is so remarkable about Chicago jazz musicians is that they have
survived and prevailed despite tremendous uncertainty throughout
their careers. They have done so without the soft cushion of
"official" recognition and support so long enjoyed
by the city’s classical musicians.
have made their mark in all forms of jazz—traditional, swing,
bebop, progressive, avant-garde. They are enjoyed and appreciated,
if not always at home, throughout the world today, just as they
have been for six decades.
fortunately, two first-rate books have been published that tell
more about Chicago jazz musicians than anything in print before.
Lincoln Collier’s Louis
Armstrong: An American Genius focuses on the seminal jazz
trumpet player. Like many jazz critics and fans, Collier considers
Armstrong’s greatest creative period to have been his years
in Chicago during the 1920s. Collier’s chapters on those years
recall in magnificent detail one of Chicago’s most colorful
and vibrant eras.
themes are elaborated upon and embellished as only a black Chicagoan
can by Dempsey J. Travis, a former jazz musician and now a South
Side realtor, in his extraordinary memoir and oral history,
Autobiography of Black Jazz.
offers a first-hand account of the evolution of jazz on the
South Side, recalling the lives and deaths of many theaters,
nightclubs and bars that nurtured the burgeoning art form. His
warm empathy for the plight of jazz musicians is traceable to
his student days at DuSable High School during the 1930s.
that decade and the next, DuSable produced more good jazz musicians
than any other institution in the world, thanks to DuSable’s
band teacher, Capt. Walter Dyett, a strict disciplinarian who
wanted his students to develop to their fullest potential.
47th Street and South Parkway
on Chicago's South Side circa 1940
is mentioned often in the most priceless sections of Travis’s
book: his interviews with 26 musicians, singers, dancers, comedians
and a deejay, including Johnny Board, Daddy O-Daylie, Barrett
Deems, George Dixon, Billy Eckstine, Bud Freeman, Dick Gregory,
Art Hodes, Franz Jackson, Eddie Johnson, Clark Terry, Joe Williams,
Nancy Wilson and John Young. Nearly all are older than 60 and
provide a rare vintage look at Chicago’s jazz heritage.
Dixon, who played trumpet and saxophone with Earl Hines’ Orchestra
(and who in later years worked as an elevator operator at Chicago
police headquarters at 11th and State), offers one of countless
recollections in this book about the bitter intensity of American
the 1930s, the Hines band broadcast nightly from the mob-connected
Grand Terrace Ballroom at 3955 S. Parkway (now King Drive) and
toured the nation. One morning the band bus pulled into a gas
station in Greenville, N. C.
player Milton Fletcher wanted a little exercise, so he offered
to pump gas for the white attendant, who had a pistol strapped
to his aide.
go ahead," the attendant agreed. "But you ought to
have been here an hour ago, and you would have gotten plenty
that?" Fletcher asked.
just killed a nigger about your size," the attendant replied.
"The dead nigger is over there in that ditch."
and some of the other band members looked into the ditch, returned
to the bus and left. Dixon reported the incident to the NAACP,
which investigated the murder but found no witnesses. It was
a typical Southern lynching.
of the most revealing chapters is entitled "The Jazz Slave
Masters." In it, Travis writes, "Chicago, New York
and Kansas City housed a disproportionate percentage of all
the great jazz talent in America during the 1920s and 1930s.
These cities were controlled by the Jazz Slave Masters and some
of the very best black musicians were their serfs. Talented
jazz musicians were chained to bands and specific night clubs
and saloons in the same manner as the antebellum Negroes were
shackled to plantations."
the Grand Terrace Ballroom and other Chicago night spots, leaving
a club without permission from the management was hazardous
to the health of many Chicago jazz musicians. This is why Earl
Hines remained at the Grand Terrace for more than a decade.
Travis observes, "the Jazz Slave Masters always controlled
the cash register, paid the piper and called the tune. The keepers
of the cash box were usually Jewish or Italian and, occasionally,
they were mob-connected blacks. The creators of jazz music were
black. All of this had a positive side. Whenever there was a
generous segment of Jew, Italians and blacks coexisting within
an urban area, the results favored jazz music."
mob's influence in the jazz world provided an essential
benefit musicians always appreciated. As the legendary tenor
saxophonist Bud Freeman told me recently: "The beauty of
working at mob-owned clubs was that you always got paid. I cannot
say that was true of so-called 'legit' clubs."
was moving away from paraphrase into the invention of whole
new melody based on the underlying harmonies of the song, which
musicians call chord changes. It is too much to say that Armstrong
invented the idea of improvising from chord changes. But he
possessed the equipment to do it better than anyone else at
the time, and he was, by 1927, showing other musicians what
could be done with this method."
impact of Armstrong’s innovation cannot be overstated. His style
determined the way traditional and swing musicians would play
for the next two decades and beyond. It is no exaggeration to
say that Armstrong influenced every soloist in the small groups
and big bands of the Swing Era. And, like a pebble tossed into
the ocean, Armstrong continues making waves, for many of today’s
best rock musicians reveal Armstrong’s influence in their recordings.
playing deteriorated during the 1930s and in later years. His
big band was not one of the best during the Swing Era, but he
worked steadily and grew in popularity, thanks to his agent,
Joe Glaser, head of Associated Booking Corp.
kept Armstrong working at a frantic pace throughout their long
association, making a fortune for himself as well as for Armstrong.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Armstrong went on extensive overseas
tours with all-star groups, only to return home with his exhausted
musicians to discover that Glaser had a domestic tour beginning
in a day or two. But Armstrong craved his audiences and to the
end maintained the pace.
and other black musicians of his day did not view themselves
as pursuing art for art's sake, Collier emphasizes. They
loved their work, but they also recognized they succeeded because
they were entertainers as well as jazz musicians.
aficionados will have to dream of what Armstrong might have
done had he lived in a perfect world free from the imperfections
of the marketplace. Armstrong lived among us, however, and if
he hadn’t made it as a musician, he would have been a laborer.
He bucked the system by getting a lot of bucks for his bang.
even if Armstrong had shaped nobody," Collier concludes,
"even if nothing had followed out of him, there would remain
the music--that burnished sound, those magical melodies, that
infectious swing, that voice expounding on the pleasures of
life and its troubles. That certainly would have been enough."
August 2, 2001, the 100th anniversary of his birth, New Orleans
honored their most famous son by changing the name of its airport
to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.