By: Jen Rossi
Many people argue that the beginning of Big-Time jazz in Chicago started in 1922 when the popular trumpeter Louis Armstrong moved from New Orleans bringing with him the new sound we now all know. Of course not everyone knows that as well as Armstrong another forty or so well known jazzmen also moved to Chicago during the 1920’s from New Orleans, making Chicago, for some time, the new city of the jazz era.
The music of these jazzmen and bands became different from the more "traditional jazz", or "Dixieland jazz" of New Orleans as they developed new techniques, rhythms and forms from the jazz they already played. Soloists began to come into their own and many a band had a number or two featuring all the instruments separately performing their own solo within the same piece of music.
Music that was either was written down or remembered as a ‘number’ now included improvisation from the musicians as well (rather like the original jazz of early 20th Century New Orleans), and this musicianship and expertise thrilled the audiences.
Naturally, in the course of jazz history Chicago received its own reputation during the years of ‘Prohibition’. The anti-alcohol laws were flouted and the ‘speakeasy’ became the place to go. Where there was a ‘speakeasy’ often there was a jazz band playing there. Police corruption and gang ‘protection’ helped many of these thrive and perhaps gave jazz a somewhat sleazy name in the States during this era, whilst at the same time popularising it as something a bit risqué.
However all these events only served to improve the music as the music spoke easily to all as well and this helped to diversify the audience. Whites and blacks could sit down together in Chicago and the Northern States which they were often unable to do in the Southern ones where a policy of apartheid was still far from unusual.
The gradual move north at the beginning of the century of many black families due to the ancient prejudices of the south ensured that there was an appreciative audience in the more northern cities, particularly Chicago. The jazz history timeline moved northwards from New Orleans, as did the developments in the music itself. It became a form of free speech for black and white people alike, although it must be admitted that there were still, at this time, many less whites able to play this type of music as competently as black musicians, and many people thought of it as "black music".
This rapidly changed, particularly in Chicago, as many white musicians wanted not only to enjoy but also to cash in on this popular music medium. Sheet music was available in the days when many people had a piano at home and other instruments were learned as a matter of course in the more ‘middle-class’ families, and indeed on the streets.
The music of Chicago has lasted the test of time and has gone on to be innovative to this day. Whilst it could be argued that the centre of jazz moved to New York, as did many bands and musicians from both New Orleans and Chicago, these innovative centres continued in their own right as places of excellence. As transport between the two was comparatively easy both in the 1920’s and subsequently, the players from New York drew on their Chicago musical compatriots and vice-versa to give mutual inspiration. Bands based on one would often tour the other and indeed the cities in between, bringing jazz in its new style to people all over the country.
The same spirit of the age also travelled abroad from Chicago to Europe, particularly in the new medium of the recording. The world was now hearing what was played in Chicago and tried to copy it.
This early era of innovation in jazz music can very easily call Chicago its original home. From there it blossomed and continues to do so today, both worldwide and in its "home" city.