Jazz and Blues Historian Chris Albertson Dies at 87

The Iceland-born writer penned the definitive biography of Bessie Smith

Chris Albertson
Chris Albertson in 2006 (photo: Bernard Weston)

Chris Albertson, a jazz and blues writer, historian, broadcaster, and record producer best known for his documentation of the life and work of Bessie Smith, died at his home in Manhattan on April 24. He was 87 years old.

His death was confirmed by his friend Gary King, who found Albertson’s body, to the New York Times.

Born in Iceland, Albertson emigrated to the United States in 1957 and worked as a jazz disc jockey in Philadelphia. He moved to New York a few years later and became a record producer, working for several labels before producing his landmark work at Columbia with a five-volume 1970-72 series of Smith’s complete recordings. His biography, Bessie, was published in 1972.

“I hope that I have done Bessie Smith justice,” Albertson wrote in the book’s foreword, “and that my work here may inspire further efforts to enlighten us about major figures in African-American music, regardless of their ethnic heritage.” Over the following five decades, his hopes were realized.

Christiern Gunnar Albertson was born on Oct. 18, 1931, in Reykjavik. He was educated in Iceland and England before moving to Copenhagen as a teenager. While living in Copenhagen in 1947, Albertson heard Bessie Smith on the radio. Immediately struck by her music, he began digging deeper into African-American musical traditions and discovered that he was part of a wave of Danish youth who had become obsessed with early American jazz and blues.

“It was amazing, when you think about it,” he wrote in 2010. “Young people in a Nordic land embracing and fantasizing over a culture that couldn’t be more different from their own, and it came complete with a musical score. … Some of us became as familiar with the street names of New Orleans as we were with our own.”

Albertson began spending much of his free time at Storyville, a Copenhagen jazz club owned by fellow obsessive Karl Knudsen, who also owned a reissue record label of the same name. At one of the club’s performances, by British trad-jazz trumpeter Ken Colyer and his Jazzmen, Albertson made a recording of the band, which became the first release of new material on Storyville (and Albertson’s first production credit).

He returned to Iceland in 1955, where he worked for two years as a disc jockey on Armed Forces Radio, then moved to Philadelphia and worked at WCAU and WHAT radio. While working at WCAU in August 1958, he interviewed Lester Young on the air, the tape of which is one of only four known interview recordings of Young.

In 1961 Albertson moved to New York, where he was hired as a producer by Riverside Records owner Bill Grauer and oversaw the label’s “Living Legends” series before moving on to work for Prestige Records. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1963. The following year he returned to radio, first at New York’s WNEW and then at Pacifica Radio outlet WBAI (where he served as station manager). He later worked for the BBC as well.

In 1968 Columbia Records executive John Hammond, following a lengthy campaign by Albertson to convince him to reissue Bessie Smith’s catalogue, finally approved the project with Albertson as producer. Upon their release, the five two-record sets were hailed as revelatory.

The research Albertson undertook as part of the reissue project, including a series of interviews with Smith’s niece Ruby Walker, formed the cornerstone of Bessie. He expanded the book for a new edition in 2003. (It was adapted for television by HBO in 2014, though Albertson called the resulting production “atrocious.”)

Bessie was immediately received as the definitive biography of Smith, and a groundbreaking specimen of historical research. In particular, Albertson’s book put to rest the longstanding myth that Smith had died after an automobile accident because a white-only hospital refused to admit her; the author interviewed Dr. Hugh Smith, who had treated the blues singer at the scene of the accident and recalled that Smith’s ambulance did not even attempt to go to a white hospital.

During the time he worked on the Bessie Smith projects, Albertson was the host of a PBS television series, The Jazz Set. He later wrote two TV documentaries, 1988’s Alberta Hunter: My Castle’s Rockin’ and 1993’s Masters of American Music: The Story of Jazz. However, apart from his 2003 update of Bessie, Albertson’s primary work after the 1970s was in magazines (including a lengthy tenure as contributing editor for Stereo Review) and his blog, Stomp Off, which he filled from 2009 to 2016 with memories of his jazz encounters and unvarnished opinions about the current states of music, media, and other subjects.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.