Skip to main content

Chicago Jazz

Quick Links: Newspapers

Reference Sources

Introduction

The old jazz histories suggest that jazz came north to Chicago on Mississippi riverboats after the closing of New Orleans' Storyville district in 1917. It makes a nice story, but the reality is a lot grittier. Jazz came straight to Chicago's 12th Street station via the Illinois Central Railroad, 150 miles east of where the riverboats docked on the Mississippi.

Chicago boasted major musical talent and famous venues well before Storyville closed. Sheet music featuring the Pekin Theater at 2700 South State dates from as early as 1904 ("Pekin Rag"); the Chicago Jazz Archive holds a Pekin-themed piece dated 1907 (Love, Love, Love -- John Steiner Collection, Box 249 Folder 2.) The Chicago Defender of July 29, 1911 has Dave Peyton and Wilbur Sweatman playing South Side theaters in 1906, while Erskine Tate and Clarence Jones are listed in the Defender of Nov. 2, 1912 as playing the Phoenix Theater.

Between about 1916 and the end of the 1920's, the first wave of at least 75,000 Southern immigrants arrived on the South Side of Chicago. The jazz musicians among them became part of an already flourishing African-American community on Chicago's South Side, the economic and entertainment district of which was known as "The Stroll." Former sharecroppers and others who came north to work in Chicago's stockyards, steel mills, and factories could afford to have a good time, and job opportunities for musicians were correspondingly good.

By the time Freddie Keppard, Sidney Bechet, Lee Collins, King Oliver, and other New Orleans musicians arrived in 1918 to rub musical shoulders with the local talent, the classic New Orleans style had already begun to change in deference to local tastes. Chicago venue owners, patrons, and musicians expected hard-driving, uptempo playing, and they expected elegantly turned out musicians in sophisticated surroundings -- places like the Grand and Vendome Theaters, the Dreamland Ballroom, and clubs with posh names like Royal Gardens, Elite, Panama, and Sunset Cafe.

The rich musical scene on The Stroll inspired musicians from all over town; it was not unusual for white musicians to head to the Stroll after their North side gigs to see what they could pick up. Among those appearing regularly for "music lessons" in South Side clubs were Jimmy McPartland, Bud Freeman, Frank Teschemacher, Dave Tough, Gene Krupa, Muggsy Spanier, and Eddie Condon, who would collectively be credited with the creation of the "Chicago" jazz style of the mid-1920's. [Introduction © 2003-2010, Chicago Jazz Archive]

Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement

Several jazz musicians were involved in the Civil Rights movement. Besides the albums and general sources below, it's important to research individual musicians. Start with: Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Maya Angelou, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, and Charles Mingus.