Sweet Home Chicago: Part III. Jazz and Blues on the Stroll

Chicago in the 1920s was a melting pot for jazz and blues, a vibrant mix of musical styles from different parts of the south. Jazz came up from New Orleans early in the century and spread nationwide along with economic good times. Female classic blues vocalists were the biggest performing and recording stars of the era, notably Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox, Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter. Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake were among the most notable country blues guitarist/street singers. The late 1920s witnessed the popularity of urban piano-guitar duos such as Tampa Red/Georgia Tom and Leroy Carr/Scrapper Blackwell. Jazz and blues filled cabarets and dance halls. Sacred music was reworked with blues inflection as a gospel sound by evangelical performers and gospel choirs. Blues, jazz and gospel were recorded in Chicago on race record labels. By the 1930s Chicago had established its reputation as the capital of the blues and a home of gospel.

The world of music that Robert Johnson would have experienced in the late 1920s to mid 1930s Mississippi Delta has been explored in Elijah Wald’s  Escaping the Delta. Johnson could have heard everything from blues to Tin Pan Alley, jazz to polkas, crooners to opera. Like other itinerant street and juke joint musicians he would have been able to play to his audience’s tastes. Johnson bought his first guitar in the late 1920s when the Black Metropolis was firmly established and Chicago was sending out the sound of blues, jazz and gospel on records and on the airwaves. “Sweet Home Chicago” and some of his other recordings are rooted in that music.


Saturday night juke joint outside of  Clarksdale, Mississippi Delta. Marion Post Wolcott, 1939

Viewed from this perspective, Chicago music of the 1920s and 1930s was grafted onto the more indigenous roots of the Delta blues to produce what Johnson would record in 1936 and 1937 and other Delta musicians would later bring back up to Chicago. Chicago’s Paramount along with Okeh, Vocalion and Columbia were among the pioneers in searching out black musicians for race record labels.

That Bright Light City

Bronzeville was Chicago’s most vibrant music scene. Bandleader Eddie Condon said that there was so much music in the air on the Stroll that you could hold a horn up and it would play itself.  The Stroll projected the image of the bright light city onto black consumer culture. High end venues on the Stroll drew heavily on white Chicago and white tourists for revenue. Some cafes were segregated; others like Jack Johnson’s Café de Champion on 31st and State were black and tan. The Sunset Café at 35th Street was called black and tan but its high price of entry excluded many residents of Bronzeville. Far more numerous were the buffet flats and rent parties that were supported by those who lived in the Black Metropolis. A wider black audience supported race records and listened to jazz and blues broadcasts on radio.

Bronzeville 4

Negro Cabaret. Russell Lee, 1941.

Jazz and blues were branches of the same folk roots music, the difference between the two often a matter of instrumentation, improvisation and vocalization. The contrast between classic blues and jazz is evident in listening to the 1922 recording of W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” Bessie Smith’s 1925 version of St. Louis Blues backed by Louis Armstrong and Armstrong’s later tribute version of “St. Louis Blues” .

Premier and well advertised jazz and blues venues included Chicago’s black-owned and policy supported cabarets, dance halls and theaters. During prohibition some venues were also supported with money from purveyors of bootlegged spirits. The Musician’s Protective Union Local 208 vetted musicians for their performance skills and ability to read music and served as gatekeepers for employment in the best venues. Revenue came from entertainment charges and selling liquor. Music and performance was the draw.

Prominent venues included Robert T. Mott’s Pekin Theater on 27th and State, one of the first northern theaters to feature jazz. From the 1910s through the 1920s the Dreamland Ballroom/Café at 36th and State featured Joe “King” Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band, Johnny and Warren “Baby” Dodds, Alberta Hunter (the “South Side’s sweetheart”), Lil Hardin, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and a young Cab Calloway. Armstrong came up to Chicago to play with his mentor Joe Oliver and married Lil Harden. Armstrong and Hardin would later perform at the Sunset Cafe with their Hot Five and Hot Seven bands.

Earl “Fatha” Hines and Jelly Roll Morton were featured at the Elite No. 1 on 30th and State. Hines would lead the orchestra at the Grand Terrace and broadcast jazz to a wide audience in the 1930s. Ma Rainey played at the Monogram on 34th Street. Erskine Tate, Bessie Smith and New Orleans trombonist Kid Ory played at the Grand Theater on 31st and State. Davarian L. Baldwin maps a dozen prominent jazz and blues venues located between 27th and 39th Streets during the 1920s. The Chicago Jazz Archive lists some 45 venues between 27th and 63rd Streets along with notable musicians advertised as performing.

Joe "King" Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in Chicago, 1923. Honore Dutry (trombone), Baby Dodds (drums), Louis Armstrong (second cornet), King Oliver (cornet), Lil Hardin (piano), Bill Johnson (bass, banjo), and Johnny Dodds (clarinet).

Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago, 1923. Honore Dutry (trombone), Baby Dodds (drums), Louis Armstrong (second cornet), King Oliver (cornet), Lil Hardin (piano), Bill Johnson (bass, banjo), and Johnny Dodds (clarinet).

Black musicians were models of urban sophistication and held in high regard in the Black Metropolis. They played to black and white audiences. White musicians came to Stroll venues to watch, listen and learn, but only played with their black counterparts after hours.

The Stroll suffered financially in the late 1920s. White businessmen who had ignored the area came to recognize its economic potential and created an alternative business area around 47th Street where they controlled most of the property. The center of nightlife moved south with the opening of the Savoy Ballroom at 47th and South Parkway in 1927 and the adjacent Regal Theater in 1928. There were large whites only dance halls on the north and west sides. The Savoy was the first dance hall as well as the most “elegant, elaborate and expensive entertainment complex” built in the Black Metropolis.

Stroll venues that sold liquor had been protected during prohibition under the regime of Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson despite pressure from reformers. The closing of a loophole in the  Volstead Act sounded a death knell for Chicago speakeasies and many jazz and blues cafes on the Stroll. A court ruling made it illegal to operate a place of business where people carrying liquor congregated. Prior interpretations required proof that liquor was being sold. Clubs closed and many of the best Chicago jazz musicians left the city for New York in the late 1920s. The 1929 Depression hit entertainment and leisure enterprise as rising unemployment squeezed disposable income. Bessie Smith said times were so bad nobody wanted to hear the blues. But for many, music remained one of the few means of escape.


Tavern of the South Side, after Prohibition. Russell Lee, 1941. Library of Congress

Archibald Motley, the Art Institute trained Jazz Age modernist offers a vision of the Stroll in his paintings.  Motley was an outsider, living in white Englewood. He socialized downtown and shared other Chicagoan’s fascination with “black primitivism.”  Motley paintings re-imagine the Stroll with a good dose of “pictorial hokum” (irreverent humor and stinging satire) and provide a unique visual rendering of an urban space defined by jazz and blues. They capture crowded moments on the street and in clubs, minstrel shows, theaters and house parties. He provides images of the “bright light city” of pianist Roosevelt Sykes “Sweet Old Chicago.” His scenes are filled with singers and dancers, saints and sinners, workers and gamblers, the racially dignified and the racially caricatured. Saturday Night (1935) places the viewer in a night club without apparent physical boundaries, patron dancing and drinking, a jazz band driving the action. Motley’s Stomp (1927) is a more restrained house party set in a well appointed apartment, a jazz band in the foreground.

Motley Saturday Night 1935 Howard University Gallery of Art, Wash DC copyright Valerie Gerrard Browne

Archibald Motley, Saturday Night, 1935, Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Theaters and cabarets on the Stroll and later around 47th and South Parkway were the most famous nightspots, but not necessarily those where working class residents of the Black Metropolis would hear jazz and blues. Music was played in numerous buffet flats, house  parties, and rent parties, a less visible world with scant mention of who played and where.  Theater publication Variety said there were “16,000 Beer Flats in Chicago.” These continued to vie for nightlife customers. Living room and dining room cabarets lined State Street between 43rd and 55th well into the depression.

Many Stroll musicians played at buffet flats and rent parties after hours for extra income. Thomas Dorsey had played at buffet flats early in his Chicago career. Prominent blues recording stars Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake also played at these informal venues.

Blind Blake and Lemon Jefferson

Blind Blake pictured at time of his first Paramount recording session in 1926. Blind Lemon Jefferson, circa 1926.

Blind Lemon Jefferson was born in Couchman, Texas around 1893. He had a complex, fast finger picking style. He was among the first recorded country blues guitarists and one of the best selling recording artists of his time. Notable songs include “Matchbox Blues,” “Black Snake Moan” and “See That my Grave is Kept Clean.” He left his last recording session in 1929 on his way to play at a house party. He was found the next morning, frozen to death on a Chicago street. He was buried in Texas in a unmarked grave. A Texas Historical Marker was placed nearby in 1967 and finally a granite headstone was dedicated in 1990 with his lyrics “Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you. See that my grave is kept clean.”

Blind Blake was from Florida or Georgia and came to Chicago in the mid 1920s. He was skilled at finger picking his guitar in a ragtime piano style which was good for dancing. He recorded some 79 known sides in Chicago and played at house parties. Notable songs include “Early Morning Blues,” “West Coast Blues” and “Diddie Wa Diddie.” He also recorded a version of Jimmy Rogers’ “He’s in the Jailhouse Now” where one crime is pure Chicago – voting twice in an election. Blake was said to have had an apartment at 31st and Cottage Grove in the heart of the Stroll.

While a range of nighttime spots from premier Stroll cabarets to living room rent parties provided entertainment for the Black Metropolis, records and later radio spread the sound of jazz and blues nationwide. Race record labels grew after Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” sold 75,000 copies in its first weeks on the market in 1920. A major craze for black female blues singers lasted through most of the 1920s. Chicago was home to Paramount Record’s Race Artist Series managed by Mayo “Ink” Williams.  His nickname derived from his readiness to sign up artists for his company. Williams would make the rounds of south side vaudeville theaters to find talent for Paramount. He hired Thomas Dorsey, Tiny Parham (a jazz pianist) and Lovie Austin (a female band leader who wrote blues for Ma Rainey) to identify good performers. Dorsey would train the performer for recording, would make an arrangement of the number, and would then transcribe lead sheets and sheet music for copyright and sale. William’s Chicago Music Company would be able to profit after it sent the musician to Paramount for recording.

Instrumentalists recorded with sidemen and as accompaniment to popular female blues singers, requiring  great musical flexibility to match diverse styles. Ma Rainy recorded with Tampa Red, Georgia Tom, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson and her famous “See See Rider Blues” with Louis Armstrong. (Paramount’s use of inferior recording equipment is evident here. It was a furniture company located in Grafton, Wisconsin that made records to sell its phonographs.)

Records became a means for musicians to spread their name and sound, build their reputation and attract an audience to pay to hear them at night spots on the Stroll. Records also were a good way to supplement income. In August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Rainey makes $200 for a recording session and her band each make $25. She signs a release of rights to the record company who keeps all proceeds from record sales. William Kenney notes that sidemen in Chicago would be paid $30 for each master cut and $5-$10 per master when accompanying a vocalist. Musician might earn $45 to $75 per week in a dance hall or cabaret so a recording session could amount to more than wages. Records were sold in shops, by mail order, by newsboys and brought down south by Pullman Porters along with the Defender.

Artists were sought out and records were pressed to appeal to a wide range of tastes including classic blues, ragtime, street corner pickers, gospel, jubilee, string bands, recorded sermons and all varieties of ethnic music. The recording industry had its own take on segregation. Blues were more targeted to a black record buying public than jazz. The race of the performer was less obvious in instrumentals and record company owners believed that white audiences wanted to hear black jazz. Owners limited black musicians to recording the blues. Lonnie Johnson, a very popular Chicago vocalist and virtuoso guitarist said he could play any popular music, but won a blues contest so became a blues musician to record for Okeh. Lonnie Johnson made about 130 records between 1925-1932 and recorded with, among others, Victoria Spivey, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Eddie Lang.

Russell Lee Negro Tavern Chicago 1941 FSA Office of War Information collection LOC

Jazz and blues guitar virtuoso Lonnie Johnson (in center) playing at a tavern on the south side. Robert Johnson listened to his records, admired his music and used some of his riffs. He told folks that his middle initial “L” stood for Lonnie. Russell Lee photo, 1941. Library of Congress

I’m Going Home on the Morning Train

The sound, rhythms and performance techniques of the blues were not limited to the world of entertainment and leisure. They also were essential to the creation of gospel. Thomas Dorsey, the “Father of Gospel,” was not the first to use the sound and rhythms of the blues to speak of a heavenly home and an escape from the drudgery of blue-collar work. Pentecostal/Holiness churches with southern roots had earlier distinguished the medium of the blues from its secular message. Its raw sounds, rhythms, and embellishments could support worshipers in giving God public praise.


Members of the Pentecostal church on Easter Sunday praising the Lord. Russell Lee. 1941.

There were hundreds of storefront churches in Bronzeville.  Drake and Cayton observed that the evening hours in lower-class neighborhoods were noisy with the cacophony of hymns and blues, gospel songs and “low down” music.  Some people in Bronzeville took their pleasure in “making a joyful noise unto the Lord.”  Davarian L. Baldwin offers his vision of the proximate geography that encompassed nighttime Stroll venues and storefront churches. “Stepping out of the show at the Regal Theater or Savoy Ballroom… spectators can be quickly converted into saints by wandering into a ‘church on the street,’ where singing women evangelists packaged preaching, and praying, and praise into a momentary haven of heaven on earth with a blues backbeat.”

Motley Street Scene 1936 detail tight crop

Archibald Motley, Street Scene, 1936 (detail)

Arizona Dranes was one of the most influential performers in Chicago within the Pentecostal/Holiness church network. She was a blind pianist and singer who brought her barrel house and ragtime style to worship, and among the first to take secular styles and put in words of praise to make gospel music. She was notable in performance for standing up off her bench, turning around and sitting down again to continue playing.  Dorsey acknowledged Dranes as one of his influences and she might have inspired his performance style of standing-while-playing. Dranes’ sings and plays her barrel house piano in “I’m Going Home on the Morning Train.”

Dranes’ style had a significant impact on a younger guitar evangelist and gospel innovator Sister Rosetta Tharp who played in churches around Chicago and caused controversy by also playing in nightclubs. She didn’t record until the 1930s, but then was listed among favorite performers by young listeners in the Delta.

Records and later radio allowed these gospel voices to reach out and create a larger black audience. Elder Lucy Smith’s radio ministry was the most successful in this regard. She started The Glorious Church of the Air in 1933 and promoted the work of other gospel musicians. Elder Smith reached a mass consumer audience, both black and white.

There were competing narratives in sacred and secular music that played out in Chicago as in the south. The blues spoke of travel and personal relationships. They offered a narrative of navigating the trials and tribulations of life in the secular world. The sound was the same, but there was a clear difference between “I followed her to the station” and “I’m going home on the morning train.”

W.C. Handy says his preacher father told him “son …I’d rather follow you to the graveyard than to hear you had become a musician.” For his father, becoming a musician would be like selling his soul to the devil. It was controversial for Sister Rosetta Tharp to play with Cab Calloway. Many years later Mahalia Jackson told Studs Terkel that she loved listening to Bessie Smith when she was young, but didn’t sing the blues since she was saved. Thomas Dorsey recalled listening to one of his early inspirations, Reverend A.W. Nix preaching in Chicago about the “Black Diamond Express to Hell,” with good-timers, whiskey drinkers and card players on a train that was going the wrong way.

Not all musicians drew as hard a line as Mahalia between blues and gospel. Dorsey wrote great blues and great gospel until his success with the latter.  W. C. Handy who wrote blues that would become standards, lamented the “low-down dirty blues” that were not “witty double entendre but just plain smut” and arranged nineteen spirituals in his last years. At the same time there were entertainers who emphasized satanic associations, such as popular blues pianist Peetie Wheatstraw (William Bunch) who promoted himself as the “Devil’s Son-in-Law” and the “High Sheriff from Hell” (here playing “Stomp”).

Many Bronzeville residents would visit Stroll venues on Saturday night to hear blues and jazz and go to church on Sunday to hear gospel choirs. Blues, jazz and gospel were all part of the community soundtrack.

Some established residents of the Black Metropolis were critical of the public behavior of the new southern migrants, believing the world of the blues and of street evangelism brought discredit to the Race.  A member of the black working class could look at a Motley painting (for example, Black Belt, 1934) and see the swing and stride of his nighttime Stroll as an upbeat alternative to work-a- day realities. In contrast, some members of professional and middle class would view the boisterous and demonstrative behavior of these citizens with approbation. A behavioral list of “do’s and don’ts” for new citizens of the Black Metropolis was published by the Defender in 1919. Included were admonitions regarding gambling, intoxication, allowing buffet flats in a neighborhood (a venue for after hours jazz and blues), hanging around saloon and poolroom doors and use of vile language in public. On the other hand, some members of the working class characterized the critics as dicty.

Thomas Dorsey successfully changed attitudes regarding proper church music to create and spread the gospel sound. He set a sacred narrative to a blues beat and pulled thousands of congregants into major churches to share in a glorious sound and performance. Others with a crucial role in this transformation, who A City Called Heaven, author Robert Marovich refers to as the Gospel Nexus, included Mahalia Jackson, Sallie Martin, Theodore Frye and Magnolia Lewis Bates. After Dorsey’s wife Nettie died in August 1932 he wrote his greatest gospel, “Precious Lord Take My Hand.” Mahalia Jackson would sing it in 1963 at the March on Washington. It was Martin Luther King Jr. favorite song.

Next: Part VI. Blame it on the Blues

Motley the Picnic 1936 Detail

Young man playing guitar in Archibald Motley, The Picnic, 1936, (detail), Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Notes and Sources

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