THE CHICAGO MUSIC SCENE
By Michael Theobald
As the Great Migration brought blacks from the south to Chicago, blues and jazz musicians followed.
As early as 1917, a “Chicago Style” of jazz had developed, inspired by New Orleans musicians like King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and, most importantly, Louis Armstrong. The style replaced the New Orleans tuba with a string bass, offered longer solos, and created a more danceable, swinging sound. Throughout the 1920s, in clubs frequently owned by policy operators or white gangsters, jazz took root and grew.
The most important music venue in Chicago in those years was the Grand Terrace Café, a “Black and Tan” club in Bronzeville where black and white music lovers could come together. Although owned by Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong’s manager, the club was controlled by Al Capone. Earl “Fatha “ Hines led the house band and later told an interviewer, “Al came in there one night and called the whole band and show together and said, ‘Now we want to let you know our position. We just want you people just to attend to your own business. We’ll give you all the Protection in the world but we want you to be like the 3 monkeys: you hear nothing and you see nothing and you say nothing’. And that’s what we did.”
Hines was an incredibly important figure in jazz history, and among the players who passed through his band were Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Nat “King” Cole, Sarah Vaughn, and Billy Eckstine.
While Chicago jazz had a large white following, the blues was almost exclusively black in those days. Played in small bars, at rent parties, and on the street, Chicago blues began to evolve from the Delta style brought north by players like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Alberta Hunter in the 1920s. But the key figure in early blues scene, and the man who helped create Chicago blues as we know it today, was Big Bill Broonzy.
Born in Arkansas in 1898, Broonzy worked as a sharecropper and served in France during World War 1. After the war, he joined the Great Migration’s exodus out of the south and came to Chicago, where he worked odd jobs by day and played the blues at night. By the 1930s, he was one of the biggest stars in “race music,” as it was then known, playing Carnegie Hall as part of the “From Spirituals to Swing” concert in 1938. His style became more sophisticated, pioneering the “Urban Blues” that emerged in the 1940s. A whole network of musicians became associated with him, including Jazz Gillum, Tampa Red and Memphis Minnie. He was a prolific songwriter, contributing songs to many of his contemporaries.
But his most important contribution to the development of Chicago blues was spotting McKinley Morganfield, a recent arrival from Mississippi who would become famous as Muddy Waters. It was Broonzy who gave Waters, who was then working as a truck driver, his first real gigs as a musician in Chicago.
In 1945, Muddy got his first electric guitar. Playing in rowdy bars, at crowded rent parties and outdoors at the Maxwell Street Market, it was necessary for musicians to be heard above the crowd, so amplification was a natural development. But in the hands of players like Muddy, the electric guitar became something more than just a louder acoustic guitar. It became the foundation sound of a new, raw, sound that made Chicago blues famous around the world and inspired rock and roll. A few decades after moving to Chicago with almost nothing to his name, Muddy Waters was hanging out with the Rolling Stones (who took their name from one of his songs) and playing stadiums.
Although most of the great musicians from Chicago blues’ glory days are gone now, you can still find it played in clubs across the city, and its influence continues to this day.