The Klan’s indirect role in fostering the Jazz Age
In an interesting footnote in history, the Ku Klux Klan played an indirect role with a popular independent record company that played a much larger role in the growth of jazz music.
The Gennett record label was a big independent record company in the early Jazz Age. Owned by the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Indiana, Gennett would record anyone, including early black jazz, country, and blues musicians.
It was Gennett’s success in promoting the kind of music made popular by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, and Bix Beiderbecke that helped keep its record sales going strong.
All three artists, along with compatriots like the New Orleans Rhythm Kings, Hoagy Carmichael, and dozens of little-remembered acts, recorded for Gennett, a company kept afloat by Klan money.
The New York–based Okeh records was its only major national competition in the business of what was called Race Records until later in the decade, when national records companies Victor and Columbia got into the business of selling music to black audiences.
While Okeh marketed its recording of black artists in urban areas, Gennett dominated the Midwest and also had a studio in New York.
However, Gennett, based in southern Indiana, had a cash side business making “private” or “vanity” records. Anyone who had the cash could pay for a private session and have records pressed for their needs.
And the Klan was a cash customer, often getting thousands of records cut at Gennett for its own membership.
In one scenario, Armstrong made his first record ever, as part of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band at the Gennett studios in 1923. A few weeks later, a Klan orchestra was in the same studio using the same Gennett engineer.
Likewise, Jelly Roll Morton’s hits for Gennett, including “King Porter Stomp” and “Wolverine Blues,” were made at the same time the Klan was recording in Indiana.
And perhaps unknown to the Klan, Morton (who was Creole from New Orleans) was recording with the all-white New Orleans Rhythm Kings at Gennett.
In the 1920s, the Klan had a huge membership in Indiana. It was the second incarnation of the group, which found a new life after the release of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.
The Klan of the 1920s had played a role in the passing of the 18th Amendment, which established Prohibition. Its focus was on the “evils” on the immigration movement, and it saw alcohol as being linked to immigrants. But clearly, African-Americans were also not approved of by the Klan, especially since they were moving north through Indiana to the industrial Midwest.
Ironically, the Gennett brothers were Italian. But that didn’t stop Gennett and the Klan from doing business.
A Klan record from the 1920s recently surfaced on the TV show History Detectives.
Gennett historian Rick Kennedy described some of the record titles cut by the Klan, and the record unearthed by the TV show, called “The Fiery Cross,” which was made just five weeks after Louis Armstrong and King Oliver were in the same studio.
Kennedy also said the engineer who supervised the Armstrong recording sessions was a Klan member.
In the end, many of the jazz musicians who cut their teeth at Gennett played vital roles in the popularity of jazz music in the second half of the 1920s and popular music in the 1930s.
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As America prospered, jazz musicians such as Armstrong, Morton, Beiderbecke, Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson, Tommy Dorsey, Sidney Bechet, and Duke Ellington had graduated from the Gennett studios to play leading roles in the jazz and swing movements.
The Klan in the state of Indiana largely died out by the end of the 1920s, after a murder scandal involving its leader in Indiana and the improving conditions of the economy.
Gennett as a record label didn’t last much longer than the Klan. The popularity of radio and the onset of the Great Depression hurt record sales, and Gennett turned to private record pressings to survive. It stopped making records just after Prohibition was repealed.
But one artist who came to Gennett in 1928 to start his recording career was Lawrence Welk, who recorded his first three songs in Indiana.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.