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Ch. 06: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz


While Louis Armstrong and King Oliver were blowing on the south side of Chicago, a slightly smaller storm was being created on the north side of Chicago by a white trumpet player by the name of Bix Beiderbecke. Although the Original Dixieland Jazz Band also had white musicians, few in the authentic jazz community regarded their efforts as true jazz.

Bix Beiderbecke (5th from left) and The Wolverine Orchestra, Chicago, 1924

Beiderbecke, on the other hand, was the first white jazz instrumentalist to play in the authentic jazz style. Born and raised in Davenport, Iowa by upper middle-class parents with some musical training, Beiderbecke was more drawn to the new sounds he heard from the river boats traveling up the Mississippi river. Of particular interest was a young cornet player just three years older than himself, young Louis Armstrong.

When problems in school and at home forced his parents to send him to a military school in Chicago, he found the two great loves of his life: jazz and alcohol. By 1922, the year Armstrong arrived in Chicago, Beiderbecke had succeeded in getting expelled from school and began to pursue his two mistresses full-time. Within a year he had formed a jazz band on the north side of Chicago and began to develop his own style of playing.

On Wednesday nights, King Oliver and his young protégé, Louis Armstrong, would hold “midnight rambles”–concerts designed specifically for the white kids who weren’t comfortable joining the mostly black audiences on the weekends. There, on Wednesday evenings, fans like Bix Beiderbecke, future swing clarinetist Benny Goodman, and drummer Gene Krupa heard the new swinging sound of Chicago jazz.

Borrowing ideas from Armstrong, Beiderbecke began to swing his rhythms and to craft phrases of contrasting lengths with beats on varied accents. But instead of Armstrong’s powerful, pyrotechnic displays of playing, Bix tended towards a softer, more lyrical line of music. His solos tended to create more intimate, almost introspective atmospheres. In this sense, his music wasn’t so much an anticipation of the swing era, as Armstrong’s was, but of the cool era of jazz, when more thoughtful, extended lines were the standard.

By the end of the 1920s, jazz was rapidly migrating out of Chicago and musicians were finding new opportunities to play elsewhere. Armstrong, Hines and others, including Bix moved to the bigger stage of New York City. Bix was hired by Paul Whiteman to play in his popular, if highly structured, orchestra. Whiteman’s arrangements were semi-classical in nature, emphasizing the dance element of jazz, but even in this generally non-improvising ensemble, Bix Beiderbecke shone as an improvising wonder.

Bix Beiderbecke, 1923

By 1931 alcoholism was taking a heavy toll on Bix’s life. When he contracted pneumonia, he decided to go home to Iowa to recuperate. Upon arriving there, he found all of the solo records he had sent home to parents neatly stacked in a cupboard – unopened. His parents never accepted his choice of life; they refused to listen his records. He returned to New York heartbroken and died of complications of his respiratory illness and alcoholism in a boarding house.  He was 28.

The jazz sound which matured in Chicago had shed the oom-pah, oom-pah rhythmic shackles of ragtime. It was cool; it was hip; it was swinging; it was ready for New York. Just as the closing of Storyville had forced jazz musicians north to Chicago, Memphis, St. Louis, and Kansas City; the new, less tolerant city council of Chicago cracked down on the gangsters, driving them out of town, and shutting down dozens of clubs and dives. Once again, jazz packed up and moved – this time, east.

The 1920s, an age of affluence and alcohol, were described by the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald as the “Jazz Era.” If the music didn’t permeate the culture of the upper crust society youth, it certainly was its soundtrack for late night activities.

Even so, the economic crash at the end of the decade was a definite jolt to the nation and to the entertainment industry as well. The carefree party atmosphere of 1928 was gone by 1930 and by 1931 the recording industry, an important part of the jazz musician’s income base, was reeling. Why should people spend money on records when they could hear the same music for free on the radio? Record sales plummeted from over 100 million units a year to 4 million units per year; sales of record players went from over a million per year to less than 40,000 per year. The recording industry all but capsized, sending many independent companies, including most jazz labels, into bankruptcy. Others, like Okeh records, were swallowed up by larger labels like Columbia and RCA. It wasn’t until the invention of the juke-box in the late 30s that the recording industry began to recover.

The economic jolt and the renewed moral crusade which shut down many of the clubs and dance halls in the country at first didn’t seem to affect the musical nightlife of New York City. There, people still gathered to hear jazz and see performers like Armstrong, Earl Hines, and new players like Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. In nightclubs like the famous Cotton Club, and dance halls like the Savoy, the swing style introduced by Armstrong and others in Chicago was given a larger voice, more complex harmonies, and highly crafted charts. The sounds of Armstrong were artistically orchestrated into the sound known as “swing jazz.” The “Big Band” era of American jazz was born.

Bix Beiderbecke (far right) and The Wolverine Orchestra, 1924, “Big Boy”

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Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

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