Chicago Jazz Music

Though jazz music originated in New Orleans, much of its history traces back to Chicago. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Chicago’s fast-growing manufacturing, railroad, meatpacking, and other industries brought the city a great deal of wealth, along with an exuberant culture for which jazz became the soundtrack.

Promoters from South Side clubs had the money to attract the best jazz musicians from the South. Among them were members of the band that became the Original Dixieland Jass Band. During their Chicago stay, the band gained a follower in Bix Beiderbecke, an Iowa-born cornetist attending a boarding school just north of Chicago in Lake Forest. Sneaking out of the dorms to play in jazz clubs, Beiderbecke soon became a legend. He was admired by another horn player, Louis Armstrong, who arrived in Chicago from New Orleans in 1922. Armstrong was recruited by King Oliver, the leader of the Creole Jazz Band, one of Chicago’s hottest ensembles in the 1920s.

Chicago’s jazz recording industry sprang up rapidly in the early 1920s. The Okeh label, which issued early Louis Armstrong sides, had a studio on Chicago’s South Side. In 1926 the Victor label recorded the Ben Pollack Orchestra, notable for the first recordings of their young clarinet player, Benny Goodman, the future King of Swing. He was already affiliated with a group of West Side musicians known as the Austin High Gang, white kids in Chicago emulating their heroes from New Orleans. During the 1930s and ’40s, Chicago’s role as capital of jazz music was challenged by New York, but thanks to the high-end Regal Theater and musician-focused clubs like the Palm Tavern, Chicago remained a key destination.

The 1950s brought a renaissance, as innovators like Ahmad Jamal, Herbie Hancock, and Sun Ra emerged. The Pittsburgh-born pianist Jamal arrived in 1951 and steadily built a fan base with his post-bop style. Some of Jamal’s most famous recordings, including the hit "Poinciana," were made during a long engagement at the Pershing Hotel, the South Side lounge that also hosted jazz greats Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sun Ra. Herbie Hancock, a classically trained prodigy who played piano with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age eleven, attended Hyde Park High School and studied briefly at Roosevelt University before leaving Chicago for New York. He later developed into a Grammy Award-winning, world-renowned jazz artist. Sun Ra was also gaining attention in the early 1950s, associating himself as much with the burgeoning afrocentric political movement on the city’s South Side as with the traditional jazz scene. He formed his own record label, El Saturn, which allowed him complete freedom in recording and releasing music. His early releases included unusual takes on all forms of jazz, as well as blues and doo-wop. His most enduring act, however, was the Arkestra (a re-spelling of orchestra), a large ensemble that experimented with a wide range of African and diasporic musical styles. He eventually relocated to New York in the early 1960s but his label remained in Chicago. The avant-garde movement was in full steam in Manhattan, and within a few years Chicago would be right behind it.

Chicago’s afrocentric culture was fertile for a jazz revolution. DuSable High’s Muhal Richard Abrams contributed to this as early as 1961 with his Experimental Band. By 1965, he’d founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians to organize players interested in "freeing" jazz. Included were Kelan Philip Cohran, who later led the Artistic Heritage Ensemble; Roscoe Mitchell, a founder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago; and Anthony Braxton. The goal of educating youth and bringing ancient African culture into the future set the AACM apart from the fiercely artistic New York scene, though there was frequent intermingling of players and ideas between the two. Another important innovator, though of a much different breed, also appeared during this time. Ramsey Lewis, a Chicago native and Chicago Public Schools alumnus, is best known for merging pop, soul, and jazz into a seamless, million-selling, Grammy Award-winning sound. His records for Chess helped influence fusion, jazz-funk, and eventually smooth jazz. An international celebrity and a local legend, Lewis still makes his home in Chicago, and is Artistic Director of Jazz at Ravinia.

Many see jazz as America’s classical music, and much current activity takes place in the realm of education. Columbia College’s Chicago Jazz Ensemble and the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic provide established platforms for young musicians. The Jazz Institute of Chicago promotes jazz education and performance and manages the Chicago Jazz Fest, one of the best-attended festivals in the world. From underground movement to establishment, Chicago is still a capital of jazz music after nearly one hundred years.