A history of Jazz Music

by Piero Scaruffi
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(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Jazz Music")

Chicago: White Jazz

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

The "Great Migration" from the south to the north, the closure of Storyville (1917) and the rise of Al Capone and other mobsters following the Prohibition (1920) turned Chicago into a bustling center of black entertainment. The gangsters who ruled the city were protectors of music, that was a necessity for their gambling, alcohol and prostitution rackets. The black musicians coming from the south found a new paradise to replace Storyville.

As jazz music moved to Chicago, the role of the soloist became more prominent, and the ensemble playing became more complex. In New Orleans the collective sound had prevailed over the individual sound, in Chicago individual players were allowed more freedom to improvise. This may have been simply a consequence of jazz musicians being more self-assured, or of the influence of the freewheeling spirit of the big city. When jazz musicians arrived in Chicago, they were often employed by gangsters. Their first audience was the mob. It may have been that the scarce musical sophistication of the gangsters made it possible for jazz soloists to break the rules of New Orleans' band playing.

Jazz was immediately successful in Chicago. In the age of Prohibition the "speakeasy" helped whites hear the music of the blacks, and, indirectly, the speakeasy marketed it as fun, exciting music. The first commercial radio station opened the same year that the Prohibition started, in 1920. Within a few years there were several radio stations. Radio stations generally boycotted jazz and blues music, but enough percolated through the air waves to increase the cult status of jazz. However, it was the record that contributed to spread jazz among the white audience.


Cornet player Bix Beiderbecke was the first white jazz master. Born in Iowa, far away from any major source of black music, he was also the first major musician to learn about jazz from records, not first hand. No surprise therefore that his technique was unorthodox. However, his tone was almost baroque. He arrived in Chicago in 1921 and recorded for the first time in 1924, with the Wolverine Orchestra (Tom Delaney's Jazz Me Blues). His reputation was rapidly established by a diverse output, mostly in New York: his own Davenport Blues (january 1925) for a quintet of cornet, clarinet, trombone, piano and drums (called the Rhythm Jugglers), Con Conrad's Singin' the Blues (february 1927), arranged by Bill Challis for Frank Trumbauer's orchestra, that contains Beiderbecke's most celebrated solo, the Original Dixieland Jass Band's Clarinet Marmalade (february 1927), also with Trumbauer, Clementine (september 1927) with the Jean Goldkette Orchestra, Walter Donaldson's Changes (november 1927) with Paul Whiteman, Will Marion Cook's I'm Coming Virginia (may 1927), arranged by Irving Riskin again for Trumbauer's orchestra, containing some of his most moving passages. Contemporaries were shocked by the lyrical and pensive quality that Beiderbecke could evoke through his unorthodox handling of timbre and timing.
He formed his own orchestra (Gang) and continued to refine his introverted style, particularly via the october 1927 recordings of Spencer Williams' Royal Garden Blues, Fletcher Henderson's Goose Pimples and Howdy Quicksell's Sorry and Since My Best Girl Turned Me Down. His own compositions were less famous, and delivered as solo piano pieces, but in reality In a Mist (september 1927), perhaps his masterpiece (more influenced by Debussy than by jazz), Candlelight (1930), Flashes (1931), In The Dark (1931), proved the depth of his musical vision. Before his untimely death, Beiderbecke gave several more essays of his lyrical playing: Bill Challis' San (january 1928), Fred Fisher's There Ain't No Sweet Man That's Worth the Salt of My Tears (september 1927), George Gershwin's Concerto in F (october 1928), Bing Crosby's From Monday On (february 1928) and Irving Berlin's Waiting at the End of the Road (september 1929), all with Paul Whiteman, as well as Harry Barris' Mississippi Mud (january 1928) with Trumbauer, and the proto-swing of Maceo Pinkard's I'll Be a Friend with Pleasure (september 1930) with his own band. The association with Trumbauer was probably the most fruitful, while the commercial Goldkette orchestra allowed the talents of Beiderbecke, Trumbauer, guitarist Salvatore "Eddie Lang" Massaro and violinist Joe Venuti to come together, despite the limitations of Goldkette's repertory. They all eventually, and sadly, migrated into Paul Whiteman's orchestra, which was even more commercial and which even further diluted and restrained their inspiration. An alcoholic, he died in 1931 at the age of 28. His minimal, tenuous style of improvisation had basically reflected his imploding lifestyle. Needless to say, one wonders what Beiderbecke could have done had he played in black orchestras instead of white ones. TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

Beiderbecke was the vanguard of a wave of white jazz soloists who gravitated towards Chicago: banjoist Eddie Condon, who moved to New York in 1929; drummer Gene Krupa, the first drummer to experiment with extended solos, who moved to New York with Condon in 1929 and became a star in Benny Goodman's big band formed in 1934; clarinetist Charles "Pee Wee" Russell, who moved to New York in 1927 where he first recorded in 1929; tenor saxophonist Lawrence "Bud" Freeman, who moved to New York in 1928; and especially xylophonist Kenneth "Red Norvo" Norville, who composed and recorded one of the most avantgarde pieces of the time, Dance Of The Octopus (november 1933) for a quartet of xylophone, guitar, bass and clarinet (Benny Goodman), and was also the first jazz musician to try the vibraphone.

These white players were actually important to introduce more and more soloing instruments into the canon of jazz (add Jack Teagarden for the trombone, Eddie Lang for the guitar and Joe Venuti for the violin).

Early Chicago big bands of the mid 1920s included: Erskine Tate's Vendome Orchestra, Charles Cooke's, Dave Peyton's.

As far as jazz goes, the rise of Chicago corresponded with the demise of New Orleans, the former cradle of jazz whose jazz scene had all but vanished by the 1930s.


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TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.