John Steiner, 91, widely regarded as the world's foremost authority on early Chicago jazz, died Saturday, June 3, in Milwaukee.
Mr. Steiner, who was smitten with the music during its first great blossoming in Chicago in the 1920s, built a unique personal collection of about 35,000 recordings, plus sheet music, newspaper articles and related ephemera. The collection will be housed in the Chicago Jazz Archive of the University of Chicago Library, which had received several boxes of Mr. Steiner's papers in 1998.
"It's one of the top collections in the country, and it would be impossible for anyone to put it together today," said Deborah L. Gillaspie, curator of the Chicago Jazz Archive. "It exists only because John Steiner knew to collect these materials when they were available."
Born in Milwaukee and trained as a chemist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Mr. Steiner nourished his emerging passion for jazz by spending weekends in the nightspots of Chicago's South Side. Early on he came to know key figures such as pianist Earl Hines and drummer Baby Dodds, and befriended members of the fabled Austin High Gang (including cornetist Jimmy McPartland and saxophonist Bud Freeman).
"He would take the train down from Milwaukee or Madison and make it a weekend in Chicago, absorb as much of the club scene as he could, then sleep in the train station," recalled Richard Wang, professor of music at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"It was through his contacts with so many musicians that he was able to begin to build his collection, and he was doing it in the 1930s, when most people weren't interested in this music and its history in Chicago," added Wang.
"Without his research and appetite for Chicago music, we would be bereft of information upon which future histories of this music will be based. He was the seminal figure in documenting the history of Chicago jazz."
Though Mr. Steiner worked full time as a research chemist and, in the 1960s and '70s, taught at UIC, he used his off-hours to document music in Chicago. In 1946, he dragged a portable recording machine to the Civic Opera House, climbed onto the catwalk above the stage, dangled a microphone below and captured the Duke Ellington Orchestra on recordings that would not have existed without such efforts.
As self-styled oral historian, he taped hundreds of hours of interviews with notable musicians, but the exact contents of this cache will not be known for years, since U. of C. archivists will have to catalog two truckloads of material.
"It's a treasure trove," said curator Gillaspie, "but it's also a preservation nightmare."
In the 1940s, Mr. Steiner promoted concerts featuring McPartland and Freeman, among others, and with Hugh Davis started SD Records to issue Chicago jazz recordings. By leasing and, in 1949, purchasing the catalog of the old Paramount record label, Mr. Steiner was able to reissue historic recordings of Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Blind Lemon Jefferson, among others.
Mr. Steiner, a founding member of the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago, also held considerable stature as a jazz scholar. His articles in collectors' magazines and contributions to jazz history books brought authoritative information to a field often shrouded in myth and stereotype. "He was incredibly curious, spoke several languages and had an extremely fine mind, which made him a great researcher," said Charles A. Sengstock, Jr., who collaborated with Mr. Steiner on a bibliography of newspaper coverage of Chicago jazz.
Mr. Steiner is survived by his wife, Nina, and a stepson, William Davis. No services are planned.