An Ethnography of Being Human

Brett Baker

There was a point when one man could have decided the fate of the Marr Sound Archives here at UMKC.

A state auditor came to the university in the late 1980s to evaluate its use of funds. Some worried his visit could jeopardize the archives, which had only recently been established and were not very substantial in their infancy.

However, Chuck Haddix, director of the archives, came to think differently after a conversation with the auditor.

“He [the auditor] loved records. He was just smitten by these 16-inch records,” Haddix said. “He was one of the first people to really come in there and use it [the Marr Sound Archives].”
So, what makes music worth archiving?

“Music surrounds us. Just think about earbuds, think about restaurants,” said Dr. William Everett, the Curator’s Professor of Musicology at the Conservatory of Music and Dance, as he sat in his sunlit office in Grant Hall. “The Marr Sound Archives really are documenting what people listen to. So it [the Marr Sound Archives] really can help provide an ethnography of being human in many ways.”

An ethnography is a scientific description of the traditions and customs of a culture. The ethnography collected in the Marr Sound Archives describes Kansas City’s culture and the historic jazz deeply embedded in our city. Beyond that, it describes American culture with the Americana of blues, rock and roll, soul, folk and country.

The archives were established in 1987 through the efforts of Haddix and his mentor, Dr. Ted Sheldon, then the Dean of Libraries. The collection began with a donation of around 34,000 recordings from the late Gaylord Marr, a former communications professor at UMKC.

At a small table in the archives, Haddix—bespectacled and dressed in a collared shirt and slacks—placed his elbows on the table’s surface. Occasionally he gesticulated with his hands as he described Marr.
“Gaylord was a pioneer of using audio-visual in the classroom,” Haddix said. “He would take in cassettes of historic events to illustrate the points in his lecture. He also looked at music in a cultural context. If you look at the music of any given society it tells you a lot about that society, and that was Gaylord’s premise.”

With Marr’s personal collection acting as the seed and Haddix as its gardener, the Marr Sound Archives sprung forth. Guided by Marr’s premise of ethnography, Haddix has helped collect the hundreds of thousands of recordings which compose the archives today.
“What we collect is the American experience as reflected in recorded sound,” Haddix said.

Today, the archives contain over 350,000 sound recordings. These came from a variety of archival collections in addition to commercially reissued records.

The KMBC Radio collection features radio broadcasts from Normandy Beach on D-Day, as well as coverage of the Pearl Harbor attack. The collection also holds recordings of folklorist Zora Neale Hurston reading her book, “Mules and Men.”

The Marr Sound Archives also house one-of-a-kind recordings from the Kansas City Philharmonic and the collection of Dave Dexter, Jr. Dexter was a music journalist for Down Beat magazine in Kansas City as well as a producer and record executive for Capitol RecordsDexter signed The Beatles to Capitol in the United States and produced their American albums.

Haddix is a modest man. Though he worked to found the archives and acts as its director, he sees himself as part of something bigger.

“I’m just a part of a larger team,” Haddix said.
The other employees focus on the day-to-day operations of the archives, student relations and the cataloguing and archival of recordings.

Haddix is also considered a highly-regarded authority in the field of special collections and sound recordings.
“One of the most vivid [memories] actually is Chuck Haddix because he is a national treasure, and I really mean that” Dr. Everett said.
In a small local coffee shop late Tuesday evening, esteemed jazz musician David Basse, a personal friend of Haddix, had similar things to say. According to Basse, Haddix is recognized internationally, having performed research for German record companies as well as collectors based in England, France and Japan.

“He’s a very humble man,” Basse said with his hands clasped around a steaming cup of tea. “But he’s an authority – one of the foremost authorities.”

Basse outlined Haddix’s meteoric rise from a clerk at a local record store to an internationally recognized director of an archival collection. Basse and Haddix have been friends since the 1970s, when they spent time at Penny Lane – the store where Haddix worked.

“Chuck was a record collector, so much of a record collector that his floor fell in because he had so many records in his house,” Basse said, laughing. “He had to put supports underneath his record collection.”

“Somehow,” Basse said, “he magically turned that into a job at the university.”

When asked how, Haddix simply said he made it up as he went along.

“I didn’t really have a model to work from,” Haddix said. As he put it, other similar collections – such as in the Library of Congress and the Rogers and Hammerstein Archives at the New York Public Library – did not have any policies or procedures in place for him to follow.
Starting out on the second floor of the Miller Nichols Library, Haddix was given an empty room with an office attached.

“I sat in this room with nothing in it,” Haddix said. “The only thing in it was Stella, the disc player and a few 16-inch discs in the corner.”

Due to the construction of the third floor in the library, Haddix and his archives were eventually relocated to the ground floor. With room to grow and time spent collecting recordings, Haddix used one word to describe the archives today, “wow.”

“It’s the visual that impresses people. Everybody that comes in is impressed by the collection. I mean it’s a room filled with 350,000 sound recordings,” Haddix said beaming, hands in the air. “Also all these historic machines. [Stella, the 16-inch disc player, Victrola, etc.] One of the things that sets us apart from the rest of the library is the ‘wow’ factor.”

Dr. Everett was equally impressed upon his first visit to the archive.

“[I felt] amazement because there are so many recordings in there,” Dr. Everett said. “Just the sheer number of recordings and the fact that they’re all organized.”

Besides the shock and awe of shelves upon shelves of records and ancient playback devices looming just beyond the counter, students at UMKC can also expect other opportunities. These include unfettered access to the archives and their recordings for research or pleasure, as well as a connection to the past through recorded sound. All students need do is simply sign in at the counter upon entering the archives.

One may ask, do enough students utilize these resources? According to Haddix, they do have an established group of students who frequent the archives. However, he still has his misgivings.

“Frankly, I wish they [students] would utilize it more,” Haddix said.
Haddix values the connection to the past contained in the archives—an ethnography of what it means to be human. Without this “link” as he puts it, students can get lost.

“If you don’t understand the past, you don’t know where you’re going in the future.”