chunk of Jimmy’s personal papers and memorabilia—to U of C faculty. Yet, until the year 2000, the archive couldn’t claim to be the definitive place to study early Chicago jazz. That title would have gone to the basement collection of a 92-year-old industrial chemist named John Steiner who in his spare time had been the preeminent chronicler of traditional Chicago jazz. Steiner spent his waning days packing away his collection of over 35,000 recordings, determined to preserve the history that he had spent so many years trying to capture. Upon his death, the collection was transferred to the archive in four moving vans. Prior to Steiner’s donation, Deborah Gillaspie estimates that the entire archive would have fit easily into one moving van.

I’ve written about jazz for the past four years, and I consider myself passably literate in jazz history. Yet my visit to the archive was disorienting, placing me into a nook of musical history that I knew in only the most cursory way. My most familiar points of reference—Ellington, Parker, Coltrane—were conspicuously absent, and in their place were unfamiliar players like Jimmy Yancy, Sig Meyer, and “Little Brother” Montgomery. I knew that the archive featured pre-bop jazz, but I held out hope that I might encounter an unreleased Thelonious Monk date or two. Yet as I listened to the sounds and stories of the “Chicago period,” my desire to leap into 1940s bop and beyond began to wane. Monk would be for another day—this was about a historical moment and its aftermath when the music and the city swung together in vibrant unison.

I heard an interview between Steiner and boogie-woogie pianist “Little Brother” Montgomery, a Hyde Park resident at the time, who talked about playing the speakeasies and house parties of the South Side. These venues, especially the little musical workshops inside the hustle-bustle of noisy South Side apartments, jumped to life in Montgomery’s description, and Gillaspie made sure I didn’t miss the point: “The house parties were where all the pianists would be checking each other out.”

When the name of the legendary Earl “Fatha” Hines came up, Montgomery started to gush. “When Earl Hines come, when he come to Chicago—well, he practically had taken over. Boy, he was a bad thing…. He played impossible back then!”

Steiner’s conversations with musicians not only give a rich portrait of a vital Chicago past, but also have made crucial contributions to the historical record. Throughout the era of traditional jazz in Chicago, black and white musicians belonged to different unions and were not allowed to play on each other’s turf. The South Side was predominantly the domain of black musicians and the North Side was entirely a white bastion. Steiner’s interview with Sig Meyer, a white bandleader, helped show that those formidable political and social boundaries were more porous for musicians.

During their conversation, Meyer talks about sitting in on the South Side, where the all-black bands “would give you a chorus, let you spread your wings.” Meyer’s all-white band would reciprocate, allowing black musicians a few choruses when they played at South Side venues like White City. This wasn’t perfect racial harmony, but in an era when Southern blacks poured into Chicago by the hundreds of thousands, this musical cross-pollination helped shape the course of both white and black music.

For years, the archive occupied an increasingly cluttered series of rooms on the third floor of the Regenstein Library. Now, it’s moving down to the Special Collections Research Center—a relocation that will help preserve the collection for years to come. Many of the tapes in the archive have taken on surface mold and other potentially damaging conditions that could decimate the stock of recordings and oral histories. “Getting the tapes transferred and saving at-risk tapes with surface mold is the priority,” Gillaspie says.

It’s been seven years since the four vanloads arrived from Steiner’s basement, yet much of the collection still sits in the boxes in which it arrived. “John kept the stuff that people throw away,” Gillaspie says, “and he bought it from other people too.” Gillaspie has already discovered plenty of jazz and historical gems amid the endless boxes of this legendary pack-rat. She even found a World War II–era handgun with a full clip of ammo—she guesses Steiner “packed it and showed it occasionally when he needed to.” Yet the work of documenting the Steiner Collection is very much ongoing and will be aided by the new resources in the Special Collections Research Center.

Inside those unopened boxes there are certainly more stories and record dates from musicians who live on in the memories of only a few. Those unopened boxes may even hold a few treasures that, until they see the light of day, will exist only as whispered rumors.