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Henry Sandy Jacobs (born October 9, 1924) is an American sound artist and humorist.
Jacobs was born in Chicago, Illinois. After a tour in the Air Corps —during which time he acquired some broadcast experience—, and graduation from the University of Chicago, he moved to Mexico City. There, around 1950, he appeared on Mexico radio station XEW and fledgling television station XHTV.
In 1952, Jacobs returned to Chicago and began experimenting with reel to reel tape recorders, taking particular advantage of the ease with which they made it possible to manipulate sound directly. Ambient, everyday sound, and especially the structural variety of apparently spontaneous sounds, interested him; at one point he ventured to Haiti to make street recordings. While attending graduate courses at the University of Illinois, he also produced a regular program on the campus radio station (WILL) entitled Music and Folklore, which is believed by some to be one of the first presentations of "world music" to an American audience.
Jacobs often brought experts in certain ethnic musics onto the show to provide background information. When no experts were available, he would not infrequently fake it - most notably in the case of "Sholem Stein", a putative Hebrew musicologist who claimed that calypso music had deep Rabbinical meanings. These were largely improvised with humorist and colleague Woody Leafer.
Pacifica station KPFA in Berkeley started receiving tapes of Music and Folklore not long after the program began, so Bay Area audiences were already familiar with Jacobs when he moved to San Francisco in 1953 and took up the show in person. While still at Berkeley, Jacobs assembled two tape recorders and re-recorded many of the percussive sounds that he had recorded on the road (and in his own studio) while varying the speed of the tape as he re-recorded them, and then spliced the unusual new percussive sounds into tape loops, recording them again into a montage of loops entitled "Sonata For Loudspeakers", which first appeared on the "Radio Program No. 1" Folkways disk, and eventually was included on the 1957 Folkways album, "Sounds of New Music" (Folkways disk no. FX 6160.) Meanwhile, he continued to pursue an interest in all aspects of sound, in the composition of musique concrete, in improvisational theatre and humor. He met poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, Alan Ginsberg, comedian Lenny Bruce (whose first recording was a Jacobs project, Interviews of Our Times), and percussionist Mongo Santamaría.
Most important among these new social contacts were the friendships he struck up with Ken Nordine, "the father of word jazz", and Alan Watts, a gifted raconteur and former Anglican priest best known for popularizing and interpreting Eastern philosophy for a Western audience. Jacobs, upon taking the helm at his friend Bill Loughborough's record label, MEA, in 1959, set about releasing several recordings of Watts. He is currently co-curator of the Alan Watts archive.
In 1957, working with artist Jordan Belson, Jacobs produced Vortex: Experiments in Sound and Light - a series of concerts featuring new music, including some of Jacobs' own, and that of Karlheinz Stockhausen, and many others - taking place in the Morrison Planetarium in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Sound designers commonly regard this as the origin of the (now standard) concept of "surround sound." The program was popular, and Jacobs and Belson were invited to reproduce it at the 1958 World Expo in Brussels.
His album, The Wide Weird World of Shorty Petterstein consisted largely of encounters between hipsters and unknowing squares. One interviewer asks about art to be told, "Art? He's been with the band about six months. Blows good piano." When the interviewer protests that pianos aren't blown, but played with the hands, Shorty returns the opaque reply, "Blow is like an instrument."
Bizarre even for Jacobs is the humorous and slightly disturbing 1963 album, The Laughing String, which has all the hallmarks of a masterpiece.
With the backing of the American Cancer Society, Jacobs, in collaboration with John Korty, put together an animated short film about quitting smoking, "Breaking the Habit", which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1964. This brought Jacobs far enough into the limelight to get remunerative work as a sound consultant. In the late sixties he created radio advertisements for Japan Airlines and supplied audio/visual ideas to Bank of America's marketing division.
His approach to sound manipulation greatly interested George Lucas, and he was tapped to provide some improvised soundtrack material and background dialogue for his film THX 1138.
In 1972, Jacobs collaborated with Bob McClay and Chris Koch on a series of half-hour television programs for San Francisco public television station KQED. "The Fine Art of Goofing Off" was a sort of philosophical Sesame Street; each program would develop an open-ended theme, like "time" or "work" in an unpredictable collage of brief episodes in a variety of different styles of animation. Alan Watts, improv troop The Committee, artist Victor Moscoso, musicians Mark Unobsky and Pete Sears, Woody Leafer, and Jordan Belson all contributed to the series.
Some of Jacobs' work is back in print through Locust Music and Important Records. The bulk of his master tapes were destroyed by fire in 1995, though 63 reel-to-reel tapes were rediscovered by Jack Dangers who released a portion of the material in collaboration with Jacobs in 2005.
The following is a partial discography:
- Radio Programme No 1 Audio Collage: Henry Jacobs’ Music and Folklore (Folkways, 1955)
- Two Interviews (Fantasy, 1955)
- Interviews of Our Times (Fantasy, 1955)
- "Sonata For Loudspeakers (Tape Loops Demo)" (1953-4). On album: "Sounds of New Music" (Folkways, 1957)
- The Weird Wide World of Shorty Petterstein (World Pacific, 1957)
- Highlights of Vortex (Folkways, 1959)
- Sounds of New Music (Folkways, 1962)
- The Laughing String (MEA, 1963)
- The Wide Weird World of Henry Jacobs/The Fine Art of Goofing Off (Important Records, 2005)
- The Wide Weird World of Henry Jacobs Official web site
- Henry Jacobs at the Internet Movie Database
- Henry Jacob's 'Wide Weird World' npr.org interview