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A Short History
Chicago was a major seedbed of jazz in the early 20th century. Musicians coming north from New Orleans to join Chicago's more vibrant recording industry met with an already-vibrant live music scene that was, by the end of the First World War, making a halting transition from Ragtime to Jazz. The growing city's demand for entertainment fueled the expansion of the city's "bright light districts." These centers of nightlife grew up in Uptown, the area around what is now Madison and Pulaski, along Milwaukee Avenue, and, on the South Side, around 35th and State and, later, 47th and South Park (now Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive). These areas teemed with restaurants, amusement parks, nightclubs, movie theatres, and dancehalls, many of which provided opportunities for live performers to ply their trade. The post-war enthusiasm for social dancing among young people fueled a vast increase in the city's ballrooms, and their taste for more syncopated, "hot" music led to the increasing popularity of jazz ensembles.
Pianist Jelly Roll Morton, considered one of the first jazz musicians, started playing in Chicago in 1912. With cornetist King Oliver, another key jazz innovator, he helped make Chicago the nation's center of jazz music. Oliver brought his friend Louis Armstrong up from New Orleans for a brief but highly influential period in Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. After a brief stint in New York, Armstrong returned to Chicago and performed and recorded with his own Hot Five and Hot Seven ensembles. During this time he produced perhaps his most famous early recording, "West End Blues." Armstrong also recorded with Earl "Fatha" Hines, another early eminence in the Chicago Jazz scene.
While musicians coming north in the Great Migration of African Americans to the city produced most of the city's innovative jazz music, Chicago produced or incubated some white jazz musicians as well. Benny Goodman, Bud Freeman, and Gene Krupa hailed from the city's west and southeast sides and performed in many of the city's white nightclubs. Trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke played for a time in the city's ensembles.
Throughout the 1920s, jazz was performed in scores of venues throughout the city. The South Side in particular boasted the Pekin Inn, the Lincoln Gardens Cafe, the Grand Terrace Cafe, the Sunset, Midway Gardens, the Trianon Ballroom, to name only a few of the more prominent places. Some early South Side venues catered to a racially mixed clientele, making jazz music an integrating factor in a still-segregated city. Chicago was also a center of the music recording industry, with national labels like Vocalion, Okeh, and Paramount opening local studios and producing some of the early mass-market recordings of jazz music.
By the end of the decade, however, the jazz world's center of gravity had shifted decidedly away from Chicago. As the city lost its position as a recording center, many local musicians moved on. Oliver, Morton, Armstrong, and Goodman all left town for New York. Chicago's jazz scene remained vibrant, but it was more local in scope and less influential than it had been in its early years. The Great Depression hit the music industry hard, as demand for records fell and music venues, a tenuous industry in the best of times, closed in large numbers. Chicago jazz rallied considerably during and after the Second World War, however. The Club De Lisa, near Garfield and State, became one of the era's legendary local venues. It was there that the man later known as Sun Ra got his start as a substitute pianist with the orchestra. Sun Ra founded his revolutionary Arkestra in Chicago and was a significant presence in local jazz scene before he left Chicago in the late 1961. Hyde Park's own Beehive played host to both local and touring talent. Vocalists Johnny Hartman and Nat King Cole both hailed from the South Side, growing up in its rich musical culture. In 1965, a group of Chicago jazz musicians founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM), emphasizing collaborative performance styles and, over the years, political and social engagement. Singer-songwriter-playwright Oscar Brown, Jr. recorded, wrote, and toured widely from his home base in Chicago.
The contemporary local jazz scene features some important living links to these vibrant eras. South Side sax players Fred Anderson and Von Freeman still hold court and perform regularly, the former at his new Velvet Lounge on Cermak and the latter on Tuesday nights at the New Apartment Lounge on 75th Street. The Chicago Jazz Festival brings together local and national talent every September, and the HotHouse on Balbo has been home to innovative and eclectic expressions of this venerable and yet youthful genre.
No genre of music is as closely identified with Chicago as the blues. Originally a folk style developed in the rural South, the blues came to Chicago with the Great Migration of African Americans to the city. Artists who started their careers in juke joints in the South had, in Chicago, much greater opportunity to record and distribute their music. Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, and Blind Lemon Jefferson were among the more famous musicians to pioneer recorded blues in Chicago, capturing the lyric and musical styles of the southern genre. Memphis Minnie, Memphis Slim, and Sonny Boy Williamson came north in the 1930s, and by the end of World War II, Chicago had the nation's most vibrant and influential blues scene.
The most famous blues musicians of the genre's postwar heyday were transplanted southerners: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and the composer, performer, producer, and impresario Willie Dixon. These three, along with many others, created the potent compound of southern folk forms, electric instruments, and urban themes that has characterized Chicago blues, and the rock and roll music that derived from it, ever since. The city's blues scene became formalized around South Side clubs and record companies that specialized in the music. Blues musicians who didn't live in Chicago made frequent tour stops here, usually playing in South Side concert halls like the Savoy Ballroom and the Regal Theater (where B.B. King recorded his seminal "Live at the Regal" in 1964).
A new generation of blues musicians came to Chicago after the war. Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Magic Sam, and Otis Rush "most of whom were not yet born when Chicago blues was in its infancy revolutionized the forms they inherited by adding longer guitar solos and new, soul-inflected rhythmic elements. In the 1960s, Willie Dixon organized the American Folk Blues Festival, which brought the most prominent blues talents to Europe for five years. The Festival caught the attention of the young English musicians who came to define rock and roll, and soon Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and the Rolling Stones were borrowing extensively from the blues. The Stones even made a pilgrimage to Dixon's Chess Records studio at 2120 South Michigan Avenue, recording most of their 1965 album "12x5" there. The blues developed a young white audience in Chicago, and students from the University became both consumers and producers of the music.
By the middle of the 1970s, blues had passed its high point of cultural prominence. Many of the old clubs and record labels that had flourished in the two decades immediately following the Second World War closed. However, Chicagoan Bruce Iglauer worked to keep the blues alive through his Alligator Records label, which recorded obscure musicians from the city and around the country. Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and others continued to perform around the city and the world, and Guy's Checkerboard Lounge became a landmark of South Side blues culture (the venue, now owned by L. C. Thurman, has moved from its home on 43rd Street to the Harper Court shopping center in Hyde Park). The descendants of Willie Dixon founded the Blues Heaven Foundation to preserve the history and legacy of the blues, and the city of Chicago began its annual Blues Fest celebration in 1984. The blues renaissance of the 1990s brought Chicago's premier art form to new prominence even as many of its former stars and landmarks have slipped from the scene. Chicago blues and its offshoots can still be heard live at a number of new and old venues around the South Side and the rest of the city.
Gospel & Soul
Gospel music in Chicago has common roots with jazz and blues. As a genre, it began in the South in African American churches and farm fields. Urbanization and technological change revolutionized Gospel music as they did blues. Chicago was home to many of the early large-scale African American churches that used electric amplification and large choirs to create the Gospel style most familiar today.
Like early jazz and blues musicians, the first Chicago Gospel performers came from the South. Thomas A. Dorsey, "the father of Gospel music," grew up in Georgia before moving to Indiana and then Chicago in 1918. He was a jazz and blues pianist before becoming the music director of the famous Pilgrim Baptist Church at 33rd and Indiana in 1932. There he formed a choir that featured Mahalia Jackson, a singer whose recordings are considered definitive of the new Gospel style. This style of music became widely popular among the city's black churches and has for decades been accepted as part of the hymnody of many majority-white congregations and church traditions. Dorsey remained the music director at Pilgrim for almost forty years, during which time he composed the Gospel standards "Precious Lord, Take My Hand" and "Peace in the Valley." Radio station Gospel1390 is the city's last all-Gospel station, though WPWX and WVAZ play Gospel at times. The music is alive and well in many of the city's African American churches.
Soul music was a term coined to describe the secularized offshoots of the Gospel style that came to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s. Long after the centralization of the music industry had diminished Chicago's influence in jazz, the emergence of soul put the city back on the map. Some of the same venues that incubated blues in Chicago were home to early soul acts "not only the legendary Regal Theater at 47th and South Park (now King Drive), but the Club on Garfield, the Algiers Lounge on 69th, and the old jazz hangout the Sutherland Lounge at 47th and Drexel. Some of the same record labels: Chess, Vee-Jay, and others, showcased both the urban blues legends of the day and the up-and-coming soul stars. Curtis Mayfield, a preeminent soul songwriter and guitarist, grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing projects on the near North side. He helped put soul on the map with The Impressions, who recorded the hits People Get Ready and Keep on Pushing.He also recorded with Jerry "Iceman" Butler, a South Sider and current member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Chi-Lites, another South Side group, had scored some major soul hits, including "Have You Seen Her."
As major record companies moved into the market for African American musical styles, the Chicago soul scene fell from prominence. It still lives in performance, however, alongside the blues music with which it has always been closely related, in small South Side venues.
Unlike the older genres of jazz, blues, soul, and gospel, rap music and hip-hop culture owe relatively little of their development to Chicago artists and institutions. Rap music got its start in New York City, migrated to Los Angeles, and still derives much of its creative energy from the coasts. Common is probably the best-known rapper to emerge from Chicago. There is a local hip-hop, rap, and R&B performance scene centered mostly in clubs and venues on the North Side.
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Further Reading:
American Folk Blues Festival, 1962-66 (sound recording, in various editions)
Nadine Cohodas Spinning Blues into Gold: the Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000)
David Honeyboy Edwards, The World Don't Owe Me Nothing: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman Honeyboy Edwards as told to Janis Martinson and Michael Robert Frank (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 1997)
Adam Green, "Blues," Encyclopedia of Chicago, James Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating and Janice L. Reiff, eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004)
Nat Hentoff and Albert J. McCarthy eds. Jazz: New Perspectives on the History of Jazz by Twelve of the World's Foremost Jazz Critics and Scholars (New York: Da Capo Press, 1974)
Kenney, William Howland. Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904-1930 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993
"Jazz" Encyclopedia of Chicago, James Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating and Janice L. Reiff, eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004)
Robert Pruter, Chicago Soul (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1991)
John Russick, "Gospel," Encyclopedia of Chicago, James Grossman, Ann Durkin Keating and Janice L. Reiff, eds. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004)
Charles A. Sengstock, That Toddlin' Town: Chicago's White Dance Bands and Orchestras, 1900-1950 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004)
John F. Szwed, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra (New York: Pantheon Books, 1997)
Image Sources:
Band: Chicago History Museum.  Photograph by Magic Karpit Studio, DN-0084682. Courtesy of the Chicago History Museum.
Dancing: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USW3- 001531-D [P&P]