Gus Haenschen (1889–1980) was once a highly prominent figure in popular music with his name-recognition reinforced by regular newspaper advertisements and occasional articles. From 1919 until 1951, he had a flourishing career as conductor and music director in the record and radio industries, recording and hiring for radio appearances some of the top popular stars. After retirement, though, his fame barely survived the passing of decades as his renown faded. He didn’t disappear entirely, though. He’s discussed in David Wondrich’s 2003 book Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot (1843–1924) and included on the coordinated Archeophone CD of the same title with his 1916 performance of Sunset Medley.i
Outside the circle of specialists and others interested in the transition between ragtime and jazz, he still remained little-known until 2020, with the release of a CD dedicated to him: The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us from Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business (Archeophone 6011). This CD consists of twenty-four recordings made between 1916–1924, and a recorded discussion in 1975 between Haenschen and popular song lyricist Irving Caesar, along with Haenschen’s brief piano demonstration. It was compiled by Colin Hancock who, in an accompanying 32-page booklet, summarizes Haenschen’s career—concentrating on his earlier years—and persuasively shows his importance.
Without denying Haenschen’s accomplishments and the significance of the CD and booklet, a number of current ragtime and jazz aficionados wondered about several details as presented by the CD package. Did Haenschen really study with Scott Joplin? If so, were these studies a defining experience that enabled him to lead ragtime’s evolution to jazz, thereby becoming the link between the two styles? Were his recordings in 1916 the first jazz recordings, preceding those of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (referred to as ODJB) in 1917? These are the issues on which I have been urged to weigh in.
The CD and its booklet put an emphasis on the Joplin-Haenschen connection. The subtitle begins “How Gus Haenschen Got Us from Joplin to Jazz. . . .” The blurb on the back of the CD states that “Haenschen probably would not have gotten that job [with Brunswick Records, his first major position in the music industry] had it not been for his reputation as a musically innovative student of Scott Joplin.” (But where the offer from Brunswick Records is discussed in the booklet, there is no mention of it stemming from Haenschen’s reputation as an innovative Joplin student. Rather, Hancock states that the offer was due to Haenschen’s ability to sell Brunswick machines and the favorable impression made by his Banjo Orchestra recordings of 1916.) ii
Despite the emphasis on a Joplin-Haenschen connection, the booklet summarizes Haenschen’s entire career, with discussions of Joplin’s importance to Haenschen’s career restricted mostly to pages 3–6, 18, and 21–22. Citing one of Haenschen’s interviews with James Drake, the booklet relates that Haenschen met with the composer at Sedalia’s Maple Leaf Café [sic] to arrange for lessons: “After a tryout, Joplin agreed to teach Gus. They worked out a deal for lessons for around $25 a month.”iii
The $25-a-month figure seems out-of-step with comparable costs and incomes during that period. Between 1910–1912, when Joplin was living in New York, he gave lessons to William Sullivan for fifty cents a session, later raised to seventy-five cents.iv Judging by advertisements in Sedalia newspapers during the late 1890s–early 1900s, a five-room house in Sedalia might be rented for less than $10 a month. In another interview with James Drake, Haenschen spoke of his family’s finances when he was young, indicating it was far from wealthy. His father had abandoned the family, leaving his mother as the family’s main support, working as a seamstress and dressmaker. At that time, most working women earned $6 to $7 a week.v The family also derived smaller amounts of income from a boarder and from Haenschen’s part-time work, beginning at age 13, as a pianist accompanying silent films, a song-plugger in dime stores, and a lifeguard. Whatever the family’s total income, it strains credibility to believe that the mother’s entire salary, or close to it, was spent on her son’s music lessons.vi
The amount paid for lessons is not in itself an important detail, but the detail’s credibility raises questions of accuracy in reporting. Hancock does not supply the source of this information and I could not find it in the interview transcripts. When asked, Hancock told me in an email that he was given the $25 figure on the telephone by Drake. Drake emailed me that “Gus told me that he paid Joplin ‘five bucks.’ I didn’t ask whether that was per month, but I suspect it was.” It would appear that the $25 figure evolved from an off-hand comment by Haenschen, who probably was not considering the inflationary changes in monetary values, followed by a miscommunication between Drake and Hancock.vii
Even in transcriptions of Haenschen’s recorded interviews where, presumably, we read his actual words, problematic issues arise. Take, for example, the interview with Drake in which he describes Joplin. Haenschen’s comment that Joplin was “very well spoken” matches what others had to say of the composer, but his description of Joplin’s physical stature raises questions. Haenschen had grown quite tall in his early teen years, reaching six feet when he was studying with Joplin. In response to the question “How would you describe his appearance when you were working with him?” Haenschen said, “We were about the same height—I was six feet tall, and he may have been an inch shorter than I, if that much.”viii I have no accurate information on Joplin’s height, but I have never come across descriptions or comments of his being particularly tall. Bertha Niederhoffer told me she had met Joplin several times when her husband Martin was studying with the composer in New York, and she described his height as being about 5’7”.ix
Again, this is a detail of no particular importance except in prompting questions of accuracy. A more substantive—and dubious—statement found in his interviews with Drake concerns when his studies with Joplin began: “I went several times to the Maple Leaf Club to pay him to help me learn to play ragtime the way he wrote and played it, and when he moved from Sedalia to St. Louis, which was around 1900, I did a lot more work with him.”x In 1900, Haenschen, who was born November 3, 1889, was age 10 or 11. Would a boy of that age have traveled weekly almost 200 miles by train from the St. Louis area, where Haenschen lived, to Sedalia?xi Would a child of that age—white or Black, but especially white—have entered the Maple Leaf Club? This statement may be what caused Hancock to state uncertainty as to when Haenschen studied with Joplin.xii Haenschen’s response, that he studied with Joplin in 1900 in Sedalia, must be dismissed.
When considering these interviews, one comes away with an inescapable impression that Haenschen was inconsistent, and probably careless, in his responses; he might even have been untruthful. In fairness to Haenschen, Drake told me that Haenschen warned that the dates might be wrong and should be checked.
In another interview with Drake, Haenschen, without giving a precise year, presents a more likely time frame for his lessons:
Scott Joplin . . . had agreed to let me meet him to talk about taking some lessons from him. I arranged to meet him at the Maple Leaf Café, where was playing. He named the rag after the café. I had seen him from a distance in St. Louis during the 1904 World’s Fair. He had written a rag called “[The] Cascades,” and during the first week of the fair [April 30–May 6, 1904], he had played it several times, and had made an arrangement for John Philip Sousa to conduct.xiii
Since Haenschen was at the fair during its first week, he would have been 14 when he started lessons with Joplin. Joplin’s wife Freddie died in Sedalia on September 10, 1904; after her funeral he moved to St. Louis. This fits Haenschen’s account that he began lessons in Sedalia and continued in St. Louis when Joplin had moved there.
Whereas the years 1904–05, when Haenschen was 14–15, are a more reasonable period for the lessons, in another response he calls those years into question. “Did he live well? By that I mean, did he seem to enjoy his success?” “Oh, yes—definitely. As I said, he moved from Sedalia to St. Louis, and he and his wife, whose name was Belle, had a sizable home with well-kept grounds.”xiv The St. Louis home described seems to be the one at 2117 Lucas, where Joplin lived ca. 1902–03 with Belle (their “marriage” was probably common-law) and several boarders, including his brother Will, Will’s wife Sephronia, and perhaps others. But Belle had left Scott Joplin before 1904 and moved to Chicago. Joplin married Freddie Alexander in June 1904, and after she died in Sedalia and he returned to St. Louis he lived in various rooming houses. So, assuming Haenschen first met Joplin in 1904, how did he know about the house on Lucas, and how did he know about Belle? The chronology doesn’t fit. Perhaps Haenschen incorporated this detail from what he could have read in They All Played Ragtime, or some other writing based on that book. It’s just another instance of the frustrations one encounters in trying to draw reasonable conclusions from these interviews.
Comparing the Drake interviews with one by a different interviewer, Cecil Leeson, who spoke to Haenschen in a single session in 1973, presents a few revealing details:
[Haenschen:] I knew Scott Joplin, who had written Make Believe Rag [sic]. . . . And having met some of these men I frequented some of the so-called dives where these men played and learned as probably one of the earlier white boys how to play “rag”. And get the feeling of that rhythm –– playing with rolling tense and the base [rolling tenths in the bass] and that sort of thing.xv
In this interview, Haenschen asserts that he knew Joplin but makes no mention of having studied with him. That omission suggests that, if he had studies with Joplin, he did not consider the experience of particular importance. Equally notable is his comment of Joplin’s colleagues performing rolling tenths in the bass. (Because of the wide hand-stretch required to play tenths, they are frequently rolled, or arpeggiated.) He doesn’t identify these colleagues, but both Louis Chauvin and Tom Turpin are reported to have played that way. Ragtime sheet music published at that time usually restrict left-hand stretches to an octave; tenths are exceedingly rare. That Haenschen recalled in 1973 what he had heard some 65 years earlier indicates both the musical perceptiveness of the teenager and the significance he attached to the use of tenths. For me, this is evidence that he was on the scene and had heard Joplin’s colleagues.
Yet, even on this point, Haenschen was inconsistent. When Drake asked his opinion of the 1950s ragtime revivalist pianists, he criticized them for employing this same performance technique. “Most of them used rolling chords in the bass, which was all wrong. That’s the kind of playing that belongs in a saloon, and it has nothing at all to do with the ragtime of Scott Joplin.”xvi He did approve of an approach that gained traction in the 1970s: “This young man [Joshua] Rifkin plays ‘The Entertainer’ the way Joplin played it, and he does a good job with ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ too. He is careful not to play ragtime fast, which is the mistake most of these ‘revivers’ make.”xvii
With all of the inconsistencies and implausible responses, I cannot conclude decisively on whether I believe that Haenschen had actually studied with Joplin. I lean toward the belief that he probably had, for a short time—“practically a whole year”—in 1904–1905, when he was 14 and 15. I have no doubt that, as a musically perceptive student, he absorbed what Joplin had to teach. However, he would also have been influenced by other musical practices he encountered and I doubt that Joplin’s teaching had a dominant effect on his musical development. Haenschen composed a rag titled The Rambler when he was 16, and though it is better than the average rag of that time and was issued by Joplin’s publisher John Stark, it deviates notably from Joplin’s style.xviii
The assertions that Haenschen is “the missing link” who “got us from Joplin to jazz” and that his 1916 recordings offer “the same musical elements as the ODJB records, but nearly a year prior”xix has us focusing on the six, self-funded recordings on which the claims are based. The first two, from May, are of piano and drums (with the drums recorded much too loudly). Hancock says one of these two––Sunset Medley––is the best contender for the “first jazz record.”xx Haenschen’s performance shows him to have been an accomplished pianist in the popular style.
The claim that this performance can be called jazz might be somewhat supported by a playing that has a freedom and flexibility mostly absent in earlier piano ragtime sound recordings. However, I question how either of these two piano-and-drums recordings could offer “the same musical elements” as the ODJB recordings, which feature five instruments––cornet, clarinet, trombone, drums, and piano––with primary focus on the interplay between the three wind instruments. Haenschen’s fine performance probably reflects what other inventive and forward-looking ragtime pianists and other musicians were doing at the time, even if few were recorded. Wilbur Sweatman’s clarinet recordings of his Down Home Rag, thought to have been made in December 1916, similarly show the direction in which some ragtime musicians were moving.xxi There is no incontrovertible method of determining whether Haenschen’s performance of Sunset Medley should be considered jazz; I do not view it that way, though others may come to a different conclusion.
Haenschen’s other four recordings from 1916 were in September, with what he termed his Banjo Orchestra, which had an instrumentation of piano, drums, two banjos, and trombone; one selection––I Left Her on the Beach at Honolulu––substitutes a violin for one of the banjos. One of the four selections is Maple Leaf Rag, which has us thinking again of Haenschen’s possible connection with Scott Joplin. Many earlier (and later) recordings take this piece at very brisk tempos. Banjoist Vess Ossman’s 1907 recording with a studio band, for example, has a tempo of more than 130 beats per minute. Haenschen, in comparison, takes a far more moderate tempo, with fewer than 90 beats per minute. This was a tempo that would have gained Joplin’s approval, further supporting the claim of Haenschen’s association with the composer.
Despite the larger instrumentation, the banjo orchestra’s Maple Leaf does not have the type of interplay found in the ODJB recordings. The banjos take the melody and the trombone plays occasional bass parts and unchanging counter-melody fragments that are clearly accompaniment in nature. Of the three other selections, I Left Her on the Beach at Honolulu has the most interesting continuous melodies in counterpoint, with the violin playing the main tune and the trombone playing a distinct countermelody. This countermelody is Aloha Oe, the well-known piece that then––and still today––is used to invoke Hawaii. Importantly, in terms of the question of jazz, the Aloha Oe theme is not introduced as the trombonist’s improvisation; it’s written into the published piano-vocal sheet music. I am not convinced that these banjo orchestra selections, interesting as they are, offer “the same musical elements” as the ODJB. Furthermore, the ODJB recordings clearly popularized the term “jazz” and set a performance model adopted by many jazz groups in following years.
Gus Haenschen was a fine musician who played a part, perhaps a big part, in American popular music recordings for much of the 1920s, and then in radio into the early-1950s. In these roles he probably was an important factor in how the music business developed. He may have studied briefly with Scott Joplin. However, the assertions that he is a missing link between ragtime and jazz and should be credited with having made the first jazz recordings are––in my view––an overstatement. My disagreement with claims made on the CD package, though, is restricted to those specific issues and does not devalue the product. The CD and its booklet have successfully brought greater focus on the importance of Gus Haenschen and are significant contributions to the study of ragtime’s waning days as the style evolved to jazz.
iWondrich’s book: (Chicago, IL: A Cappella Books (imprint of Chicago Review Press, 2003), 152; Archeophone ARC 1003.
iiiBooklet, 4–5. Haenschen’s eleven interviews with James Drake are posted at the Mainspring Press blog at https://78records.wordpress.com/2021/02/26/the-gus-haenschen-interviews-directory/. Drake had given Hancock access to the Interviews before they were posted online. Hancock, when referencing these interviews, cites “Jim Drake transcriptions” without indicating which interview or locations within those interviews. I refer to only two of the interviews, “The St. Louis Years –– Part 1,” and “The St. Louis Years –– Part 2” (henceforth, St. Louis–1 and St. Louis–2t. As these postings are unpaginated, I indicate location with the beginning of the question asked. Haenschen mentions his meeting with Joplin in Sedalia at the Maple Leaf in St. Louis–1, question beginning “We know from your collection that you made several trips to Sedalia.”
ivEdward A. Berlin, King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 273.
vDepartment of Commerce and Labor. Bureau of the Census. Bulletin 93. Census of Manufactures: 1905. Earnings of Wage-Earners. Washington. Government Printing Office, 1908, p. 11. Online at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nnc1.cu56779232&view=1up&seq=15&size=125ty .
viHaenschen’s discussion of his family’s finances at that time is in St. Louis–1, question beginning, “You and your sister were too young to go to work when your father left.”
viiThe email I received from Hancock on this question was on 4/1/2021; the email from Drake to me was on 12/6/2020.
viiiSt. Louis–2, question beginning “About Scott Joplin, there are at least two photos of him.”
xSt. Louis–2, first question.
xiHaenschen’s birth date is included on his Word War I draft registration, shown in the booklet on p. 11. St. Louis–1 contains the information that he traveled by train, question beginning “We know from your collection that you made several trips to Sedalia.” In St. Louis–2 Haenschen tells that the lessons were weekly, question beginning “Am I correct in assuming.” Joplin’s move to St. Louis was in 1901, not 1900, but that one-year difference does not lessen doubts about this statement. “
xiiiSt. Louis–1, question beginning “We know from your collection that you made several trips to Sedalia.” Other sources have confirmed that The Cascades was played frequently at the fair. I doubt that Joplin performed it himself at the fair. Had he done so, I strongly believe he would have followed his usual practice of sending notices about performances to newspapers. As I have never come across any reference of him performing at the fair, I assume the performances of The Cascades were by the Sousa band or other individuals or ensembles.
xvThe transcript of the interview is housed at The Sousa Archives and Center for American Music, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Lawrence Gushee Papers, 1794–2008 12/5/68, Series 2: . . . Box 7: Early Jazz and the African American Music Scene, Folder 42: Transcription of taped Interview – Gus Haenschen by Cecil Leeson, 1973. The quotation is on side 1 of the tape, p. 3 of the transcript. The transcription was made by someone who apparently had little familiarity with music terminology (“tense” for tenths, “base” for bass) or musical culture of the recent past. Consequently, the reader must consider alternatives to the printed words to determine what was actually said on the recording. In addition to “tense” and “base,” other examples include “Make Believe Rag” and references to violinists Jascha Heifetz and Fritz Kreisler, transcribed as “Heighfist” and “Chyrsler” [Chrysler].
xviSt. Louis–2, question beginning, “In the 1950s, there was also a ‘ragtime revival’.”
xviiSt. Louis–2, question beginning, “I’m interested to know what you think of the ragtime revival today.”
xviii That the length of study was less than a year comes from St. Louis–2, question beginning “Am I correct in assuming.” The Rambler was co-composed by Arthur F. Beyer, about whom I could find no definite information. It was copyrighted by Stark on October 30, 1906, and is reprinted in Gems of St. Louis Ragtime, compiled and published by Richard Zimmerman.
xxiThe recording can be heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0SvPQ-fcdc. Mark Berreseford says in his book That’s Got ‘Em! The Life and Music of Wilbur C. Sweatman (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2010), 85: “The Emerson [the company that recorded this selection] recording ledgers, like those of many small companies of the period, do not survive, so the December 1916 date is estimated from the catalog issue date.” Sweatman had made two recordings of that selection accompanied by a trio, on Emerson 5163 and Emerson 7161. Another date, June 1917, has also been cited as the release date for both recordings, but 5163 is listed in the Talking Machine World issue of February 15, 1917, p. 119. (Record companies sent lists of forthcoming releases to be included in the magazine’s monthly column “Record Bulletins for [following month].” The column, during this period, usually occupied two-and-a-half pages.) As Emerson had not sent a list for the magazine’s January 1917 issue, combining both January and February releases into the February list, Sweatman’s recording could have been made even earlier than the list suggests. In any case, it is clear that Sweatman’s recording precedes the first ODJB recording, made on February 26, 1917, and also supports the estimation of a December 1916 recording date. The other Sweatman recording, on Emerson 7161, is mentioned in the Talking Machine World issue of May 15, 1917. Issues of Talking Machine World are archived at https://worldradiohistory.com/Talking_Machine_World.htm. I thank Konrad Nowakowski for our discography discussions.