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band playing music blues

Throughout his career, Jelly Roll Morton often proved to be his own worst enemy. He was a braggart who talked about himself excessively and made few    friends. In the late 1930s when he was angered at W. C. Handy being introduced on a radio show as “the father of the blues and jazz,” Morton wrote a letter to Downbeat claiming that he had invented jazz in 1902; never mind that he was only seventeen years old that year and that Buddy Bolden had been active in 1895. His bragging was ironic, because in reality it was not an overstatement to call Morton the first giant of jazz and a major pioneer and innovator as a pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader. He was also an important transitional figure between ragtime and classic jazz.

Born Ferdinand Joseph La Menthe in 1885, Morton began playing piano when he was ten after short periods on guitar and trombone. Morton worked in Storyville, the legendary red-light district of New Orleans, for several years and began to travel throughout the South around 1910. During the next dozen years, playing piano and writing songs was only a small part of his life. He also worked as a comedian in traveling shows, a pool hustler, a boxing promoter, the manager of a gambling house, a tailor, a hotel manager, and a pimp. Life was a constant hustle for Morton, who renamed himself Jelly Roll when he began working as a pianist, and he spent time living in Chicago in 1914, San Francisco in 1915, Los Angeles between 1917 and 1922, Alaska, Wyoming, Tijuana, Denver, and parts of Canada.

Morton began to dedicate more of his time to music by 1920, settling in Chicago in 1923. By then he had already developed a distinctive style on piano, becoming one of the first major jazz stylists. Morton played his instrument as if it were a miniature orchestra, and many of his later band arrangements found their birth as a piano showcase. He used two- and four-bar breaks in his music to generate suspense and made each chorus count by utilizing multiple themes and building up his performances to their climax.

Shortly after moving to Chicago, Morton recorded a set of brilliant piano solos, introducing such original pieces as “King Porter Stomp,” “Grandpa’s Spells,” “Wolverine Blues,” “Shreveport Stomp,” “Jelly Roll Blues,” and “The Pearls.” While his earliest band performances were poorly recorded and very primitive, starting in 1926 he created a couple of dozen classic combo records. Fortunately Morton by then was recording for Victor, the label with the most advanced recording equipment, so his performances are easy to enjoy today. Using such players as cornetist George Mitchell, trombonist Kid Ory, clarinetist Omer Simeon in his bands, and other top young musicians based in Chicago, Morton proved to be one of jazz’s first great arrangers. He mixed together Page 22  arranged and jammed ensembles and featured logical horn solos. In fact, there are times when the solos are such a close part of the arrangement that it is difficult to tell whether the soloist is making up his chorus or playing the notes as they were written. Such titles as “Black Bottom Stomp,” “The Chant,” “Dead Man Blues,” and the band recording of “Grandpa’s Spells” and “Doctor Jazz,” featuring Morton’s only vocal of the 1920s, are three-minute masterpieces full of constant surprises.

Like Oliver, Morton moved to New York when he felt that the center of jazz was shifting toward the Big Apple, leaving Chicago in February 1928.


Johnny Dodds did not start playing clarinet until he was seventeen in 1909, but soon he was one of the best in New Orleans. He seemed to be everywhere in Chicago during the 1920s, a key member of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1923 and 1924, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Seven, Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, and with his own groups. His cutting tone was unmistakable, his sound in the lower register was haunting, and he was masterful at playing blues. Unfortunately Dodds’ decision to stay in Chicago rather than relocate to New York hurt his career, as did the Depression. He played on a part-time basis throughout the 1930s and only recorded twice, in 1938 and 1940. Johnny Dodds died in 1940 from heart disease at age forty-eight.

Although Jimmie Noone’s career was similar to Dodds’, his smooth tone was much easier to copy and could be found in the playing of many other clarinetists, most notably Benny Goodman. Noone worked in New Orleans during the teens, played with Freddie Keppard in Chicago as early as 1917, worked with Doc Cook’s Gingersnaps between 1920 and 1926, and led his own groups, usually known as the Apex Club Orchestra, from 1927 to 1943. His 1928 band featured Earl Hines. Noone, who made the song “Sweet Lorraine” famous and loved to play solos while an alto sax stated the melody, stayed active throughout his life and was poised to make a comeback with Kid Ory’s band in 1944 when he suddenly died, also at age forty-eight.

Born in Chicago, Benny Goodman started playing clarinet when he was ten, and he developed very quickly. In 1921 when he was twelve, Goodman won a talent contest by imitating Ted Lewis. He joined the Musicians Union the Page 26  following year and was considered an unofficial member of the Austin High Gang, although he was easily the youngest of the teenagers. Goodman worked with local bands, met Bix Beiderbecke in 1923, and performed with Art Kassel in 1924 and 1925. By the time he joined Ben Pollack’s orchestra in 1925 when he was sixteen, he was already an accomplished musician.

The Ben Pollack big band was one of the very best white orchestras to emerge from the Chicago jazz scene of the 1920s. Pollack, who was one of the better drummers of the 1920s, sought to balance his jazz instincts with commercialism but never quite gained the fame that he hoped for. He performed early on with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1923. After freelancing in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, Pollack settled back in Chicago in the spring of 1926. By then his orchestra featured as its main soloists Goodman, Jimmy McPartland, and trombonist Glenn Miller. The Pollack band was so successful in Chicago, however, that in 1927 it had become part of the musicians’ exodus to New York.


In the early 1920s, a group of teenagers from suburban Chicago’s Austin High School got together regularly after school at the Spoon and Straw malt shop, to play 78s on the store’s Victrola. They could usually only listen to top pop/dance bands, but one day a new release by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings was in the pile. The music had such an impact that the youths decided spontaneously to become professional musicians. Some, like Jimmy McPartland, his brother guitarist Dick McPartland, banjoist Eddie Condon, clarinetist Frank Teschemacher, and pianist Joe Sullivan, were already playing music, although Dick McPartland and Teschemacher were actually learning violin at the time. The others in the loose aggregation, including tenor-saxophonist Bud Freeman, drummer Dave Tough, bassist Jim Lannigan, and drummer Gene Krupa, were just starting. The Austin High Gang began to see the NORK and King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band perform as often as possible, getting ideas and inspiration. At first their own jam sessions featured more enthusiasm than obvious talent, but within a few years, each of these youths was revitalizing the Chicago jazz scene.

The freewheeling music that the Austin High Gang developed would be called Chicago jazz and, after it was formalized in the 1930s, Dixieland. Essentially it was New Orleans jazz but with much more room set aside for solos. In its more stereotyped format, it features a seven-piece band consisting of trumpet, trombone, clarinet, piano, banjo or guitar, bass or tuba, and drums. Its typical framework has a couple of ensembles at the beginning, solos from clarinet, trombone, trumpet, piano and sometimes banjo, a couple of ensembles, a four-bar drum break, and a four-bar tag by the full group. There are many variations to both the format and the instrumentation. Eddie Condon’s bands often employed tenor-saxophonist Bud Freeman, some groups did not use banjo or guitar at all, and occasionally the solo order was shuffled. Although Chicago Page 27  jazz has been used as a term by some of the musicians playing this freewheeling music, there is virtually no difference between Chicago jazz and Dixieland.

Eddie Condon started off on ukulele, worked as a banjoist including with Hollis Peavey’s Jazz Bandits in 1922, and by the mid- to late 1920s was playing rhythm guitar. Though never a soloist, Condon worked steadily and proved masterful at organizing bands. On December 8 and 16, 1927, he led the McKenzie-Condon Chicagoans, a group sponsored by singer and comb player Red McKenzie, on two recording sessions that resulted in four numbers: “Sugar,” “China Boy,” “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” and “Liza.” These exuberant performances were the recording debuts of Condon, Frank Teschemacher, Bud Freeman, Joe Sullivan, Jim Lannigan, and Gene Krupa, with Jimmy McPartland (who had recorded in 1924) leading the ensembles.

In 1928 Condon and most of the other musicians moved to New York, although they returned to Chicago through the years. Their music continued to be called Chicago jazz, no matter where they were performing, letting listeners know where their brand of musical excitement originated.

Chicago lost many of its greatest musicians to New York between 1927 and 1929 as Harlem blossomed and jazz grew in popularity nationwide. Because it could not compete in the long run with New York’s theaters, radio stations, studio work, and record labels, Chicago was less significant in the 1930s and 1940s, but still, like New Orleans, it had its top players including Johnny Dodds, Jimmie Noone, and the Earl Hines Orchestra (which was based at the Grand Terrace Café) along with many blues artists.

Chicago’s next major contribution to music was in the 1950s when it became arguably the most significant city for electric blues. And as far as jazz goes, Chicago continued having a strong local scene, but would no longer set trends, at least not until the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) was formed in the mid-1960s. That development is discussed in chapter ten.

Chicago’s legacy as the center of jazz from 1920 to 1927 is an important part of jazz history, resulting in classic music and setting the stage for New York’s rise to prominence in jazz.

Chicago: The Avant-Garde - A NEW WAY OF THINKING, THE AACM, THE ART ENSEMBLE OF CHICAGO, OTHER AACM MUSICIANS [next] [back] Chicago Calling (1951) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

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