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Culture Clubs: A History of the U.S. Jazz Clubs, Part I: New Orleans and Chicago

Culture Clubs: A History of the U.S. Jazz Clubs, Part I: New Orleans and Chicago
Karl Ackermann By

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Marching bands, ragtime music, and the blues, were all well-entrenched and spreading up the Mississippi River Valley from New Orleans at the beginning of the twentieth century. Dixieland was the popular music staple and with the all-white Original Dixieland Jass Band recording the first jazz side, "Livery Stable Blues," in 1917, an original musical language was validated. By the early 1920s, that group was moving away from the early form of jazz, settling into contented and bland dance music. But the etymology of jazz was progressing quickly among others musicians in the city. Caribbean rhythms, Creole influences, the call and response of hymns, and the music of freed slaves were coming together to push the expansion of jazz beyond the frivolous and shallow Dixieland style. The contribution of the African slaves was the single most critical element to the development of modern jazz; they had taught themselves to improvise as a means of holding on to the last vestiges of their culture, and in the process, provided the most influential component of modern jazz.

Early New Orleans Venues

Two blocks west of the French Quarter and adjacent to Congo Square, sits Basin Street. The location of low-income housing projects since the 1940s, the famous thoroughfare was the gateway to Storyville, a neighborhood that encompassed approximately five square city blocks. From 1897 to 1917, Storyville was the city's red-light district, designated as such by city officials in order to concentrate (and essentially ignore) almost every conceivable criminal activity in the city's statutes. Many local jazz musicians found their first venues in Storyville's saloons, bordellos, dance halls, hotels and restaurants, among them, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Bix Beiderbecke, Buddy Bolden and many other names now lost to history. But Storyville and jazz, for all the urban mythology, was a short-lived marriage; with the start of World War I, segregated red-light districts were deemed as health hazards in areas where military bases were nearby. Storyville, to an increasingly diminished extent, continued to function into the 1930s at which time it was almost completely demolished to make room for public housing.

If the establishments of Storyville were the de facto jazz clubs of the era, the Mississippi and Ohio Riverboats were their evolutionary successors. King Oliver left New Orleans in 1918, largely due to the closing down of Storyville, but the move was likely exacerbated by a dance hall fight that led to his arrest. Oliver headed to north to Chicago where a number of New Orleans' popular players had gone before him. One of them, clarinetist and bandleader Lawrence Duhé, had come up through the ranks with Kid Ory and his musical timeline included a performance at the 1919 Chicago World Series—the infamous Black Sox Scandal. Duhé offered Oliver a spot in his Chicago group. By 1922, Oliver was leading his own his own band and had sent for his protégé—Armstrong—to join his Creole Jazz Band. In Jazz on the River (University of Chicago Press, 2005), William Howland Kenney documents his study of the riverboat's place in the geographic migration of jazz. One such riverboat, The Sidney, debuted in 1911 and was the first to feature a New Orleans band. Others, such as The Capitol and The Queen followed suit in making music, and dancing, a marketing incentive for cruises. For the black musicians, the cruises offered much more than their typical venues; extended engagements, relatively decent pay, and lodging—an evasive amenity in the South for black musicians.

While the relatively small footprint of the riverboat kept black musicians and white patrons in closer proximity, it was only in passing. The less than collegial confines of the boat played out as a microcosm of the Jim Crow South. A mutual sense of unease made for wild speculation; one patron interpreting Armstrong's scat singing as a threatening voodoo chant. Still, Armstrong and musicians such as Baby Dodds, Johnny Dodds, Red Allen, Lil Hardin Armstrong, Fate Marable and John St. Cyr played the boats cruising as far north as St. Louis or Saint Paul, Minnesota. Frequently, musicians would disembark and play for a night or two in one of those cities then ride the Illinois Central train to Chicago.



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