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The Negro in IllinoisThe WPA Papers$

Brian Dolinar

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780252037696

Published to Illinois Scholarship Online: April 2017

DOI: 10.5406/illinois/9780252037696.001.0001

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(p.240) 29. Rhythm
The Negro in Illinois

Arna Bontemps

University of Illinois Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the history of ragtime, blues, boogie woogie, jazz, and gospel music in Illinois. Itinerant Negro musicians considered Chicago a good town on the circuit. The district which welcomed them first was located on State Street between the edge of the Loop and 35th Street. The two biggest places in the district were Pony Moore's and the Everleigh Club. In 1911, Emanuel Perez's Creole Band came to town. This chapter considers three occurrences that highlight the story of jazz in Chicago: King Oliver's arrival, Louis Armstrong's origination of “Scat” singing, and the recording of Clarence “Pine Top” Smith's Boogie Woogie piano, in March 1928. It also looks at other Negro musicians who performed in Chicago and other parts of Illinois during the period, including Cab Calloway, Sidney Bechet, Jimmy Noone, Erskine Tate, Charley Cook, Clarence Jones, Sammy Stewart, Willie Bryant, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Lionel Hampton, Jack Ellis, and Johnny Dodds.

Keywords:   ragtime, blues, boogie woogie, jazz, gospel music, Negro musicians, Chicago, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Negro music

There are two drafts of this chapter, both written by Joseph Bougere. One is an early draft in the IWP papers with extensive corrections by Arna Bontemps. There are also two copies of a second draft, one at Syracuse University, which has “office file” written on it with a few additions. The other in the IWP papers has incorporated the changes and is the version that appears below. Much of the source material for this chapter was collected by Onah Spencer, a jazz critic for Down Beat magazine.

On a winter night early in 1900, the First Regiment Armory in Chicago

rocked and swayed with ragtime music … for the celebration of the greatest entertainment by colored talent in the city. Armant’s colored orchestra fairly carried the dancers off their feet with bursts of staccato harmonies. Colored men and women dressed in the height of fashion swayed and swirled and glided over the waxed floor in the maze of the rag-malia cotillion.1

A feature of the evening was a “hot” piano duel in which “three muscular young fellows took turns at the piano in a ragtime contest, and the judges awarded the prize to ‘Wing’ Bass in time to save the instrument from total destruction.” A cake walk contest was won by Alfred and Minnie Hallman, and one of the losers grumbled against the decision, complaining that the judges “didn’t know the difference between a ‘chicken step’ and a ‘military flat foot.’”

Chicago enjoyed minstrel music. During the Columbian Exposition, it entertained the Creole Show. Later it contributed to the ragtime vogue. Finally, it played host to the barroom musicians who made the so-called “revolution in 4–4 time.” Among the latter were Tom Turpin of St. Louis, who published “The Harlem Rag” and “The Bowery Buck” sometime before 1896; Scott Joplin, who wrote “The Maple Leaf Rag” about 1897; Tony Jackson, called by Clarence Williams (himself a noted song writer and pianist) “probably the greatest blues pianist that ever lived”; Louis Chauvin, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, Benjamin Harney, Glover Compton, Ed Harding, and Mrs. Richard B. Harrison, wife of “de Lawd” of Green Pastures.2

(p.241) Itinerant colored musicians considered Chicago a good town on the circuit; they “hit” it oftener and stayed longer. The district which welcomed them first was located on State Street between the edge of the Loop and 35th Street; its Center was around 22nd. The two biggest places in the district were Pony Moore’s (where Charley Elgar and two companions played in 1903) and the Everleigh Club. In the year preceding the arrival of the first New Orleans jazz band, Tony Jackson had a band at the Elite Café, 30th and State.

In 1911, Emanuel Perez’s Creole Band came to town, and the Chicago Defender asked its readers, “Have you heard that wonderful jazz music that the people of Chicago are wild about?” The South Side was getting its first taste of a whacky horn, played by Freddie Keppard. The scene was the Grand Theater, 31st and State. Keppard’s cornet, fresh from New Orleans, gave the blast that announced the “hot” jazz era.3

In the years that followed Keppard’s arrival, Chicago Negroes wrote many songs that have become a part of America’s musical library. Spencer Williams composed “Shim-me-she-wobble,” and “adapted” (from the original by “Papa” Warfield) “I Ain’t Got Nobody” for the publisher Will Rossiter; also for Rossiter, he “rewrote” Porter Granger’s “On the Puppy’s Tail.” Arthur wrote “Armour Tech Two-Step,” “This Lovin’ Gag Ain’t Goin’ to Pay Expenses, Babe,” and “Gracie.” Maceo Pinkard won wide popularity with “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Mammy of Mine”; Tom Lemonier wrote “Just One Word of Consolation” and “You’re Up Today, Tomorrow You’re Down”; Tony Jackson, “Pretty Baby”; Joe Jordan, “Sweetie Dear”; and “Jelly Roll” Morton, “Jelly Roll Blues,” “King Porter Stomp,” and “Alabama Bound.” At the Pekin, America’s first Negro theater, Shelton Brooks produced, acted, directed the orchestra, and composed. His first hit, “You Ain’t Talking to Me,” was introduced on Broadway by Al Jolson. Subsequent successes of Brooks include “Some O’ These Days,” “Balling the Jack,” “Walking the Dog,” “Darktown Strutters’ Ball.” Sometime later ASCAP rated him third among contemporary Negro composers, following W. C. Handy and H. T. Burleigh.

After 1910, the rag-time vogue gradually faded. But Ma Rainey and her tent shows had already come to town to introduce the blues, and shortly thereafter the new Grand was featuring Wilbur Sweatman and a full orchestra. With them the blues era dawned in Chicago.4

In 1920, Mamie Smith recorded “Crazy Blues” and the record sold over a million discs. Bessie Smith, most famous of the five unrelated, blues-singing Smiths, was the second to record. At the age of twelve, Bessie had been a protégé of Ma Rainey on the tent show circuit. Her first recordings were made in Chicago. Later on came Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox, Priscilla Stewart, Mary Mack, Edith Wilson, Bertha (“Chippie”) Hill, Georgia White, Memphis Minnie, Lil Green, and Rosetta Howard.

Four years after Mamie Smith’s debut, Floyd Campbell, first male singer to record blues, made “Market Street Blues.” A list of later Chicago men who recorded blues includes Big Bill Broonzie, Joe McCoy, Louis Powell, Richard M. Jones, Ollie Shepard, Rhythm Willie, blues harmonica player Peetie Wheatstraw (“the devil’s son-in-law” and “the high sheriff of Hell”), LeRoy Carr, Washboard Sam, “Tampa Red,” “Pine Top” Smith (whose “Boogie Woogie Blues” are credited with starting the Boogie craze), “Cripple” Clarence Lofton, Lonnie Johnson (who accompanies himself on the guitar), and Kokomo Arnold.5

More widely known than these, however, were Louis Armstrong, trumpeter and originator of “scat” singing, and Cab Calloway, a Chicagoan whose style, while not generally (p.242) recognized as that of the blues, contained minors that put it in a related category. Cab’s career began in the Sunset Café on Chicago’s South Side; he has since recounted the tale of “Minnie the Moocher” thousands of times and has written Swingsters’ Jive, a dictionary of blues and “swing” terms that have worked their way into the American speech.6

The blues, based originally on affairs of the heart, have expanded to chronicle fires, floods, tornadoes, gambling. “King Joe,” a later recording, celebrates the Negro heavyweight champion.

Because Chicago has such a large Negro population, the titles of many blues refer to the city, or places therein: “The Chicago Gouge,” “Mecca Flat Blues,” “Little Joe from Chicago,” “Big Man from the South” (South Chicago), “29th and Dearborn,” and “Dusty Bottom Blues,” formerly called “Dusty Bottom.” There are also blues about the stockyards, steel mills, and other local work areas.

Historians of Chicago jazz like to recall the arrival of “King” Oliver. Representatives from two “spots” were on hand to greet him. The contingent was made up of members of the bands of the Royal Gardens Café and the Dreamland Café. Both wanted Oliver and were determined to get him. Both did. The solution was profoundly simple. It was worked out over a drink at a bar near the railroad station. Joe joined both bands, and left no doubt about who was the king among Chicago trumpeters. Freddie Keppard, curious, dropped in at the Royal Gardens “to see how the new orchestra was getting along.” There followed a battle of cornets in which, according to one reporter, “Joe Oliver beat the socks off Keppard.”

Chicagoans who lived by day first saw Joe Oliver when he was playing in a cart under the El pillars of the Loop. The city was keyed high with war-time tension, teeming with parades. Joe and his friends had volunteered to play for a campaign to sell Liberty Bonds. They hired a cart, climbed into it and put on a “New Orleans Jazz Jam” on Wabash Street for the crowds that swarmed through the Loop. The “tail gate” trombone was something new to Chicagoans…. For Chicagoans who lived by night, the band was not such a novelty; they had already discovered Joe playing in two South Side night spots.

There were two main reasons for the rise of Chicago as the “hot” music center of the country: the fall of New Orleans’s Storyville, a red-light district closed by federal edict, and the mass hegira of Negroes to the North. New Orleans’s loss was Chicago’s gain. As the Chicago Defender put it:

The Original Creole Band came to Chicago at the Grand Theater. Keppard and Bill Williams made a hit. Creole brothers down South heard of their success and, one by one, came to the land of free and plenty dollars.

Among the jazz instrumentalists preceding Oliver in Chicago were clarinetists Sidney Bechet and Jimmy Noone. When the “King” organized a band for the Dreamland in 1920 (to play there all the time, and give up the work and Royal Gardens), among those he recruited were Honore Dutrey, trombone; and Lil Hardin, piano; Jimmy Noone, leaving to strike out on his own, was replaced by Johnny Dodds, fresh from New Orleans.

“King” Joe and his men had little use for written music; on the stands were a few scribbled-over sheets with the titles torn off to thwart visiting musicians who had come to purloin.

(p.243) Oliver left Chicago in the spring of 1927, five years after a new “King” had come upon the scene. Shortly before his departure he wrote a song, “Doctor Jazz,” which he peddled from a cart occupied by his band, playing the new tune wherever a crowd gathered. This was probably the last time a New Orleans band played in a wagon. He died in a small southern town, 1938.7

The new “King,” whom Oliver had brought up from New Orleans in 1922, and who played second trumpet behind the leader, was Louis Armstrong. Musicians and public, discovering the superiority of the younger man, clamored for the positions to be reversed. Armstrong left Oliver to go to the Dreamland as first cornet. In September 1924, Armstrong and his wife, Lil Hardin, pianist, went to New York to make recordings. Armstrong remained in New York to play with Fletcher Henderson’s popular Roseland band. Lil returned to Chicago and organized her own orchestra for the Dreamland Café.

A dozen years later Lil was still playing the piano and singing her “Brown Gal” number around Chicago. In the middle thirties, she opened a “swing shack” on Chicago’s South Side, serving a meal guaranteed to be “a solid sender right in the groove,” choice of “Tisket Biscuits and Tasket Hash, Rug Cutter’s Roast and Killer Diller Waffles.”

Other Negroes promoting the new music in Chicago during the years following the First World War include Erskine Tate, Charley Cook, Clarence Jones, Luis Russell, Billy Ward, Lawrence Harding, Dave Peyton, Carrol Dickerson, Robert (“Bob”) Schaffner, Sammy Stewart, and Hartzell (“Tiny”) Parham. Later came Les Hite, Willie Bryant, Earl (“Fatha”) Hines, Lionel Hampton, Jack Ellis, Walter Barnes, and a host of others.

Three occurrences highlight the story of jazz in Chicago: King Oliver’s arrival with the new music, Louis Armstrong’s origination of “Scat” singing, and the recording of Clarence (“Pine Top”) Smith’s Boogie Woogie piano, in March 1928. Boogie Woogie was nothing new. A primitive method of piano playing developed by Negro ear-musicians, it had been played up and down the Mississippi for many decades, but it remained for Smith to put it on wax.8

The real vogue for this sort of thing, however, followed the appearance of two of “Pine Top’s” Chicago friends, Albert Ammons and Meade Lewis, at Carnegie Hall in New York City. A predecessor of these two, Cleo Brown, had played in many Chicago “spots” before recording her version of the “boogie woogie.”

Another early exponent of the style was Jimmy Yancey. Settling in Chicago in 1913 after a long career in vaudeville, Yancey was for years a welcome guest at “house-rent” parties and at taverns. “Cripple” Clarence Lofton is still another Chicago exponent of the “fast blues.”

Still another type of music to come out of Chicago and gain popularity in recent years is the so-called “gospel song.” In less than twelve years, these “swing spirituals” have pushed all other sacred music into the background in many Negro churches. According to Thomas A. Dorsey, the leading writer and purveyor of the new religious songs, they are “gospel sermons preached in music.” Though this type of music made its appearance in 1905, it was in the thirties that it gained wide popularity, its rise being due mainly to Dorsey, formerly a composer of blues. When he started writing these “new spirituals” in 1928, he found no market. For a number of years he and his associates traveled the country over singing them to the people. Many churches closed their doors to him. But despite opposition he established a reputation and before his travels ended, many of the same churches (p.244) were clamoring for his and other gospel composers’ works.9 The Gospel Choral Union of America, a national organization promoting this music, was formed in 1932 by Dorsey, with headquarters in Chicago and branches throughout the country. Although of Negro origin, “gospel songs” appealed to others as well, as revealed by Dorsey’s statement that thirty to forty percent of his customers were white. Most popular of these compositions were two by Dorsey, “How About You?” and “Precious Lord Take My Hand,” and one by Roberta Martin, “Didn’t It Rain?” Blues and spirituals being closely related, it was not surprising to find a number of prominent Negro women blues singers, among them Sara Martin and Virginia Liston, finishing their careers singing spirituals and “gospel songs” in churches.10

Every year a new crop of young hopefuls gather outside night “spots,” trying to extract music from home-made instruments: cigar-box guitars, tin-can cymbals, soap-box drums. Eventually some of these toy instruments are exchanged for second-hand clarinets, drums, and trombones, thus a new generation of swing musicians is born. This is the pattern.

As one observer pointed out, places of entertainment in Chicago Negro neighborhoods often close, but the music goes on. When a place “folds,” it’s “Bring yo’ stuff on over to my house an’ we’ll have a party an’ sweat.” That’s all! It’s different in uptown Chicago; there “they glow and may even perspire, but the jazzmen seldom sweat.”

In the spring of 1939, Johnny Dodds gave a concert at Mandel Hall, University of Chicago, and proved there was at least one clarinet that could span the years between the New Orleans days of famed Storyville and the present. With Lil Hardin at the piano, according to one reporter, he showed there was still “as much fire, as much of the blues, in his instrument, as there always was.” After the concert he was seen wrapping his clarinet in a newspaper; probably he had never had a case to carry it in.


(1.) This quotation was copied from the Inter Ocean, February 20, 1900, by Oscar Hunter (IWP papers, Harsh, box 51, folder 6).

(2.) Material on ragtime came from two essays by IWP worker Barefield Gordon, “Ragtime in Chicago: Ragging the Keys,” dated February 23, 1940, and “Ragtime: Music in Chicago Prior to 1913,” dated January 4, 1939 (IWP papers, Harsh, box 51, folder 5).

(3.) Included in the source material for this chapter is an article from the magazine Music and Rhythm by Onah Spencer, “Trumpeter Freddie Keppard Walked Out on Al Capone!” copied by Spencer while he was working on the IWP (IWP papers, Harsh, box 15, folder 13).

(4.) An essay by Onah Spencer, “The Blues: A Historiette of an American Musical Art” covers the careers of Ma Rainey, Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, and other pioneer blues singers (IWP papers, Harsh, box 52, folder 1).

(5.) As part of his job with the IWP, Onah Spencer created discographies for Kokomo Arnold, Lonnie Johnson, Ollie Shepard, and others (IWP papers, Harsh, box 52, folder 7).

(6.) The 1940 article “How Cabell (Cab) Calloway Got to the Top” by Robert Crandall was copied from the magazine Music and Rhythm by Onah Spencer on January 2, 1941 (IWP papers, Harsh, box 51, folder 9).

(7.) Among the source material for this chapter was an article by Onah Spencer that appeared in the Down Beat magazine, May 1938, on the occasion of King Oliver’s passing, titled “Death Claims Him” (IWP papers, Harsh, box 41, folder 15).

(8.) Oscar Hunter wrote an essay titled “Piano Boogie Woogie and the Blues” that includes a discography dated February 1940 (IWP papers, Harsh, box 51, folder 22).

(9.) A survey of black churches that had incorporated the new gospel songs of Thomas A. Dorsey was conducted by IWP worker George D. Lewis, who wrote a brief report of his findings (IWP papers, Harsh, box 52, folder 15).

(10.) Much of the material for this section on Thomas A. Dorsey came from an earlier chapter titled “Spirituals of Today” by George D. Lewis, written for the “History of Negro Music and Musicians in Chicago” (IWP papers, Harsh, box 49, folder 24).