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excerpted from Jazz: A History of America's Music

Audio sample Potato Head Blues
Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven

Recorded May 10, 1927
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)

Chicago at night
Chicago at night
Image courtesy of Chicago Historical Society

On May 13, 1915, a five-piece white group from New Orleans arrived in Chicago for a six-week engagement at a basement restaurant at Randolph and Clark called Lamb's Café. They billed themselves as "Brown's Band from Dixieland," after their trombonist, Tom Brown, a veteran of Papa Jack Laine's marching bands. The kind of music they played was already growing familiar in black neighborhoods of the city, but most white Chicagoans had never heard anything like it, and at first they were anything but enthusiastic. The cashier covered her ears whenever the men began to play, and a string orchestra quit rather than perform on the same bandstand with anyone making such crude noises.

"[O]ur debut was pitiful," the cornetist Ray Lopez later admitted. "Those Yankees wouldn't listen or dance. They just walked out on us. We took turns talking to the customers. 'Folks, this is New Orleans music. Hot music. People down South dance. You've got to dance. Come on and try. Have fun!' For six nights we pleaded. No dice." Then, a touring vaudeville company reserved the café for a party and word got out that they had had a good time; after that, Lopez remembered, their music "caught on like magic" — until the restaurant closed for renovations. Brown's Band from Dixieland broke up soon afterward, and most of its members went back home to New Orleans.

But by July 8, 1922, when Louis Armstrong boarded a train at New Orleans for Chicago, the Windy City was a very different place, especially where jazz was concerned. Armstrong had been making $1.50 an evening in New Orleans; in Chicago he could look forward to $52.50 a week, plus roughly the same amount in tips from enthralled customers. "There was plenty of work [in Chicago]," Armstrong remembered, "lots of Dough flying around, all kinds of beautiful women at your service. A musician in Chicago in the early twenties [was] treated and respected just like — some kind of a god."

Audio Feature Studs Terkel, writer
On the lure of Chicago in the 1920s
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

In setting out for Chicago, Armstrong was joining what came to be called the "Great Migration," a northern exodus that since 1917 had sent more than half a million African-Americans northward — and that would propel a million more to follow before the end of the 1920s. Most immigrants from the deep South ended up at the end of the Illinois Central line, in Chicago. It was considered "the safest place near New Orleans," Danny Barker recalled. "All other places between those two points were looked upon as just visiting points ... I recall relatives returning to New Orleans telling humorous tales of looking out the windows of the train at such places as Memphis, Bowling Green, Kankakee, Natchez. They would say, "I just can't figure how colored folks can live in them places that close to Chicago and not go there."

Housing for Negroes in Chicago, 1941
Housing for Negroes in Chicago, 1941
Image courtesy of Library of Congress
Well over 100,000 black Americans now called Chicago home, most of them clustered together on the South Side, and not even the vicious race riots that had gripped the city during the summer of 1919 could shake their belief that life in the North was preferable to returning to the Jim Crow South. The "Stroll" — the black bright-light district that shifted slowly down South State Street during the decade as more and more migrants poured into South Side tenements — was "the Bohemia of the Colored Folks," according to the black-owned Chicago Whip, a "Mecca for Pleasure," celebrated in black communities all over the country.

As writer Studs Terkel explained, "Chicago to many black people, especially following World War I ... [in the] early 20s, it was the place to go ... [P]eople in the fields would hear the whistle of that Illinois Central, going from New Orleans to Chicago. Chicago! That's where it is. Chicago, where the work is, the stockyards, the steel mills, the farm equipment, the heavy industry. Sandburg's poem may have been corny but true. Chicago [was the] "hog butcher for the world." There [were] jobs at the stockyards, "stacker of wheat," "center of nation's railroads," a thousand passenger trains each day passing through Chicago. Pullman car porters, of course, and chefs, and working the tracks, and of course, the steel mills. Chicago was the place where you could get a job possibly, but life would be different."

There were clubs that limited their clientele to blacks only, and others, called "black-and-tans," that welcomed patrons of both races. Shops and restaurants never closed their doors. "Excitement from noon to noon," the poet Langston Hughes recalled. "Midnight was like day. The street was full of workers and gamblers, prostitutes and pimps, church folks and sinners." And the police largely looked the other way, under order from Big Bill Thompson, the red-faced, spectacularly corrupt Democratic mayor of the city who took a dim view of Prohibition — "I'm as wet as the middle of the Atlantic Ocean," he said — and, as he moved from club to club with his entourage, liked to bellow: "Get a horn and blow loud for Chicago. Let the jazz band play! Let's show 'em, we're all live ones!"

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Louis Armstrong Centennial Radio Project: Chicago
Satchmo left the small town music scene of New Orleans for Chicago in 1922. Jazz critic Stanley Crouch describes the city as Armstrong found it when he arrived.

Satchmo Arrives in Chicago

Louis Armstrong had never been so far from home before. And when he stepped down at Chicago's 12th Street Station and bandleader Joe "King" Oliver, Armstrong's friend and mentor, was not there to meet him, he asked himself if he had made a mistake leaving New Orleans: "I saw a million people, but not Mister Joe, and I didn't give a damn who else was there. I never seen a city that big. All those tall buildings, I thought they were universities. I said, no, this is the wrong city. I was just fixing to go back home — standing there in my box-back suit, padded shoulders, wide-legged pants — when a redcap Joe left word with came up to me." The redcap put him in a taxi and sent him along to the Lincoln Gardens Café, an enormous and ornate dance hall at 31st and Cottage Grove, just a few blocks from the Stroll, in the heart of the South Side. When he got there and heard the music drifting out through the door, Armstrong remembered, he said to himself, "No, I ain't supposed to be in this band, they're too good." But then Oliver spotted him: "You little fool," he said. "Come on in here."

Once Armstrong was inside, everything seemed familiar. The sound of Oliver's foot could be heard stomping off the tempo just as it had back in New Orleans; the musicians were free to shed their coats if things got too hot; and a bucket of water with a dipper and a big block of ice floating in it occupied a corner of the bandstand in case anybody got thirsty. Oliver invited him to play. "That was heaven," Armstrong wrote. "Papa Joe was so elated that he played half an hour overtime. I was so happy I did not know what to do. I had hit the big time. I was up North with the Greats. I was playing with my idol, The King, Joe Oliver. All of my boyhood dreams had come true at last ... I was home."

In the next few years, Chicago's jazz scene flourished. And as more people were exposed to the music, and it became increasingly popular, it attracted detractors as well. "Moral disaster is coming to hundreds of young American girls through the pathological, nerve-irritating, sex-exciting music of jazz orchestras," wrote a journalist in the New York American. "According to the Illinois Vigilance Association, in Chicago alone the association's representatives have traced the fall of l,000 girls in the last two years to jazz music."

The Austin High Gang

The Austin High Gang, 1923
The Austin High Gang, 1923
Image courtesy of Duncan Scheidt

Among Chicago's jazz lovers were a group of high school boys who regularly turned out to watch Louis Armstrong and King Oliver perform at Lincoln Gardens. "Night after night, we made the trip" to the South Side, one remembered, and neither the fact that the club was "by and for Negroes," nor the presence of the 350-pound bouncer who razzed them genially every evening about coming to the South Side for their "music lessons," could keep them away.

They were a rough-hewn bunch, rebellious and headstrong. Some were streetwise products of the city slums; others came from comfortable suburban homes or were refugees from the rural heartland, captivated by what one musician called "the bursting feeling of life in the city." But all of them felt alienated from the worlds in which they had been brought up, and each came to see jazz both as an outlet for emotions they otherwise could not express and as a symbol of personal defiance, what one of them would call "a collectively improvised nose-thumbing at all pillars of all communities, [a] syncopated Bronx cheer for the righteous squares everywhere."

Among the first were a handful of high school students who got together in the autumn of 1922 in a manicured West Side neighborhood called Austin and therefore became known to jazz history as the Austin High Gang — though none of them was actually ever graduated from that school. They included 15 year-old Jimmy McPartland, already a veteran street fighter from the roughest part of the Near West Side, who thought he might like to play cornet; his guitarist brother, Richard; a shy, bespectacled violin student named Frank Teschemacher, who would soon shift his allegiance to jazz clarinet; and Bud Freeman, another product of a tough part of town and already interested in the saxophone. They would soon be joined by Dave Tough, a reticent bookish would-be drummer from the prosperous suburb of Oak Park. All of them felt themselves to be outsiders; at 15, both Tough and Jimmy McPartland were already drinking hard.

Their journey into jazz had begun with white bands. "Every day after school," McPartland remembered, "we used to go to a little place called the Spoon and Straw. It was just an ice cream parlor. But they had a Victrola there, and we used to sit around listening to records. One day we put on some new records by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. Boy, when we heard that, I'll tell you, we were out of our minds. Everybody flipped. It was wonderful. We stayed there from about three in the afternoon until eight at night, just listening to those records ... and we decided we would get a band and try to play like these guys."

Just as Bix Beiderbecke had done a few years earlier, they doggedly learned their first tunes from records: "We'd have to tune our instruments up to the record machine to the pitch, and go ahead with a few notes. Then stop!" McPartland said. "A few more bars of the record, each guy would pick out his notes and boom! ... Each guy'd pick his notes, so we got the right harmonies and everything. We developed ourselves. Because you were allowed to copy anything from the record of the ensembles, but you had to play your own solo. Each guy had to play his own solo his own way, not the way the guy did on the record ... We just said, "That's not fair, you can't copy a guy's music."

They began hanging around the door of the Friar's Inn to hear their heroes in person, formed a group of their own called the Blue Friars in homage to them, and started getting pickup jobs around town. Then, after they played a fraternity party at the University of Chicago, on the South Side, a college student took them to hear Oliver and Armstrong at the Lincoln Gardens. "After that," Bud Freeman remembered, "we never went back to the New Orleans Rhythm Kings because when we heard ... King Oliver ... we knew that we were hearing the real thing for the first time ... We had to hear that music as one had to eat."

Audio Feature Milt Hinton, musician
Hear the quote below:
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)

It was unique experience in a primarily segregated world. As Chicago native and bassist, Milt Hinton, explained, "Well, the rule said that we could not play together, black and whites together but it had nothing to do with our respect for each other as musicians, individual musicians. So, after hours when the clubs were closed, the musicians black and white would get together, white musicians could come to the South Side and after hours when they got off from their jobs, they would come, and we would trade choruses ... because we found out the music is an auditory art, we didn't care what color you were or where, where you came from, it's how you sound."

The Music's Over

At 1:30 in the morning on February 7, 1928, federal agents swooped down on a dozen of Chicago's leading North Side nightspots, took the names of every one of the hundreds of startled patrons caught with liquor on their tables, and padlocked the doors. A brand-new "hip flask" law now held that even those who provided ice and ginger ale for patrons to mix with their own alcohol liable to prosecution. Vice raids, launched by William Dever, Big Bill Thompson's Republican successor as mayor, had already closed several black-and-tans on the South Side. "Chicago was once the hottest café town in the United States," Variety reported, "famous for sizzling music, torrid night life, a great little spot for the great little guys. But that's history now. Night by night it gets tougher for the cabarets."

It got tougher for Chicago musicians, too. Some 200 of them would lose their jobs by May. One hundred and fifty more were already out of work — or about to be — as popular enthusiasm for The Jazz Singer convinced theater owners to install equipment for talking pictures and dispense with the expensive orchestras that had accompanied the silents. Other musicians now felt themselves in actual physical danger. The music business in Chicago had often involved a certain amount of personal risk: a few years earlier, Bud Freeman had not been wholly reassured when the mobster who owned the club in which he was working took him aside and said, "Buddy, don't you ever worry about anybody in this here joint because nobody in this here joint will hurt you unless he gets paid for it." But now, as business slumped, Al Capone and his rivals began to war openly over the shrinking profits. Bombs gutted the Café de Paris and the Plantation Club, where Joe Oliver had been playing. An exodus of musicians began. Most headed for New York — Joe Oliver, Eddie Condon, Dave Tough, Gene Krupa, and Max Kaminsky among them. Eventually Louis Armstrong would head for the Big Apple, too.