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Philadelphia Jazz: A Brief History

Jack McCarthy By

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This article was first published at the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia website.

Jazz began to emerge as a distinct musical style around the turn of the twentieth century, a merging of two vernacular African American musical styles—ragtime and blues—with elements of popular music. New Orleans, the "cradle of jazz," was the most important city in this process, with Chicago and New York playing particularly significant roles in the 1920s and 1930s. By the mid-twentieth century Philadelphia had become an important jazz center and a key training ground for influential jazz musicians. During its jazz heyday of the 1940s-1960s, Philadelphia produced an extraordinary number of leading jazzmen, several of whom became transformative figures in jazz history.

Jazz was created primarily by black musicians in its early years, but white musicians adopted the style early on and made contributions to its development. It was, in fact, a white New Orleans group, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, that made the first jazz recordings in 1917.

As jazz gained national popularity in the late 1910s, many of its early practitioners began to leave New Orleans for the cities of the North. Chicago and New York were primary destinations, but Philadelphia also welcomed some of these jazzmen. Trumpeter Freddie Keppard (1889-1933), a key early figure, had a successful extended gig in Philadelphia in 1917. His former New Orleans band mate, clarinetist George Baquet (1881-1949), moved to Philadelphia in 1923 and remained active in the city's music scene for the rest of his life.

Frank Johnson, Bandleader and Composer

These musicians came to a city with a long tradition of African American popular music. Frank Johnson (1792-1844) was a well-known African American bandleader and composer in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia who led bands for several of the city's military units and was the favored music director for the balls of the city's social elite. Johnson was the first African American to have his music published (in 1818) and the first American, black or white, to lead a musical ensemble on a tour of Europe (in 1837). Johnson sometimes enlivened popular dance tunes with varied rhythms and melodies, an early example of fusing African-derived rhythmic and melodic elements with European-based harmonic and formal structures that would later give birth to jazz.

A century later, in the 1920s and 1930s, black Philadelphia bandleaders Charlie Gaines (1900-87), Frankie Fairfax (1899-1972), and others led dance bands in the swing style of jazz then gaining popularity. Philadelphia saw a huge increase in its African American population in this period as a result of the Great Migration, the mass movement of blacks out of the rural South to the cities of the North. These newcomers brought their southern musical traditions with them, joining urban black musicians whose families had been living in the city for generations. The result was a particularly vibrant African American musical culture, one that would nurture the careers of numerous important jazz musicians. In 1935 some of these musicians established Local #274 of the American Federation of Musicians, the Philadelphia black musicians' union that would serve as a focal point of the city's jazz community until its dissolution in 1971.

Dizzy Gillespie, Bebop Pioneer

Among the noted jazz musicians who came to Philadelphia from the South in the 1930s were bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie (1917-93) and rhythm and blues star Louis Jordan (1908-75), both of whom settled in Philadelphia early in their careers and honed their skills for a few years before moving on to New York City, the great jazz mecca. Others spent longer periods in Philadelphia. Saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-67), one of the most influential figures in jazz history, moved to Philadelphia from North Carolina in 1943 at the age of seventeen, joining native-born Philadelphians such as saxophonists Jimmy Heath (b. 1926) and Benny Golson (b. 1929), pianist McCoy Tyner (b. 1938), trumpeter Lee Morgan (1938-72), and others in the city's especially fertile midcentury jazz scene. They developed their craft through informal jam sessions, gigging in local clubs and dance halls, and occasionally touring with traveling groups. Other musical luminaries nurtured in the rich Philadelphia jazz tradition of this era include Clifford Brown (1930-56), Percy Heath (1923-2005) and Albert "Tootie" Heath (b. 1935), Bobby Timmons (1935-74), Philly Joe Jones (1923-85), Jimmy Smith (1928-2005), Jimmy Garrison (1934-76), Reggie Workman (b. 1937), Kenny Barron (b. 1943), and Archie Shepp (b. 1937).

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