Jazz Capitals

Thanks to the innovation of New Orleans jazz pioneers and the Great Migration, the music seemingly burst onto the national stage in the 1920s. It soon became a cultural force to be reckoned with. Consequently, in 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald famously dubbed the decade the “Jazz Age.” As Louis Armstrong put it, “The men I knew as a boy started it all. Whatever it’s good for, and however long it will live, swing music was born in my country; it seeded there in New Orleans and grew there, and there it got so hot it had to burst out and it did, and spread to the world.”

Jazz did not explode out of the ether in the 1920s. In fact, the music developed over the course of several decades beginning in the late 19th century in New Orleans. Wherever migrants travelled in the first decades of the 20th century, they brought this new music with them. By the 1920s, there were emerging black neighborhoods in both the North and the South that were sites of New Negro activism and cultural production, the most famous of which were Harlem and Chicago’s South Side community, nicknamed “The Stroll.” As historian Davarian Baldwin notes, “Chicago’s Stroll was not a unique phenomenon but part of a larger circuit of city strips, strolls, and jukes that included Storyville in New Orleans, Decatur Street in Atlanta, and Beale Street in Memphis.” A number of these communities boasted vibrant music scenes and served as de facto jazz capitals.

New Orleans’s Back O’ Town & Storyville

Tom Anderson's Basin Street

Beginning in the 1870s scores of African American former slaves began flocking to New Orleans in search of greater economic and social mobility. These migrants brought with them the African American musical traditions of spirituals, work songs, the rudimentary elements of the blues, and what was known as “ragging the tune” (essentially a form of embellishing and taking musical liberties with traditional Euro-American song structures) that formed the basis of ragtime. Stella Oliver, the wife of the famed bandleader Joe Oliver, remembered her late husband incorporating elements of the songs sung by railroad workers and dockworkers and blending it with religious hymns into his jazz repertoire. New Orleans also had a long-standing tradition of brass marching bands that performed regularly on the streets and in civic spaces like local parks, and groups like the Tuxedo Brass Band, the Onward Brass Band, and the Excelsior Brass Band used to mix syncopated rhythms and improvisation (both essential elements of jazz) into their street performances.

By 1900, all of these divergent elements created a musical gumbo that retained their distinct flavors while melding into a new music that became New Orleans jazz. Ironically, though, the term “jazz” was not widely used by New Orleans musicians until the mid-1910s at the earliest. Crescent City musicians more often than not referred to their style of music as “ragtime” or “hot music,” and the word “jazz” did not appear in print until 1913 in a San Francisco newspaper. The origins of the word are unclear, but one explanation holds that it derives from the French verb “jaser” which roughly translates “to chatter or have an animated conversation among diverse people.” Sidney Bechet, the famed Creole clarinetist, offered a different explanation: “There’s two kinds of music. There’s classic and there’s ragtime. When I tell you ragtime, you can feel it, there’s a spirit right in the word…. But Jazz— Jazz could mean any damn’ thing: high times, screwing, ballroom. It used to be spelled Jass, which was screwing. But when you say ragtime, you’re saying the music.”

In 1897, the City Council of New Orleans enacted an ordinance that legalized prostitution within the confines of a regulated red-light district not far from the black uptown ghetto. Named after New Orleans City Councilman Sidney Story, who proposed the measure, the district offered some employment opportunities to aspiring musicians. Historians and musicologists often overstate the significance of Storyville to the development of jazz, however. African Americans and Creole musicians did find limited employment in Storyville, but no more than a few dozen musicians at any one time made a living in the district. At roughly the same time, an all black red-light district developed in the uptown African American ghetto known as Back ‘O Town where musicians also found limited employment. Early New Orleans jazz found audiences in city streets, public parks, and clubs in Storyville and Back O’ Town, but it also could be heard in smaller working class venues called “honky tonks,” on the riverboats, at resort spots along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain (places like Bucktown, the West End, Spanish Fort, Milneburg), in many of the city’s dance halls, and at semi-public social gatherings like fish fries and lawn parties. The more lucrative jobs were playing for white audiences in dancehalls, on riverboats, and at resorts like Spanish Fort or Milneburg. In black working class venues, the audience often “passed the hat” and musicians split the tips between the members of the band. At other venues, like Pete Lala’s on the corner of Iberville and Marais Streets in Storyville, the owner paid band members a nightly wage of a dollar and a half.

With clubs like Mahogany Hall, Tom Anderson’s Annex, and Pete Lala’s Café, Basin Street was the center of New Orleans jazz in the evenings. In 1926, Spencer Williams penned a song about the famous jazz promenade. In 1928, another New Orleans native, Louis Armstrong recorded the first widely popular version of the tune. A sampling of the lyrics reveal what the avenue meant to jazz musicians:

Old friends will meet us,

Where all people like to meet

Heaven on earth, they call it Basin Street.

With the array of opportunities for musicians to find venues to hone their craft, the unique environs of the city of New Orleans lent an urban and modern character to the emerging genre.

Memphis’s Beale Street

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The crossroads city of Memphis has long enjoyed its reputation as the “Home of the Blues.” The musical traditions of Beale Street (the city’s African American cultural and economic center) influenced the sound of Memphis jazz from its earliest days. Given the Bluff City’s location along the Mississippi River and with its close proximity to rail lines, Memphis emerged as a critical commercial center in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. African American roustabouts who toiled in the city’s shipping industries imparted the influence of the blues in Memphis culture. This meant that Bluff City jazz retained a blues inflected quality in the music. In this period, jazz and the blues were closely related. The twelve bar [AAB] song structure, so prevalent in the blues, worked its way into jazz forms, and by the 1920s it was a staple for jazz composers. The call and response AAB format allowed musicians to improvise freely within the space of the song by offering a simple and adaptable harmonic progression. It wasn’t until the emergence of the big band that the two music forms found entirely different musical paths. The relative similarities between blues and jazz in the 1920s allowed female vocalists like Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, the leading black singers of the day, to cross back and forth between the two genres with ease.

Memphis musicians, well acquainted with the blues structure, used it readily in jazz compositions. “Memphis Blues” composed in 1909 by W.C. Handy was originally entitled “Mr. Crump.” Handy wrote the tune as a campaign song for the mayoral election of Edward Hull Crump. Handy, a transplant from Alabama who was a classically trained musician, was heavily influenced by the music of the city’s roustabouts who worked on the banks of the Mississippi. Handy recalled that, “The melody of ‘Mister Crump’ was mine throughout. On the other hand, the twelve-bar, three-line form of the first and last strains, with its three-chord basic harmonic structure (tonic, sub-dominant, dominant seventh) was that already used by Negro roustabouts, honky-tonk piano players, wanderers and others of their underprivileged but undaunted class from Missouri to the Gulf….” Handy later enjoyed the moniker “The Father of the Blues” after penning several famous songs, including “Memphis Blues,” based on the music forms he discovered in Memphis.

St. Louis’s Levee District


By 1920, St. Louis was one of the main stops for the riverboat excursions of the Streckfus Line. Bands like the ones fronted by Fate Marable, Louis Armstrong, and Baby Dodds played in “The Gateway to the West” in the first decades of the twentieth century. The Streckfus Steamers spent the winter months in New Orleans before heading north in the spring each year. The drummer Zutty Singleton remembered that, “There was a saying in New Orleans. When some musician would get a job on the riverboats with Fate Marable, they’d say, ‘Well you’re going to the conservatory.’ That’s because Fate was such a fine musician and the men who worked with him had to be really good.” Singleton played on the steamer the Capitol with Marable and Armstrong. “The boats would spend the winter in New Orleans and then, around April, go up to St. Louis, stopping at Natchez and other places for a night or two,” recalled Singleton. “The way it worked on the boats was Monday night the dances were for colored. Every night the boats would travel up and down the river for a while and then come back.” Because of the influence of riverboat musicians, St. Louis boasted a vibrant jazz scene that catered to dance enthusiasts like those that travelled on the Streckfus Line.

Kansas City’s 18th & Vine Neighborhood

KC 18th & Vine

Kansas City was an influential center for black musical development dating to the height of ragtime’s popularity in the late nineteenth century. The 18th and Vine neighborhood was home to the city’s African American flourishing cultural and economic institutions. Traveling blues and ragtime musicians often made their way through Kansas City, and by the 1920s, the city boasted a number of promising bands that turned the city into a destination for aspiring musicians in the years to come. The gifted vocalist Mary Lou Williams remembered, “In those years around 1930, Kaycee was really jumping- so many great bands having sprung up there or moved in from over the river. I should explain that Kansas City, Missouri wasn’t too prejudiced for a midwestern town. It was a ballin’ town, and it attracted musicians from all over the South and Southwest, and especially from Kansas.” The vibrant neighborhood of 18th and Vine attracted black business leaders and black artists. This dynamic made the community a hotbed of black culture. “So I found Kansas City to be a heavenly city- music everywhere in the Negro section of town, and fifty or more cabarets rocking on Twelfth and Eighteenth Streets,” recalled Williams. “Yes, Kaycee was a place to be enjoyed, even if you were without funds. People would make you a loan without you asking for it, would look at you and tell if you were hungry and put things right. There was the best food to be had- the finest barbecue, crawdads, and other seafood.” Dozens of noted jazz musicians, like Mary Lou Williams, got their start in Kansas City in the 18th and Vine neighborhood.

Chicago’s South Side

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South Side Chicago presented unique avenues for jazz musicians to openly ply their trade, advance careers, organize collectively, and achieve a social standing and a kind of respectability unattainable in the South. The cabarets and theaters of Chicago’s black entertainment district, known as “The Stroll,” acted as incubators that nurtured jazz from its infancy to adolescence. Here, the music matured into a distinct Chicago style that blended southern and northern influences, cultures, and personalities to create a national, and uniquely American, musical art form.

The net effect of this Great Migration resulted in an explosion of African American culture and entrepreneurship concentrated in Chicago’s South Side. Jazz stood at the vanguard of this cultural explosion, and Chicago was the place to be for musicians from 1915 to 1930. Once the musicians arrived on the South Side scene, just like their counterparts in the migrant community at large, they engaged in a number of activities designed to improve the standard of living in their new home. Musicians were not only representative of the migrants; they also served as civic promoters of the benefits of Chicago living. As Dave Peyton, the Chicago Defender music columnist and ardent supporter of the local black musicians’ union, explained in 1926, “The Chicago musicians are away ahead of musicians of our group in other cities of the country. Their achievements have been wonderful.” Peyton not only extolled the accomplishments of individual Chicago musicians, but also the African American union Local 208 of the American Federation of Musicians: “They own their own building… for the organization that is officered entirely by members of the Race. Musicians in other places should follow the Chicago gang. Wake up and do something. Let us make the world respect us. Ours is an art. Organize yourselves…. Work together, acquire real estate and then you will be independent.”

New York City’s Harlem


The pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith described the piano-infused, ragtime-influenced jazz of New York City by declaring, “A good pianist had to be able to play with both hands, performing in perfect unison. It was like learning to walk correctly… a good walker goes forth with balance and dignity.” The New York style practiced by Smith, Fats Waller, and James P. Johnson, known as “stride piano,” heavily influenced piano players of the Swing Era like Duke Ellington. In that respect it laid the foundation for Harlem as a hub of jazz innovation in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The stride style emerged out of the rent parties of Harlem where piano players engaged in nightly cutting contests. Barney Bigard remembered, “So in those days they used to call them cutting contests…. And this night was piano night. James P. Johnson, Willie the Lion. They had Duke in there and Fats Waller. All the biggies, you know. And Mexico had his little bar, and on back of the bar was all the hammers to hit the strings, you know, in the piano, because when the Lion would get up there, he’d- the Lion’s going to roar and he’d bang the piano and all these hammers would fly out there and they’d pick them up and start putting them back in there.” Ethel Waters learned “a lot in Harlem about music and the men up there who played it best. All the licks you hear, now as then, originated with musicians like James P. Johnson…. Men like him, Willie ‘The Lion’ Smith, and Charlie Johnson could make you sing until your tonsils fell out. Because you wanted to sing…. And you’d do anything and work until you dropped for such musicians.” The cutting contests and rent parties of Harlem were legendary in the community, and the pianists involved inspired a generation of Harlem musicians.