John Steiner is best-known as the man who bought, operated, and
later sold Paramount Records, the Wisconsin-based record company that
issued more "race" records than any other company in the 1921-1932
period. More than 1,150 couplings of great jazz by Jelly Roll Morton,
King Oliver, Clarence Williams, Mugsy Spanier and Frank Teschemaker,
Fletcher Henderson, Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Blythe, plus blues that
included all the recordings of Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Skip James, Papa
Charlie Jackson, and Charlie Spand as well as the earliest recordings
of Charley Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Alberta Hunter, Tampa Red,
Big Bill Broonzy plus hundreds of others. There was a sizable catalog
of black religious, country and pop music of that era, too.
The John Steiner story goes back the twenties to a young jazz fan from Milwaukee (born July 21, 1908) working toward his Ph.D in Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. By 1935 he was involved with Helen Oakley (Down Beat reporter and Okeh record producer) and Harry Lim (later of Keynote Records) in the formation of the country's first jazz support organization, The Hot Club of Chicago (named after the French org.). The first HCC concert presented Benny Goodman (then in his historic stand at the Congress Hotel) in a trio format with the band's drummer, Gene Krupa and a local pianist named Teddy Wilson. The idea , a jump-start in jazz history, birthed the band-within-a-band concept which helped Herman, Crosby, Dorsey, Shaw, etc. keep combo jazz alive in the big band era. HCC concerts continued into the 40's.
John was the Chicago correspondent for Jazz Information in the late 30's and early 40's. JI was the focal point of serious jazz criticism, eventually resulted in the first American jazz books: JAZZMEN and the JAZZ RECORD BOOK* which, in turn, led to locating and recording Bunk Johnson (on the Jazz Information label) and the discovery that a distinct style of jazz had continued to flourish in New Orleans.
In the late 30's, John became interested in recording, bought some portable equipment, set up wherever he was allowed to do so to document Wild Bill Davison, Punch Miller, Jimmie Noone (released eventually on Swaggie Records) and others. John told me of setting up in alleys behind bars to securely level the disc recording equipment so drinkers wouldn't interfere with his work. Such recording was strictly against union rules but he had the confidence of the musicians with whom he kept faith. He also recorded annual Bix celebrations at the home of lawyer and jazz musican Squirrel Ashcraft, featuring Bunny Berigan, Tommy Dorsey, Spencer Clark, and many others. He also did custom recording work dba/ Technical Recording Service. Later he recorded Jazz At The Philharmonic concerts at the Opera House for Norman Granz, as well as Django Reinhardt with Duke Ellington's Orchestra.
In 1938, he met Hugh Davis, a kindred soul from Wichita, and they eventually formed the Steiner-Davis label. SD not only recorded Red Nichols, Stuff Smith, Red Norvo, Jack Garnder (Harry James' pianist) and wonderful and unique sessions featuring Bud Freeman. They also reissued items from the old Paramount label by Jelly Roll Morton, the Hometown Skiffle house-party and Paramount sampler w. Charlie Spand, Papa Charlie Jackson and the Hokum Boys. SD was headquartered in John's apartment at 104 East Bellvue, also home of the undeservedly obscure pianist Jack Gardner. [I lived in that building in 1959-1963 and had the same Australian landlady.] Another part of the S-D program were reissues of Red Nichols recordings from Edison diamond discs. (Did you know that the thick Edison discs played 4-5 minutes when other records were limited to 3?).
Hugh Davis passed away in 1948 leaving his wife Nina and son Bill. Nina and John later married.
Probably while persuing the SD reissues, John made the acquaintance of principals of the Wisconsin Chair Co. who had operated Paramount. He talked them into a reissue program. Sixteen couplings were pressed on the revived Paramount label before John, having acquired the trade mark and master rights as well as the affiliated Chicago Music Publishing Co. and issued another sixteen. A nice catalog was built before the LP killed the 78 rpm's.
Steiner issued c. 15 ten-inch LP's on Paramount but chose to license the older masters to Bill Grauer, publisher of Record Changer, who started Riverside Records with 10" LP's by Louis Armstrong (w. various blues artists), Johnny Dodds, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, etc. The jazz world is now aware of the extensive contributions to jazz made by Riverside ... all that great stuff by Monk, Johnny Griffin, Bill Evans, etc., etc., etc.
John Steiner's Paramount LP's were drawn from material John had recorded himself. John had shared a theater with an acting group at Dearborn and Goethe and many of the original lacquers he lovingly recorded in Chicago bars and concert halls were consumed in a disastrous fire. John, however, had made copies for friends and managed to transfer some to tape so he was able to include them in his LP projects. The LP catalog included the four-hand piano blues and boogies of Tom Harris and Charlie Castner; the Bud Freeman SD material; a Doc Evans album with Mel Grant he had recorded for Dublin Record Shop's label; two fine albums by Johnny Wiggs and Raymond Burke produced by Dr.Edmund Souchon; Art Hodes trios with Darnell Howard, Volly deFaut, Baby Dodds & Jasper Taylor; the legendary Kansas City Frank Melrose; recordings of Casino Simpson in a mental hospital, Jimmy Yancey and a series of albums from those legendary sessions at Ashcraft. John also recorded the Marty Grosz "Hooray For Bix" with Frank Chace for Riverside (currently Good Time Jazz #10065).
John still had a home in Milwaukee, but stayed in Chicago (where he taught at the University of Illinois). His legendary apartment at 1637 North Ashland was a gathering place for jazz fans and collectors at a time when a lot of great trad jazzmen lived here: Hodes, Darnell, Dodds, Brunis, Miff, Spanier --- you don't need full names. It was a co-op with Bill Russell and his American Music label: great New Orleans music on LP's by George Lewis, Bunk Johnson, Wooden Joe Nicholas, Baby Dodds, etc.
John purchased the inventory of several departed labels: Dublins, Life, Session, etc. and, as if the U. of I. chemistry prof at didn't have enough sidelines, also auctioned off and sold rare 78's. [I used to make trips from St.Louis to stock up on AM's, PM's and 78's.]
During this period John and Bill spent a lot of time interviewing most of the elder jazzfolk still living in Chicago: Natty Dominique, Baby Dodds, Preston Jackson, Jimmy Bertrand, Roy Palmer, Ikey Robinson, Glover Compton, Butterbeans and Susie, etc. for the Tulane Jazz Archives.
One day, about 1956, I got a letter from John:
"I am preparing for retirement and am thinking of disposing of my Paramount properties. I think this might interest you and I can help you if you move to Chicago. But get going, young fellow."
I hung it on my wall and "Get going young fellow" gave direction to a life that had been wobbling between cinematography and the record business. I moved from St. Louis to Chicago in 1958 and John helped me get settled. There were two eerie sides to that development. One Friday night John suggested that I go to Seymour's Loop Jazz Record Mart (a jazz specialty store dating from the 1940's) on Monday and try to strike a bargain for the business. Seymour had met with success with "Seymour & His Heartbeat Trumpet", eventually LP'd on Chess' Argo label, and wanted to get out of retail. To my astonishment Seymour knocked on my apartment door saying he wanted to sell the store! Had John set it all up? He never admitted it if he did. Anyway, John Steiner lent me the money to buy the store and I have eaten regularly ever since.
A mutual acquaintance of John and myself appeared at Seymour's not 6 months after my purchase, wanting to buy the business for more than 3 times what I had paid for it. John never admitted any influence he might have had on this opportunity, but I kept the shop because Seymour's wasn't quite as dead as we both had thought it was.
For a lot of good and involved reasons, I never acquired Paramount and I am ashamed of how long it took me to pay back his generous loan. He wouldn't let me give him credit for this much-needed help until just a few years ago. John's kick in the rear really got this young fellow going.
John was a scientist in every sphere of his colorful life. Erwin Helfer describes him as being "able to stand back and see himself in perspective." Armin Von Der Heydt recalled that he had several patents including the "shot from guns" device used in the breakfast cereal industry and a formula for non-carbonated beverages marketed as Birley's. John once gave me a small bottle of anti-static fluid he had developed for preventing magnetization of tape recorder parts.
It was worthwhile to hear John play piano, totally influenced by Earl Hines. His interest in that instrument showed in the Pm-SD catalog: Cow Cow Davenport, Jack Gardner, Roosevelt Sykes (aka Dobby Bragg), Casino Simpson, Frank Melrose even including a piano item by delta bluesman Skip James- well in advance of any serious interest in his blues on the part of the young fans of the blues revival.
A regional blues newspaper recently printed an interview in which John's appreciation of the blues was made clear. I think it was John who took me to hear Muddy Waters' band at the Club Zanzibar in the mid-50's. (A fortuitous occasion, Junior Wells had just replaced Little Walter.) It's not surprising that he reported a Washboard Sam's gig c.1940 at Lawrence & Broadway in Jazz Information.
In 1968, ex-Chicagoan George Finola made a return visit to Chicago. Besides his Bourbon Street gigging on trumpet he worked for the New Orleans Jazz Museum and wanted to see a similar museum set up in his hometown. By this time Steiner had moved from Ashland into the marvelously renovated Kosciusco Public Bathhouse on Greenview. In the basement was a chemical lab where he tested gasoline for the state of Illinois, and his recording equipment. A meeting was called by Harriet Choice and Finola in this plush home and thus was born the Jazz Institute of Chicago. John lent massive encouragement when he donated his record collection and files to the JIC, They now reside in the Jazz Archives of the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago. (Perhaps they should change it to RegenSteiner.) The history of the JIC can be the subject of a future R&N article but John certainly deserves major credit for helping get JIC off the ground, and without the JIC there might not be the free Blues and Jazz Festivals in Grant Park every year.
John's conversational style was such that one was quickly aware that he always gave a lot of thought to his words (a lesson I never learned). He was genial but cautious in business affairs but generously spent time unprofitably on projects that he knew could never be monetarily worthwhile.
A few months ago, John commented on the dyalisis treatments that he had to undergo thrice a week, "It's such a waste of money -- and humanity!" He passed away on June 3rd. A marvelously memorable man, survived by his wife Nina and stepson Bill Davis, a doctor in Madisonville, KY.
- Bob Koester
(Many thanks to Helen Oakley Dance, Dick Wang, Armin Von der Heydt, Terry Martin, Frank Chace, Jack Kuncl, Erwin Helfer, Nina Steiner, Lauren Deutsch of the JIC, Deborah Gillaspie of the Chicago Jazz Archive, and anyone I may have omitted, for help in the preparation of this article.)