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George Gibbs, director of the Music and Dance Library, displays a record pressed with color artwork at the Richard F. Wright Jazz Archive. KU's Archive of Recorded Sound holds thousands of records and numerous pieces of historic recording and audio equipment.

Audible history

Jazz, opera archives house voluminous collections of music, historic recording equipment

Giant names like Count Basie, Jay McShann, Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins ensure that people the world over remember Kansas City as a jazz hot bed. But many don’t know that a gold mine of jazz exists down the road at KU.

The Archive of Recorded Sound in Murphy Hall is home to the Richard F. Wright Jazz Archive. The greats may not have played there live, but their music lives on through the thousands of recordings stored in the two rooms. The archive holds roughly 90,000 items, including recordings from nearly every genre and period of jazz, as well as nearly every form of recording ever used.

“We have pretty much the entire gamut of technology from the last 100 years,” said George Gibbs, director of the Music and Dance Library.

From the earliest wax cylinders pioneered by Thomas Edison and 78 rpm records through reel-to-reel tapes, 45 rpm records, LPs, glass-base records and CDs, the archive is a virtual museum of recording technology. It also houses the necessary equipment to play almost all of the recordings, including some of Edison’s earliest phonographs, cylinder players and unique turntables with at least five settings to handle various record styles.

The archive may be a music lover’s Shangri-la, but its inherent purpose is academic, not leisure.

“We’re here mostly for research purposes. There’s a real interest in jazz as an academic subject,” Gibbs said.

Faculty and students in American studies, history, the humanities and even mathematics and sciences are among the most frequent users of the archive for research. Recent users include a history professor who was looking for World War I recordings, a humanities professor searching for Les Brown’s “Sentimental Journey” album and others searching for French recordings or specific Miles Davis tunes.

The intermingling of passion for music and academics is at the very heart of the archive. It was founded in 1982 from the personal collection of the late Richard F. Wright, a longtime associate professor of music and radio host. It also houses the collections of James Seaver, another longtime KU professor, who continues to host “Opera Is My Hobby” on Kansas Public Radio. Seaver’s collection spans opera from early stars such as Enrico Caruso to modern day performers. Chuck Berg, professor of theatre and film, is another major contributor to the collections. The archive continues to receive donations from collectors across the country.

“As soon as you tell anyone you collect something, they start giving you things en masse,” said Roberta Freund Schwartz, professor of music and dance, who has worked extensively with the archive. “Jim (Seaver) has been an active record collector since 1932 and is still collecting. He had a Fulbright fellowship in Italy in 1946 and ’47, right after the war, there were abundant collections available. He was able to acquire a lot of rarities.”

Among the rarities are the first full opera committed to disc in 1913, the first jazz record, “The Dixieland Jazz Band One Step” from 1917 and many others. Although most of the recordings are music, there are also spoken word recordings, including campaign speeches from 1908 presidential candidates William Jennings Bryan and Theodore Roosevelt. The records would be played at campaign rallies if the candidate were unable to be there in person.

The daunting task of cataloging the entire archive and entering it into an online database is under way. Students and staff are entering data from each recording, such as the record label, artist, song and year of release, all of which will eventually be available through KU Libraries’ online database. The Seaver opera collection already is online.

Although Thomas Edison invented the technology that made recorded music possible, he did not foresee the popularity of recorded music that would lead to archives such as the collection in Murphy Hall. When he invented the phonograph, he created a list of possible uses, and music rated fifth, behind possibilities such as a clock that could audibly announce time and a phonograph that could record and play back telephone messages.


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