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Chicago Jazz Archive | Chicago, Jazz, and the Great Migration

Research Resources on Chicago, Jazz, and the Great Migration


Some histories of jazz still cling to the romantic notion 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, 200 miles east of where riverboats docked on the river. Part of a mass movement of African Americans from South to North -- what came to be called "The Great Migration" -- jazz musicians came north for the same reasons that other people did : failing crops and discrimination in the South; WWI demand for workers in Chicago factory jobs, paying decent money; and ads in the Chicago Defender holding out the hope of a better life up North.

Between about 1916 and the end of the 1920's, at least 75,000 Southern immigrants arrived on the South Side of Chicago -- including musicians. The newcomers immediately 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." It was the prospect of work in a community that could afford to pay to have a good time that drew musicians to Chicago, where they assembled in an unprecedented critical mass of jazz talent.

Chicago boasted major musical talent and famous venues well before Storyville closed; sheet music featuring the Pekin Theater at 2700 South State dates from 1904. According to the Chicago Defender, Vendome Orchestra leader Erskine Tate played his first violin recital in Chicago in 1910; Wilbur Sweatman was in Chicago playing clarinet in 1906; and Jelly Roll Morton led the band at the Richelieu starting in 1914 and also appeared at the DeLuxe and Elite #2 Cafes during 1914-15. Various New Orleans musicians had already been north before 1917; Tom Brown's band in 1915 is widely regarded as the first band to come north.

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, Alvadere, 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 20's. [Introduction © 2003, Chicago Jazz Archive]

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Musicians who came to Chicago during the Migration:

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