From Riots to Renaissance: Jazz and Blues Music

Erskine Tate's Vendome Orchestra

Erskine Tate's Vendome Orchestra (Source: Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature)

In the 1920s, the clubs, lounges, and theaters that lined State Street on Chicago's South Side jumped with the uptempo sound of jazz music. This fusion of African and European musical traditions started in the Southern United States, but it flourished in Chicago and turned the Windy City into the jazz capital of the world.

It's believed that early jazz first made its way north to Chicago from New Orleans in 1915. The sound followed Southern migrants who were attracted to the city by jobs in the steel mills, factories, and stockyards. Though not an immediate hit, jazz caught on as the solo performance took the lead and the collective playing of bands became more complex.

As more musicians came to the Windy City, they found themselves influenced by urban sights, sounds, and rhythms. The music evolved and grew, and with the help of Chicago's recording industry, the sound of popular bands spread to every corner of America.

Louis Armstrong, one of the greatest jazz players of all time, left his home in New Orleans in 1922 to follow his mentor, band leader Joe "King" Oliver, to Chicago. He came playing the cornet and left blowing the trumpet, but not before delighting audiences with his fine musicianship and innovative style. Music lovers also listened and danced to the jazz greats who played in Chicago such as Earl "Fatha" Hines, Jelly Roll Morton, Erskine Tate, Fats Waller, and Cab Calloway.

Like the jazz music that migrated to Chicago, so, too, did the blues in the 1920s. But this music was different. It didn't jump or swing and it wasn't sophisticated. It came from the farmlands of the Mississippi Delta and told the story of everyday life: some of the ups and lots of the downs. Sadness and misery wailed through the blues, but the music could also burn with passion and entertain with humor.

Chicago first embraced blues music, and then changed it. In the 1950s, bands switched the lead acoustic guitar for an electric one and then amplified the sound. Harmonica, drums, piano, and bass rounded out this new sound that was called Chicago Blues.

Great Chicago blues players include Chester Burnett, aka "Howlin' Wolf," Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and Koko Taylor.  Their influence on mainstream American popular music can still be heard today.