All That Jazz
November 23, 1999
Nestled somewhere in a corner of Murphy Hall lies one of the University’s great resources. The Archive of Recorded Sound houses over 93,000 sound recordings in every format imaginable: pre-twentieth century cylinders, 78’s, 10 inch and 12 inch LPs, cassettes, recording-session reel tapes, CDs, VHS tapes, and DVDs. The Archives are especially strong on jazz and opera recordings. Here one can find records by Kansas City jazz legend Charlie Parker as well as Kiz Harp, an obscure Billie Holiday sound-alike from Texas. One can also find Enrico Caruso (probably opera’s most famous voice) and a complete performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto, an extremely rare gem from 1918 featuring the legendary tenor Fernando de Lucia. There are thousands upon thousands of stories in this archive; every song has a history. So, of course, does the Archive itself.
The Archive of Recorded Sound owes its existence primarily to two men: University of Kansas music professor, KANU radio personality, and jazz ambassador Richard Wright and KU history professor and opera aficionado James Seaver. This is not to discount the efforts of the archivists, librarians, and donors who have maintained the collection. But in large measure, the musical passions of Wright and Seaver undergird the Archive. Indeed, it is no coincidence that its two great strengths are its jazz and opera materials. Thus, with the passing of Richard Wright on November 23, 1999 the Archive of Recorded Sound lost one of its great benefactors, and, in fact, one of its most vital connections to the past.
Born in Watertown, NY in 1931, Dick Wright moved to Junction City, Kansas with his family at an early age. Growing up in a musical family (his father was a jazz pianist and singer), Dick learned to play the clarinet and saxophone at an early age. After graduating from high school, Wright enrolled in KU where, atop Mt. Oread he built upon this musical background, earning a B.A. in music from KU in 1953. In college he discovered jazz, making his first album purchase (a set by the little-remembered Hal McKusick Quartet) and initiating what would become a lifelong passion.
Despite his interest in jazz, he thought his future was in opera, as a singer. First, though, Wright took a tour of duty with the Air Force after graduation. While in the service, he was put in charge of a radio station at Thule, Greenland, an assignment that would prove to be the beginning of a long career in radio. After his discharge from the Air Force, Dick returned to KU to pursue a Master’s degree in music, still entertaining ambitions of becoming of opera singer. To be sure, it appeared his opera career was about to take off when he won an audition with the NBC Opera Company in New York. Despite a successful audition, however, Wright decided he was a “small-town guy” and declined his invitation to join the Opera Company, preferring to stay in Lawrence with his family, which now included a wife and small children.
His decision to stay in Lawrence did not mark the end of his music career, however. In 1956, he joined KANU as a radio announcer. His program “the Jazz Scene” became an instant favorite at the station and remained so for decades. Later, Wright went on to receive the award for the Kansas Broadcasting Personality of the Year and in 1996, Wright was given the Governor’s Arts Award, the highest arts award given by the state of Kansas. This position was by no means enough to feed Wright and his family, though, and he embarked on a series of odd jobs in the ensuing years, including a three-year stint filling vending machines. He returned to academia once again during this time period, taking a part-time teaching position in music history at Washburn.
As the 1960s entered their turbulent later years, Wright felt he needed a change. In 1968, he declined to go full-time at Washburn, and resigned from KANU. His time away from both the teaching and radio scenes did not last long, however, as by 1970 he was teaching a jazz history course at KU for free and back at KANU. The jazz history course became one of the most popular in the KU catalogue. Eventually, Wright became a full-time faculty member in the Music Department and an associate professor in 1981.
That same year, Wright contributed a substantial portion of his music collection to the University of Kansas, donating 15,000 recordings from his collection to the KU libraries. With Wright’s donation, KU acquired a world-class jazz collection featuring entire runs of albums on several record labels, including the renowned Concord imprint, defunct outfits like Candid, and all of Charlie Parker’s recordings for the Dial label. Recordings from 1950-65 make up the bulk of the collection, which was particularly important time period in the history of jazz as “newcomers” like Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman made names for themselves and as Big Band gave way first to bebop, “cool” jazz and laidback West Coast Jazz and then to more experimental forms like free jazz. In making such a donation, Wright was following the example of history professor James Seaver, who had begun to sell his very impressive opera collection to KU at a substantial discount,
Noteworthy for much more than just being the uncle of baseball legend Tom Seaver and childhood friend to Unsolved Mysteries host Robert Stack, Professor James Seaver is a veritable KU institution. Seaver taught Ancient Roman and Greek History at KU for several decades beginning in 1947 and served as director of the Humanities and Western Civilization program from 1957 to 1985. History has never been Dr. Seaver’s only love, though, as he is also an avid opera fan.
Seaver’s love for opera began at the age of twelve on an October night, 1931. After attending a Los Angeles performance of “Carmen” with an ill-fated suitor of his 17-year old sister (his sister declined to attend the performance—caring neither for opera nor the suitor—thus freeing a ticket for young “Jim”), Seaver was “catastrophically converted to opera overnight.” Soon he bought Verdi’s Il Trovatore, starting a collection that would reach over 40,000 recordings.
When he left his Hollywood home to take a position at KU, he brought his musical passion with him, and beginning in September 1952, Dr. Seaver began hosting the program “Opera Is My Hobby” on KANU. In subsequent years, he made several appearances on NPR’s Texaco Opera Quiz. All the while, however, he added new opera recordings to the library that had begun with his purchase of Il Trovatore. To say that over the decades, Dr. Seaver accumulated an impressive collection of opera recordings would be something of an understatement. It was a one-of-a-kind collection, the result of extensive collecting all over the United States and Europe, never to be duplicated. (The 1200 “pirated” records in the collections, for instance, could certainly never be assembled again). Dr. Seaver continued to host his popular opera program on Kansas Public Radio until 2011, a total of 58 years. He died in March 2011 at the age of 92.
Seaver’s decision in 1973 to begin selling that collection to the University at a substantial discount provided the cornerstone for the founding of the Archive of Recorded Sound. By 1981, KU had acquired 18,000 recordings from Seaver for around $40,000—a not insignificant sum to be sure, but still decidedly less than the market value of the recordings which lay between $80,000 and $100,000. The addition of Wright’s jazz library gave KU a remarkable assemblage of jazz and opera recordings, and in August 1982, Seaver’s and Wright’s collections were officially combined and the Archive of Recorded Sound was born.
Others have contributed to the Archive as well. In the very year of the Archive’s birth, Robert Platzman, a University of Chicago radiation chemist who had helped develop the atom bomb, donated 3700 more opera recordings from Scandinavia and Germany he and his wife Eva had collected over the years. Similarly, Howard D. Rittmaster, Rosalind Gregory, Ernest Johnson Sr., Lloyd V. and Julia R. Mathis, and KU professor and music critic Chuck Berg have added to the jazz collection in the years since Wright’s initial donation, making it one of the finest collections of its kind in the Midwest. And the Archive is not limited exclusively to opera and jazz recordings. Notably, in recent years a substantial collection of high-school marching band music from Kansas and the surrounding states has been added to its holdings.
Unfortunately, the Archive has had its share of hard times and disappointments since its founding. In some cases, high expectations haven’t been met. Part of Wright’s rationale for passing the collection on to KU rather than his six children (or a Los Angeles bidder willing to pay $250,000) was not only to allow the collection to remain together and but also to make it accessible to the public. Wright hoped that this would be the start of a jazz studies center at KU integrating jazz performance, history, and criticism – what more appropriate place could there be, with the University located so close to Kansas City, the metropolis that has meant so much to the history of jazz? Indeed, the 15,000 recordings Wright donated gave KU a comparable collection to places like the well-known Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies and similar programs at Tulane and Indiana. Such a program, however, never materialized.
At other times, its tribulations have been rooted in administrative jockeying and indifference. Responsibility for the Archive has been shuffled between the KU Libraries and the Music Department, its current home. It has also suffered from under-funding and a sometimes apathetic attitude from some KU Libraries administrators (including one who remarked—much to the consternation of Wright—that the collection should just be thrown in a closet somewhere).
Collectively, these difficulties have occasionally frustrated the Archive’s founders. By 1996, Dick Wright was just hoping that the Archive to be used at all —certainly a scaling back on the ambition to create a Jazz Studies center. But despite these difficulties, the staff of the Archive soldiers on and continues to make positive gains. Most of the significant additions since the Archive’s founding mentioned above have been acquired in the last ten years.
And while the Archive suffered perhaps it most difficult setback in 1999 with Wright passing, the current staff carries on his mission to make the Archive’s holdings available to the public, working on a digitized database of the collection for use via the internet, and preparing for the 2007 Fall Lecture Series, which will see jazz musicians and scholars from far and wide will descend upon KU. To date some twenty percent of its holdings have been added to the online catalogue, including perhaps sixty percent of its jazz holdings. There is, of course, a long way to go. But however slow the progress may be, thanks to efforts of Dick Wright, James Seaver and others, the Archive of Recorded Sound remains one of the University’s most unique assets and should provide students, scholars, and music lovers with joy for years to come.
Arizona State University