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A Gramophone D.J. Cranks Up the Volume – The New York Times

A Gramophone D.J. Cranks Up the Volume – The New York Times


A Gramophone D.J. Cranks Up the Volume

“I want to replicate the listening experience from 100 years ago,” Michael Cumella says.Christian Hansen for The New York Times 

A swell Saturday night crowd packed the Midtown Manhattan lounge where Michael Cumella was cranking out the tunes.

He reached for the handle on the side of a century-old wooden Victrola and turned it rapidly to keep the music pumping.

“I’m spreading the gospel of the gramophone,” said Mr. Cumella, 52, a record-spinner of a different sort than your average scratch-and-cut beatmaster or festival-rocking hipster fresh from Berlin.

Those types may rock the party, but Mr. Cumella rocks the parlor, with a fleet of nonelectric antique phonographs that spin 78 r.p.m. records and Edison-era cylinder recordings.

This Jazz Age D.J. has built a reputation among like-minded music lovers in New York City. This particular evening was his regular monthly gig at the Campbell Apartment, a nightspot located in Grand Central Terminal.

Using two turntables — a 1906 Victor and a 1905 Columbia — and a microphone and a modest P.A. system, he spun dance tunes from 1920s jazz bands, as he does the second Saturday of each month at the bar.

He looked out over the crowd, this high priest of low fidelity, and grabbed another heavy old disc from its brown paper sleeve: Bessie Smith’s “Yellow Dog Blues.”

He dropped the weighty metal tone arm on the fast-spinning record and from the phonograph horn came a faraway sound. It had a rich tonal core that melted away the hisses and scratches. It sounded robust and natural, even through the microphone Mr. Cumella had set in the horn.

“People think it’s a trick — they don’t believe it’s acoustic,” said Mr. Cumella, an affable fellow who dresses with a Gatsby-era flair.

“I want to replicate the listening experience from 100 years ago without filtering or equalizing the sound,” he said. “It’s a completely different sonic experience to stand in front of it and feel it. It’s a physical experience.”

His assistant, Michael Haar, another old-time D.J. who also cuts hair as Mike the Barber, put on a 1929 record of Annette Hanshaw singing “Mean to Me.”

“I want people to have contact with the machines,” Mr. Cumella said. “I say, ‘Here, stick your head in the horn.’ The closer you are, the more you get the sound experience.”

Mr. Cumella, who is divorced and lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, earns his living as a freelance video editor and producer, but also has a sideline as a gramophone repairman who makes house calls.

This month is the 20th anniversary of the Antique Phonograph Show with MAC, his radio program on WFMU, the Jersey City, N.J., radio station. 

Mr. Cumella grew up in Nutley, N.J., with perfectly contemporaneous musical tastes, collecting pop and rock records, but developed a fondness for older recordings after falling in love with music from cartoons.

He fixated on the windup phonograph era after buying a Victrola and a pile of records at a garage sale.

Having worked weddings and parties armed with crates of LPs, he began finding gigs playing old-time music at parties. “A friend told me one day, ‘This is your thing; you have to run with it,’ ” he said.

“Now I feel like I’ve been building to this my whole life,” said Mr. Cumella, who owns some 2,000 LPs from a variety of eras, and roughly 1,500 78s, as well as several hundred cylinders.

Mr. Cumella now mostly limits his collecting to music that was acoustically recorded up to the late 1920s, when Americans were switching over to electric phonographs. His taste runs from good dance band records to early jazz, blues and country, as well as novelty records.

During a recent house call in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, he inspected a 1910 unit made by the Victor Talking Machine Company, which Lee Chappell, an event and club promoter, bought for $180 in a Williamsburg antiques store.

To test the unit, Mr. Cumella removed the needle apparatus and sang through the tone arm in a vaudevillian twang, “Yes sir, that’s my baby.” Then he opened the machine and found that the steel spring that drives the turntable needed replacing.

On another night, he went to WFMU’s studios and set up the three old phonographs he keeps there, for a live broadcast.

One of the units, an Edison cylinder player, was equipped with a brass horn nearly five feet long.

Mr. Cumella set down his tan fedora on a guitar amplifier in Studio B, a room used for live performances, and stood like a maestro before a music stand and a tall microphone.

He pulled a stack of records in worn paper sleeves from his leather satchel. First he played “Too Much Mustard,” by the Victor Military Band, then Ernest Stoneman’s 1925 recording of “Jack and Joe.”

The agile D.J. danced continuously from the microphone to the old music players, cranking them up often and sometimes making adjustments during the songs.

“Some people say it would be easier if I just pre-record the music,” he said, “but that would defeat the whole purpose of the show.”


Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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