Chicago Jazz

By George Spink

These book reviews appeared in the Sunday Show section
of the Chicago Sun-Times on Dec. 11, 1983.

An Autobiography of Black Jazz by Dempsey J. Travis, Urban Research Institute/Academy Chicago Press.

Louis Armstrong: An American Genius by James Lincoln Collier, Oxford University Press.

What 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.

They 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.

Now, fortunately, two first-rate books have been published that tell more about Chicago jazz musicians than anything in print before.

Click here to order James Lincoln Collier's fine book about "Louis Amstrong: An American Genius".James 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.

Collier’s 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, An Autobiography of Black Jazz (Photo courtesy of Ronald K. Marsh).

Travis 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.

Click here to order Dempsey J. Travis' "An Autobiograhy of Black Jazz".
Dempsey J. Travis
An Autobiography of Black Jazz
(Photo courtesy of Ronald K. Marsh)

During 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.

Bronzeville at 47th Street and South Parkway
on Chicago's South Side circa 1940

Dyett 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.

George 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 racial prejudice.

During 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.

Trumpet 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.

"Sure, go ahead," the attendant agreed. "But you ought to have been here an hour ago, and you would have gotten plenty of exercise."

"How’s that?" Fletcher asked.

"I just killed a nigger about your size," the attendant replied. "The dead nigger is over there in that ditch."

Fletcher 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.

One 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."

At 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.

"Remember," 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."

The 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."

In the galaxy of jazz stars, nothing fails like success. Ask most Americans who remember Louis Armstrong what they liked best about him and they'll cite the way he sang Hello, Dolly a generation ago.

Ask most jazz musicians what they liked best about him and they will say the way he played on West End Blues, Cornet Chop Suey or Tight Like This, which Armstrong and his Hot Five recorded in Chicago in the late 1920s for the OKeh label.

James Lincoln Collier does not condemn Armstrong’s later music as some purists have; but he does paint a meticulous portrait of an artist whose best musical years were his earliest, whose talent made agents, record producers and concert producers rich along the way.

Armstrong was in his 20s when he arrived in Chicago, a good musician who flowered into a genius within a few years. He initially played "New Orleans style", collective improvisation at its best. Then, between November 1925 and December 1928, Armstrong and his Hot Fives cut five dozen sides and charted the course of jazz for many years to come.

"That these records were extraordinary was recognized immediately by musicians, jazz fans and a growing public," Collier writes. "All across the United States musicians were enthralled by what Armstrong was doing and they all wanted to do the same…. As a consequence, the Hot Fives simply wiped away the old New Orleans style; either you attempted to play like Armstrong or you almost did not play at all.

"Armstrong 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."

The 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.

Armstrong’s 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.

Glaser 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.

Armstrong 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.

Jazz 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.

"But 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."

Postscript

On 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.

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George Spink is a writer and jazz aficionado.

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