Although the phonograph is one of Thomas Edison’s most famous inventions, when it came to the actual music that he personally selected for release on his record label’s cylinders and flat discs in the early 20th century, he wasn’t as innovative as the medium itself. In the epoch when jazz and the blues were becoming America’s fastest-rising, most forward-looking musical genres, Edison Records produced far fewer jazz or blues titles than competitors like Columbia and Okeh. (In a move that wouldn’t be eclipsed for artistic erroneousness until Decca’s 1962 rejection of the Beatles, the inventor famously passed on the Queen of the Blues herself, Bessie Smith, when she auditioned for him in the early 1920s; about jazz, Edison was quoted as saying the music “sounded better when it was played backward”).
Much of his failure to grasp new sounds was likely down to personal taste and the generation gap; it seems the Wizard of Menlo Park’s own preferences ran toward the maudlin ballads he’d been raised with. But there may be another reason that Edison couldn’t hear the majesty of Smith, et al.: By the time they were beginning their recording careers, he was mostly deaf.
Tangible evidence of Edison’s auditory handicap can be seen on the surface of a rare Steinway piano he once owned, which bears the actual teeth marks from his biting down on the wood to “hear” the piano being played via the vibrations that would resonate through his facial bones and into his inner ears (the same principle used in the bone conduction headphones marketed today).
Long thought to be lost, Edison’s Steinway has been found and restored and is enroute to be enshrined in the Smithsonian Institution. Along the way, it’s being temporarily housed at the Woodstock home of Jewish Federation of Ulster County President Rondavid Gold and his wife, Carol Super Gold, who this month will host a series of invitation-only recitals featuring area musicians playing the historic instrument that begins on August 14 at 4pm. For more information, visit Ucjf.org.