20 THE JAZZ BABY
Ben Hecht called Chicago the Jazz Baby. F Scott Fitzgerald is credited with the term the jazz age. Hecht might have been drunk at the time or at least having fun. And so might have Fitzgerald. Jazz was supposed to have been the creation of musicians in New Orleans. The golden age of Chicago jazz is reckoned to have begun in 1918. Both myths need qualification. New Orleans deserves to be eminent in the history of jazz. The city produced more famous jazz musicians than anywhere else. But jazz was rooted in ragtime and blues and both those musical forms had already been established across the USA. The roots of jazz also went deep into the syncopated performances of the travelling vaudeville and minstrel shows of the late 19th Century. The new music of the 1920s, like rock and roll in the 1950s, bubbled up all around America. It helped the jazz myths that New Orleans had Louis Armstrong and others. And because Memphis had Elvis Presley and Sun records, the history of rock and roll was also told a certain way. Nor should the impact of mass migration from the south to the north that began in 1910 be ignored. Musicians followed jobs and moved to the north. Technology in agriculture removed agricultural jobs in the south but there was also a blight caused by the destructiveness of the boll weevil parasite. Memories persisted of the blight because the singer Brook Benton had a hit record in 1961 with ‘The Boll Weevil Song’, a record that was not especially sympathetic to the suffering farmer. Jazz flourished in the cities, like Chicago, that were open and less than serious about enforcing prohibition. Chicago attracted a disproportionate share of migrants because it had manufacturing, railroad and meatpacking industries.
Jazz music might have been entrenched in Chicago by 1918 but both jazz musicians and venues could be found in the city before then. Jelly Roll Morton appeared often at the Pekin Theatre-Cabaret between 1905 and 1915. Jelly Roll Morton is considered to be a pioneer of jazz piano. Kenneth Alsopp in The Bootleggers mentions The Original Creole Band being popular at the Big Grand Theatre and the North American Restaurant. The following year a New Orleans all-white ragtime band called Tom Brown and his Dusters played at the Lamb’s Cafe in the downtown Loop district. 1918 is probably quoted as the year jazz was born in Chicago because that year Joe King Oliver arrived from New Orleans. When Louis Armstrong followed Oliver to Chicago the importance of the windy city to jazz was confirmed. The section of State Street between 26th and 39th streets was packed with clubs and christened The Stroll. Walk along State Street today and there is little that remains of that musical history. Performances of jazz music were not restricted to the nightclubs and speakeasies. Jazz bands would perform in theatres and in variety shows that included acts by comics, dancers and acrobats. Jazz also produced pop hits like Sweet Georgia Brown and Bye Bye Blackbird.
Modern music fans have been groomed on the aggression and violence within rock and the machismo of Chicago electric blues. Spotify playlists are streamed on speakers that emphasise a heavy bass. Few today would describe early jazz as hot and vibrant as they did when the music first appeared. Many today will be puzzled as to how the music not only identified a decade as the jazz age but was also so important to the hedonistic hegemony that existed before the depression. Primitive recording techniques, though, mitigate the excitement for later listeners. And even in the 1920s the records would have been second best. Rather than through records made in unsophisticated studios, the 1920s phenomenon of jazz was spread in the nightclubs and by the live performances that could be heard on the radio. The Okeh record company produced the early jazz hits. The company subsequently recorded blues and soul music and is still in existence today although it is now owned by Sony Music. The Okeh label has returned to specialising in jazz. Early jazz was important because it had good time convictions and an energetic party and communal spirit. Such music complemented being drunk and, like the alcohol being simultaneously consumed, it helped couples to feel sexy. For others, including the musicians, the music inspired experimentation with cocaine and heroin.
The sets the jazz musicians played lasted from 9 pm to 5 am. They would have had breaks and some tunes would have been played more than once but the stamina required is impressive, especially as the audience expected the long improvised solos that were a feature of jazz. Al Capone would sometimes wander into the clubs and pay for the drinks of everyone. He gave tips to the band and waiters. These have been quoted as being worth $100 but jazz musician Marty Marsala remembered the tips as being no more than five or ten dollars. Whatever the rate, a price was paid for the largesse of Capone. The club entrance was closed immediately after Capone arrived, and the big man did like the musicians to forget the jazz and play some of his sentimental favourites. If generosity was a tradition amongst gangsters, the more truculent did like to flip cigarettes at the musicians. The nights that stayed in the memory of musicians were those when fights broke out between the gangsters or a mob high on something came in and attacked customers and waiters. Serious incidents were rare but there would have been plenty of nights when the musicians felt edgy. Perhaps the most famous gangster clash occurred in Cleveland. Two rival gangs threw bottles, cutlery and fists at each other. Members of the jazz band the Wolverines lived to tell the tale but they were obliged to play China Boy for an hour. Occasionally a wild man would use an instrument in the band for shooting practice. The double bass was a popular target for pistol practice. Rather than provoke more incidents the jazz bands would carry on playing and perhaps pray. Bix Beiderbecke was not honoured for his pragmatism and he would confront audience members that behaved badly. Beiderbecke somehow survived the incidents. The gangsters owned the clubs, and it was their money that paid the wages of the musicians. The gangsters expected loyalty. Louis Armstrong changed managers and was threatened with gang violence. He had two bodyguards that were present when he played and when he attempted to relax.
Anyone that tries to define early Chicago jazz is taking a risk but, according to the supposed experts, the music was played at a faster tempo in Chicago, retained the Dixieland style of New Orleans and had longer solos. The saxophone often replaced the trombone and this innovation is what, for many, made early jazz exciting, gave the new music its heat. Supposedly the bass and guitar were heavy in early Chicago jazz but, compared to the impact of those instruments in the Chicago blues of the 1950s, the impact of string instruments on early jazz is not obvious. The cornet is not an instrument one would associate with gutsy passion but heard live when played behind a microphone the instrument has resonance, especially when the lips of Armstrong and Beiderbecke were involved. Like horn sections on early rock and roll records, the banjo players in early jazz followed restrained and simple formats. More important than anything in the eminence of Chicago in jazz music was the presence of famous musicians like Armstrong, King Oliver, Earl Hines, Bix Beiderbecke, Kid Ory and Johnny Dodds. Guest musicians also appeared from other cities. The popularity of jazz produced the inevitable taste makers. Chicago jazz was criticised by some for having European influences and not having the authenticity of the jazz played in St Louis. Listen, though, to the Louis Armstrong version of Stardust and it is clear that the additional elements enriched rather than reduced his music.
Jazz influenced dance and fashion, all of which was condemned by the conservative and puritanical. Chicago had what were called black and tan nightclubs where whites and African Americans mixed. In the majority of the clubs the racial divisions were observed but in the Sunset Cafe, Plantation Cafe and Dreamland whites and African Americans mixed and might have even established interracial friendships. Tales of what happened in the clubs can be prone to exaggeration but supposedly some couples would fornicate while standing and listening to the music. Well, as my mother used to say, there is always one, or, in this case, two. Some of the cubs had drag nights for gays and lesbians. Many of the popular jazz tunes celebrated the nightclubs where the music could be heard, Friars Point Shuffle, Chicago Stomp Down, 29th and Dearborn, Wabash Blues, Sunset Cafe Stomp, 35th and Clumnet, Chicago High Life and so on. The Friars Inn mentioned on record was a basement cafe and the musicians in its band The New Orleans Rhythm Kings were white. The end of prohibition was a factor in the decline in popularity of jazz. Times became harder, there was less money to spend and anxiety encouraged puritanism. But, as with 1950s rockabilly and rhythm and blues, the corporations made territorial claims and found more commercial alternatives like Al Jolson, George Gershwin and Paul Whitman who was as much an entrepreneur as he was a band leader. Jazz was sweetened and assimilated into pop music and Hollywood soundtracks. The high living produced casualties. Bix Beiderbecke is the famous example. The cornet player died at 28 years of age. He was a victim of his own demons, bootleg gin and alcoholism.
Howard Jackson has had thirteen books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Long After This is now available here.