"Late at night, with the lights turned down, black cabaret musicians might play a grindingly slow New Orleans blues or a lament in a minor key; but show time audiences expected hot, fast musical action full of 'pep' and 'ginger,' and in touch with the agitated rhythms of urban life. As banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, who was in a position to know, put it: '...the Chicago bands played only fast tempo...the fastest numbers played by old New Orleans bands were slower than...the Chicago tempo.' Earl Hines agreed that, 'we certainly played more up tempos in those [Chicago] days...'"

-Johnny St. Cyr interview, Los Angeles, Aug., 1958.

"She didn't take no foolishness off them (men). Guitar, pocket-knife, pistol, anything she get her hand on she'd use it; y'know, Memphis Minnie [Chicago blues artist] used to be a hell-cat. Y'know her and Son Joe, Roosevelt Sykes used to work together...boy! They'd have some of the terriblest rows but Memphis Minnie be the winner every time -- she'd have it her way of else! When I knew her in Chicago she was drinking a lot of gin. I went out where they were playing one night...it was called White Elephant...and they bought me so much gin--oh boy--gin was just everywhere. Gin was dropping our of my ears that night. I went home, the gin got hot, I run a bath of cold water...I didn't get 'in' it--I 'aimed' to get in it and missed the tub and fell on the floor and that's where they found me at next morning..."

-Johnny Shines, Memphis Blues singer, describing the wild Chicago blues club scene in the forties, Mike Rowe, "Chicago Breakdown" (Eddison Press, London, 1973), p. 43.


The history of popular music in twentieth century Chicago is diverse and rich. The roots of Chicago house were nurtured by this unique mid-western musical culture. As with most modern musical developments, Chicago's culture was heavily indebted to African-Americans for innovation and direction.

This brief back grounder on Chicago's musical history is by no means intended to be exhaustive. It is, rather, intended to provide the reader with some view of the musical landscape of one of America's most creative urban musical centers.


Chicago was a major center for inventive jazz performance and recording in 1920's America.

Legend has it that the many African-American jazz musicians were forced to move to Chicago from New Orleans when the government closed the famous "Storyville" red light district in 1917. Chicago, however, had a flourishing dance and music culture prior to World War I and it is more likely that talent migrated to Chicago because it was an exciting place to perform.

Most of the city's jazz creativity centered around the African-American neighborhoods in the South Side of town. One of the most important early South Side venues was the Pekin Inn on South State Street. The Inn was a club and then a "theater for Colored people." Pekin Inn had a colorful and controversial history, but it was one of the first venues to employ musicians who played pre-jazz music like ragtime. The word "jass" was first used to describe a performance here by W. Benton Overstreet and Estella Harris in 1916.

Jazz evolved from a combination of genres: ragtime; popular dance music; folk blues; and popular songs born from black minstrel and vaudeville show business traditions. Since blacks were often segregated from white-dominated businesses and higher education they focused their considerable talents on entertainment industries like cafes, cabarets, pool halls, sport, music, theatrical productions, vaudeville and the like. The South Side became a focal point for these activities.

Chicago's African-American South Side, therefore, became a hotbed of musical creativity.

Powerful evidence of Chicago South Sider's enormous contribution to the jazz genre can be heard on early phonograph recordings of the city's great artists like Earl Hines, Jelly Role Morton and his Red Hot Peppers, Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives ("St. James Infirmary Blues," one of my all time favorites) and Hot Sevens and Joseph Oliver.

Which brings us to another interesting development of the jazz age: the "race" recording industry. The first jazz recordings were targeted at the white dance audience with offerings by primarily white performers. It was not until the twenties that the Okeh record company began recording black musicians for the urban black audiences. Soon other recording companies, both black and white-owned, got into the "race" recording business and recording industry facilities were opened in Chicago and other cities outside of NYC to make and sell this new product to both black and white audiences.

The creation of a recording industry presence in Chicago was a very important development, for the availability of recording and promotional services helped firmly establish the city as a music center facilitating the evolution of Chicago's distinct style of blues, soul, and house as well as other popular music.

Jazz music, dance and otherwise, pretty much musically defined the Roaring Twenties, or the Jazz Age. This was the music that moved my grandmother's ass on the dance floor. Music that many of her generation so loved that they were willing to endure police harassment and arrest to get down on the dance floor each week.

The golden days of jazz ended in Chicago with the Depression and Puritanical moral reform movements, much like the anti-rave/club initiatives we are facing today. I believe the anti-cabaret laws in NYC that have been resurrected recently to restrict dancing have their origins in Jazz Age New York.

The 1929 Depression, of course, reduced the discretionary income folks had available for partying. As one magazine of the period noted, when the stock market crashed the bottom "...dropped out of hilarity."

Urban morals reformers, however, began their campaign against night life as early as 1925 in Chicago. Much of this reform "movement" was segregationist in motive and focused first on the inter racially mixed clubs and cabarets. Over the New Year's holiday season in 1927 the police raided many South Side clubs and arrested several promoters and owners charging them, amongst other things, with contributing to the delinquency of minors. The press warned that white people, especially women, were in danger in these venues.

Then there was the Volstead Act -- prohibition. Club owners had largely avoided prosecution in the early twenties because prosecutors had to prove that any liquor discovered on the premises had been sold in or by the club. A federal judge ruled in 1927, however, that places "...where people carrying liquor congregate" could also be prosecuted under Volstead. It had been the custom in many clubs to bring your own in flasks and the like, and the club provided set ups. No more.

History often repeats itself.