The Hunt for the Banjo Orchestra Records

Guest blog by Colin Hancock

            The six sides recorded by Gus Haenschen’s Banjo Orchestra in 1916 are rare—very rare. In fact, before The Missing Link project was compiled, chances are no one had heard all six of them since they were first released. Gus himself stated that he never personally owned copies of the discs, and the Haenschen family currently doesn’t own any copies either. Only around 200 of each title were pressed in the first place, and it took locating them to realize just how rare they really are.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch June 27, 1916

I first became aware of Gus Haenschen in 2017 when the noted historian (and regular Archeophone collaborator) David Sager wrote an article on the origins of recorded jazz titled, “Unraveling the Dawn of Recorded Jazz.” It happened to be published in the same issue of Tulane University’s Jazz Archivist Journal as an article I co-wrote with Hannah Krall on the Original Dixieland Jass Band. Sager’s article was so compelling that I was able to convince my alma mater, Cornell University, to bring him in to give a masterclass with my band, the Original Cornell Syncopators, and to give a presentation on the roots of recorded jazz. In the presentation, he played a snippet of “Sunset Medley,” one of the two records that have been made available commercially of the six (incidentally, on a prior Archeophone release). I was amazed at the energy and verve which Haenschen and drummer Theodore Schiffer played, and was especially taken aback by the “hot” breaks Gus played on the piano. Sager made it clear that this record was an exception of exceptions, as well as that it was exceptional. My classmates and I took notes.

The following spring, I was studying abroad in Rome with my university, and had several meetings with another great historian, Enrico Borsetti. In these meetings, we talked a lot about collegiate jazz bands and their impact on the music. When I returned to Cornell in the fall, this influenced me enough to begin a project with the Syncopators looking at the college bands since, after all, that was what we were. Through this project, I was introduced to the legendary upstate New York pianist Ed Clute, who not only rubbed elbows with the likes of Benny Goodman, Teddy Wilson, and Paul Whiteman, but also none-other-than Gus (whom Ed remembered fondly as “Gustave”), at Ithaca College. This came up because Ed suggested I speak to his friend, Professor James “Jim” Drake, whom Ed assured me would know as much about college jazz bands in the 1920s as he did about Gus. I had, in fact, heard of Jim already from his outstanding interviews with Ted Lewis published on Mainspring Press’s 78’s and Cylinders Blog. The fact that he knew the guy who made “Sunset Medley” was enough for me.

This was in October 2018. I gave Jim a call and left him a message, and a day or two later Jim called me back and we hit it off immediately. After much chatting and learning about Gus, I was stunned when Jim told me that Gus’s band was in fact formed during his college days, and that the group which recorded the sides was a carryover of that original group. However, Jim had only heard the two sides that were previously reissued; “Sunset Medley” and “Country Club Medley,” but knew little about the four others recorded with a larger group. A quick search in Brian Rust’s Jazz Records revealed that the discs featured “good trombone,” and may have been made as early as 1910, but little else. I decided it was time to do some digging of my own, and what’s more, to hear them.

Before searching for the discs proper, I commenced to checking out a new web source shown to me by Sager: newspapers.com. To test the waters, I typed in one of the most obscure bands of the ’20s I knew of, Art Payne’s Orchestra, from Louisville KY (they recorded for Gennett throughout the ’20s, but the personnel wasn’t listed definitively anywhere, and no one knew what instrument Payne himself played). A quick search revealed a photo of the band with Payne holding a trumpet, and the rest of the ensemble around him! This was clearly the right place to start digging. I typed in “Gus Haenschen” for the years 1910 to 1918, and quickly was able to find several rare articles and photos of Gus, including ones which confirmed that the records were made over two sessions in 1916, one in May and one in September, and that they took place in New York. I also found a photograph of Gus and drummer Tom Schiffer advertising the records in the Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney Department Store Victrola Department from the summer of 1916.

Now it was time to find the discs. I first contacted David Sager, who mentioned that he had heard a copy of “Maple Leaf Rag” and knew of two extant copies: one in the collection of the late Thornton “Tony” Hagert, and one in the collection of the also late Trebor Tichenor—tough turkey for a millenial who was used to hearing songs instantaneously on YouTube or iTunes. I resolved to keep this information in my back pocket, and search for the others.

Sager then pointed me in the direction of record collector and renowned DJ, Mike Kieffer, who provided the copies of “Sunset” and “Country Club” that were reissued. I knew Mike from the Antique Phonograph Society and had hung out with him in California a few times, so when I reached out to him about the collegiate project and the Haenschen sides, he was more than happy to provide transfers of some of the discs he had in his collection, including not one, but two of the larger group sides from the second session, “I Left Her on the Beach at Honolulu” and “Admiration.” I was stunned by what I heard on the sides. After catching my breath, I realized I had to hear more. Mind you, this was in the middle of my applications for graduate school, prepping for the full collegiate bands project, and for the Syncopators’ fall tour, so making that decision to find all the sides felt like both a recluse and added stress—I do it for the music!

St. Louis Post-Dispatch November 12, 1916

The next disc to find was “Honky Tonky,” which I knew nothing about at the time, yet has quickly developed into one of my favorites of the Haenschen sides. I had no idea where to start looking and first contacted Mark Berresford, who had copies of some of the discs, but sadly, not “Honky Tonky” (though he provided me with much encouragement, and ended up helping us identify one of the tunes in “Country Club Medley” to boot.) Stumped, I decided to take a break and do some homework. For background music I typed in “Gus Haenschen” on YouTube and was redirected to a video of Carl Fenton’s Orchestra performing “Brown Eyes Why Are You Blue,” a favorite of mine. After a few seconds I was dumbfounded when I saw out of the corner of my eye the label for “Honky Tonky”! I realized this was a post by Tim Gracyk, another well-known historian, author, and Haneschen authority, so I surmised that I must contact him to find the disc. Who knew, maybe he had a copy?

My friend John Levin was able to give me Tim’s contact, and I prepared my usual spiel, which by this point had become second nature. After a few days, Tim got back to me, but my heart sank as I read that he had only found the label image in an auction listing. He was still quite encouraging, however, and it was nice to connect with someone so immersed in early recorded American popular music. He advised me to search in listings.

Feeling defeated, I walked out of my room in the “Jazz House” in Ithaca, where I lived with my bandmates. “I WILL FIND ‘HONKY TONKY,’” I finally said, much to the amusement of my friends who thought I had lost my mind about a month earlier. They gave me a verbal pat on the back (or maybe just wanted me to leave them alone), and I returned to my room. I took a deep breath, and then had an “ah-ha” moment.

I began frantically typing any and every combination of words that might yield answers to where the disc was. “W. G. Hanechen Orchestra Honky Tonky”—nothing. “Gus Haenschen Honky Tonky”—nada. “Haenschen Banjo Orchestra Honky Tonky Columbia Personal”—still nothing! I wanted to pull my hair out. But I kept going. Finally, the magic moment happened. A simple search of “Haenschen Honky Tonky.” A link to a post in my friend Andrew Sammutt’s blog Pop of Yestercentury from 2016 popped up. In the comments, Jim Drake of all people had posed a question about the Haenschen sides, and to my surprise there was a reply from a fellow named Rob Chalfen, saying that he had purchased copies of “Honky Tonky” and “Admiration,” that they featured a larger instrumentation than the other available Haenschen sides, and that the tunes were written in the mid-’10s, so he’d guessed it was released in 1916. Boom! I FOUND “HONKY TONKY.”

I had to find this guy. A quick Facebook search yielded Rob, and, you guessed it, I offered the same speech about the project, and was met with the most open of arms. In addition to finding the disc, I made a friend and connection in Rob, who is now one of my favorite people to talk about everything and anything early jazz. His story, and his views on the roots of jazz on record are equally fascinating.

A funny aside, while in class about two weeks after finding “Honky Tonky,” I was bored and opened up eBay, looking for random 1920s dance band 78s. I saw an ad for a set of Brunswick discs from a small town in Missouri at a pretty cheap price, so I started looking, and then I saw it. At first I did a double take; “There’s no way that’s what I think it is!?” But low and behold, among the pictures of Ben Bernie and Isham Jones discs was a copy of “Sunset Medley.” I shook my head in disbelief. I quietly bid $25 on the lot and prayed that no one would try and swoop it out from under me. I guess my prayers were answered, because when I returned home for the holidays, there on my desk was one the few known copies of that rare record. I emailed Sager (who has a copy). “Whatcha know about that!” he wrote back. “I remember when I got my copy . . . I thought I found the Holy Grail!” (December 8, 2018).

Five down, and one to go. It was time to remove the one that had been bugging me since the beginning from my back pocket: “Maple Leaf Rag.” Sager contacted Anne Stanfield-Hagert, Tony’s widow, about finding his copy. Alas, the disc could not be found. Amazingly, Sager continued to put up with my pestering, this time about the other copy of the disc, and he mentioned that the Trebor Tichenor collection was now in the hands of his daughter Virginia and her husband Marty Eggers. Incidentally, Marty was also slated to sit in as tubist with the Original Cornell Syncopators at the San Diego Jazz Festival that fall, and our friends Ryan and Lauryn Gould had been trying to connect us for months for our mutual love of all things early jazz. It was too perfect!

Marty gave me a call a few weeks before the festival, and told me that he had heard of the disc but hadn’t seen it. I was optimistic. Then he stated that it was in a collection of over 3,000 unmarked and uncatalogued 78s that Marty and Virginia were in the process of filing. Oof. I explained to Marty that aside from my selfish wishes of hearing the disc and using its arrangement in the Syncopators’ collegiate project, there was no rush, but Marty was determined. While at the San Diego Jazz Fest, we had a wonderful time comparing some of the other Haenschen sides that had been found, as well as hanging out with Mike Kieffer, who came down to talk about the project and hear the Syncopators.

A few months later, as luck would have it, Marty found the disc—a week and a half after the Syncopators recorded a version based on the other sides by the Haenschen band, but hey, it was a good excuse to get familiar with the sound of the sides (we got quite a bit of it right too, especially Noah Li, who played the part of Gus). My friends will tell you it sure didn’t stop me from literally jumping for joy at the text message from Marty with a picture of the record. Six out of Six! Done.

We arranged to meet in St. Louis a week after I graduated to transfer the disc with Rich and Meagan. My friend Timothy J. Muller, a local St. Louis musician and historian, secured us a spot at the Focal Point Theatre to make the transfer, and also put us in contact with Magdalene Link at the St. Louis Historical Society, who helped us get a few fantastic documents and photos from Gus’s early years. There was something pretty special about meeting in the city where Gus hailed from and learned the tune and to transfer the only (so far) copy of this record. The night before the session we went out to a bar to hear St. Louis pianist Ethan Leinwald play some local favorites. When we walked in the door, he was playing “Sunset Medley.” I looked over at him, he smiled and said, enthusiastically, “Gus Haenschen!” I can’t make this stuff up.

The next morning, we heard it for the first time. We transferred my copy of “Sunset Medley” first to check the speed of the turntable and stylus size. When Marty pulled out “Maple Leaf Rag” from a specially padded suitcase, and put it on the turntable, Rich lowered the needle, and everyone sat quietly and listened. It was like nothing we had heard before—in many ways what we expected but in many ways something completely new and unusual, 103 years later. Just wait until you hear that out chorus.

I am excited for listeners to have this same experience when listening to the discs, and it is one of the great joys of my time listening to this music to have been able to locate all of these rare records! Of course, none of this would have been possible without all of these wonderful folks whose generosity led not just to the preservation of these historic recordings, but the preservation of the legacy of Gus Haenschen: a bona fide jazz and American music pioneer.

2 thoughts on “The Hunt for the Banjo Orchestra Records

  1. This is the most beautiful story I have heard in a long time. Thanks for your never ending work in trying to find the discs. I can’t wait to hear them.

    /Alex, Sweden

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