CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Saxophonist and band leader Isham Jones is best known for writing the melody for "It Had to Be You" and other hit songs. Although a well-known songwriter and band leader during the 1920s and '30s, Jones' early recordings are largely unknown and overlooked. Meagan Hennessey hopes that will change, with the reissuance of music Jones recorded in 1920 in Chicago with his Rainbo Orchestra.
Meagan Hennessey, right, and Richard Martin after receiving their 2006 Grammy Award for Best Historical Album.
Photo courtesy Meagan Hennessey
Hennessey - manager of Web services for the University of Illinois College of Business - and her husband, Richard Martin, released the album of Jones' music in August on their historic reissue label, Archeophone Records. The album, "Happy: The 1920 Rainbo Orchestra Sides," has been nominated for a 2015 Grammy Award in two categories: Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes.
"It was appealing to us because he is a known figure and this is a largely unknown part of his career," Hennessey said of Jones' early recordings. "His arrangements were years ahead of other musicians', and he did some really interesting things with the instrumentation.
"His recordings help fill the gap between ragtime and jazz."
The Archeophone label specializes in music from the acoustic era (roughly the 1890s through 1925), recorded before microphones and other electronic devices came into use. The technology was crude: Singers and bands were recorded live through a recording horn, and there was no ability to edit or correct a take.
Hennessey and Martin formed Archeophone Records in 1998; they have produced 65 CDs and have been nominated for 11 Grammy Awards. Five of the nominations have been for Best Historical Album, and six have been for Best Album Notes. The label won a 2006 Grammy Award for Best Historical Album for "Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922." The album accompanied a book, "Lost Sounds," published by the University of Illinois Press in 2004.
Martin is the audio engineer for the label, digitally remastering and restoring the recordings. Hennessey and Martin produce the albums together, coming up with the concepts for projects, doing research, and working on design and with writers for the album notes. Hennessey handles the label's website and e-commerce.
The albums issued by the label have extensive album notes and photos, as well as discographical information for each selection. "Lots of original research goes into each release," Hennessey said.
The album notes for the Isham Jones set were written by David Sager, a trombonist and musical scholar.
"David has a gift for explaining music and opening it up. His notes for 'Happy' give the listener a clear sense of not only where dance music was at the time Isham started, but also why his arrangements were so special," Hennessey said.
In his album notes, Sager called Jones' 1920 recordings from the Rainbo Gardens in Chicago "transitional efforts."
"Isham Jones, on his earliest recordings, is such a musician who had one foot firmly rooted in the polite social dancing of the 1910s and one foot in the emerging modern dance band of the 1920s," Sager wrote.
"The tension between the old and new is palpable. We can feel the pull of both worlds, yet Jones never goes fully toward either. And amongst these forgotten performances, we feel part of a definite place and time. That place is Isham Jones' Chicago. The time is 1920. And the feeling is happy."
Hennessey said she and Martin have received great feedback on both the quality of the restorations and the recordings listeners are discovering for the first time. She is excited to be nominated again and pleased to see that all the nominees for Best Historical Album this year are independent labels.
"This is an area of music that's largely unexplored, and we're trying to change that," Hennessey said of acoustical recordings. "We want to tell the story of the music and the personalities of the early recording industry."
The Grammy Awards will be handed out Feb. 8.