In the 1920s, jazz spread rapidly all across America. The rise of jazz was part of a new, post–World War I optimism, a prevailing sense that something new was happening, that America was finally breaking from European culture and coming into its own. Novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald called the new era the Jazz Age.
Chicago World’s Fair, c. 1893.
Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.
Small bands of jazz musicians could be found virtually everywhere, but it was in Chicago that jazz developed most intensely in the third decade of the 20th century. The city already had a strong musical pedigree—the World’s Fair of 1893 had drawn musicians from across the country—and Chicago’s stockyards, stores, and factories, as well as its reputation as a rail and shipping hub, made the city a magnet for people seeking a new start. The Chicago Defender, the city’s African-American newspaper, regularly advised Southern blacks that there was a job for everyone in this city, which, the paper stressed, was free of the extremes of prejudice common in the South. If Chicago was not exactly the promised land, moving there was still widely considered a big step toward economic and personal freedom.
Among the thousands who answered the call and joined the Great Migration north was a young trumpeter named Louis Armstrong, who followed his mentor, King Oliver, and his Creole Jazz Band to Chicago in 1922. Two years later, Armstrong went on to New York City to work with Fletcher Henderson’s big dance band, a sophisticated, well-trained group that played a style of music later to be dubbed swing. Armstrong’s reputation quickly spread among musicians, and he began appearing on numerous recordings, most famously as the leader of the Hot Five and the Hot Seven, his immensely influential small groups. The records he made with those bands between 1925 and 1928 retained the instrumentation and some of the characteristics of pure New Orleans jazz, but in fact Armstrong’s music was more meticulously arranged than most of what was heard in the Crescent City, and it displayed a much higher level of musicianship. Each recording seemed to introduce something new: “West End Blues,” from 1928, opened with an unaccompanied trumpet passage that dazzled musicians with its daring changes of tempo and brilliant flourishes of melody. In “Weather Bird,” from the same year, Armstrong and pianist Earl Hines dueled with each other in a spontaneous duet full of rhythmic and melodic innovations so advanced that other musicians would continue to borrow them for the next 20 years.
Armstrong’s virtuosity on the trumpet was unparalleled. He was stronger, had a wider range, and was more articulate on his instrument than anyone else. His tone was brilliant, and the melodies he created were graceful, intense, and full of passion. The driving pulse of his songs made the oompah feel of two-beat jazz seem instantly out of date; his music demanded a newer, more flexible rhythm. After Armstrong, the instrumental solo became the centerpiece of jazz, and his singing—his cheerful rasp and his relaxed use of language—pointed the way toward a new, distinctly American vocal tradition.
Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, Chicago, c. late 1920s.
Courtesy of the Duncan P. Schiedt Collection.
Armstrong immediately lent his influence to a host of local Chicago musicians—many of them children of immigrants from Russia, Poland, Ireland, and Italy—who crossed racial boundaries by playing side by side with black musicians. Among these Chicagoans were clarinetist Benny Goodman and drummer Gene Krupa, who played a uniquely Midwestern version of jazz, often called Chicago-style. Like Louis Armstrong’s, theirs was a soloist’s music, showcasing the virtuosity of a single improvising artist instead of the collective improvisation common to New Orleans jazz.
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