The End of the Golden Age of Chicago-Style Jazz

Written by Missy Kyzer

Missy Kyzer is a 20year old college student from Southern California attending the University of California, pursuing her Bachelor of Arts in Music & Culture. She aspires to be a professional vocalist & a music historian or musicologist.

It was a music very characteristic of its time, forever preserving the sound of Jazz Age Chicago on shellac records. But the Jazz Age could not live forever and Chicago’s role in the development of jazz could not always keep stranglehold of its power on the music. Jazz, especially, is a music that always moves, always evolves. And when the music moves on, it takes on a new form, it transforms into something new and something more timely for the new era.

And while it is a simple fact that change is inevitable and that pop culture will always shape-shift to better fit the times, this common fact of nature is not the lone force that brought the demise of Chicago-style jazz. Rather, alongside this natural change there were specific factors, societal and musical, that contributed to the fall of the Chicago-style and the rise of swing.

What Is Chicago-Style Jazz?

But before we can delve into the factors that ended the Chicago-style’s golden age, we must first understand the music. Who were its players? What was its distinguishing sound? And, first and foremost, how did it come about?

Legend has said that a huge reason for the significant shift from jazz’s home in New Orleans to Chicago was due to the closing of New Orleans’ celebrated red light district “Storyville” in 1917. Many New Orleans musicians also performed in bands on steamboats traveling up and down the Mississippi River and so it has long been said that jazz “traveled up the river from New Orleans” to Chicago.

In William Howland Kenney’s Chicago Jazz: A Cultural History, 1904-1930, he argues that, in reality, the closure of Storyville was not necessarily the “final straw” that pushed jazz musicians upwards to Chicago – it only pushed the music (and the scandalous activities that took place in Storyville) to other surrounding neighborhoods in New Orleans. And while there’s no doubt that jazz was traveling up and down the country in the riverboats, the Mississippi River doesn’t flow through or very near Chicago.

Instead, the most logical explanation for the shift from New Orleans to Chicago lies in the first wave of the Great Migration (generally regarded to have occurred from 1910-1930), in which many African-Americans moved from the rural American South to Northeastern and Midwestern cities. Jazz musicians were particularly interested in Chicago because of its thriving market for entertainment and popular music development.

Jazz greats such as Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jimmie Noone, and Jelly Roll Morton began to reach much critical, popular and creative acclaim following their move to Chicago’s South Side in the late 1910s. While they brought the music of New Orleans with them, they also began adapting the music to fit the city and in doing so, they inspired musicians of all races from all over town including young, aspiring white musicians from the suburbs known as the Austin High Gang and a fellow from Iowa named Bix Beiderbecke.

Chicago-style jazz of the 1920s and early 1930s is characterized by a very hot, energetic, almost frantic sound. While Chicago-style still utilizes collective improvisation, the focus on individual soloists becomes incredibly important. In this style, elaborate introductions and endings become increasingly common, saxophones began to take on a role in jazz, and time signatures generally switch from the common New Orleans 4/4 to a shuffling 2/4. Where New Orleans-style was characterized by a sense of ease and leisure, Chicago-style is all about tension and drive. Chicago-style bands tended to be of a small or moderate size, usually consisting of no more than 9 or 10 players.

The End of The Chicago-Style Era

One of the biggest factors in the death of the Chicago-style was the end of the Jazz Age, particularly the end of Prohibition and the onset of the Great Depression.

A crackdown on the organized crime that was centered in 1920s Chicago brought the first blow. The brutal St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 drove the public to push for more police control. Police raids on speakeasies, especially South Side clubs, increased and this actually increased gang violence for a while, making clubs even more unsafe for jazz musicians.

In what History and Tradition of Jazz author Thomas Larson calls “the final blow to the jazz age in Chicago,” the twenty-first amendment – the repeal of Prohibition – was passed in 1933. With the repeal of prohibition on alcohol and increased political reforming, many key Chicago speakeasies and nightclubs closed. The Jazz Age, with its loose morals and bootleg gin on which this style of jazz thrived, was officially over.

And though New York had already begun to tantalize and pull in jazz musicians in the late 1920s, the city now seemed even more inviting. With the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression on the rise, jazz musicians were drawn to the jobs available in New York’s many nightclubs and theaters. Radio and recording industries, as well as the sheet music publishers of “Tin Pan Alley,” were now centered in New York.

But what may have also had a detrimental effect on the demise of the Chicago-style was the tragic deaths of many of its key players. The deaths of cornetist Bix Beiderbecke and reedman Frank Teschemacher, two of the most influential musicians of the style, were especially hard-hitting blows. [Editor – Also see article on Frank Teschemacher here]

Bix Beiderbecke was a huge influential and innovative figure in the midwestern jazz scene of the 1920s, alongside Louis Armstrong (and both men were mutual admirers). Part of Beiderbecke’s unique musical voice was his clear, bell-like tone on the cornet and a cooler, more lyrical approach to jazz, decades before the cool jazz movement. He had an impeccable musical ear and he was a huge influence to black and white musicians alike.

Frank Teschemacher, commonly known as “Tesch,” was one of the original members (and, according to many, the musical leader) of the infamous Austin High Gang, a group of young men from the Chicago suburbs who were instrumental in forming the Chicago-style. Teschemacher’s style of playing the clarinet and alto sax was incredibly unique and distinctive – angular, fiery, and passionate, with a piercing tone. The wild, driving characteristics of Tesch’s playing became characteristic of the Chicago-style as a whole.

Though Beiderbecke’s death in 1931 was not entirely unexpected (Paul Whiteman had granted him a paid leave to rest due to noticeable health ailments), it had an incredible impact on the jazz scene that was felt far and wide. The death of such an influential figure, along with the societal factors previously mentioned, left many musicians mournful and discouraged.

Teschemacher, an ardent admirer of Bix Beiderbecke, unfortunately met an untimely end like his hero. His death, however, was far more sudden and unexpected: he died from severe head injuries following a car accident in which trumpeter “Wild Bill” Davison was driving the automobile. The two were putting together their own big band, a project which ultimately fell apart after the abrupt tragedy.

Beiderbecke’s death is the most remembered and may have had a wider impact on a larger scale but Teschemacher’s death was basically the final straw. In the Teschemacher entry of American National Biography, he is described as “perhaps the most versatile of the Beiderbecke disciples” and, after Beiderbecke’s death, he was “their most ardent cheerleader.” With his death, Chicago-style jazz had lost its last ringleader, and many believe the spirit of the Chicago-style died with him. The fact that Beiderbecke, a giant in the scene, and Teschemacher, the dedicated disciple, died within months of each other was daunting. Some of the younger budding jazzmen at the time even started wondering if Chicago jazz was cursed. *

Jazz mythos aside, it is extremely odd that so many key players were taken so soon and within such a short time-frame. Clarinetist Don Murray, who played with and was close friends with Bix Beiderbecke, died a few years prior to Bix in 1929, from severe head injuries after a car accident at age 25… eerily similar to Tesch’s death three years later. Eddie Lang, a guitarist most notable for his work alongside Bix and Frank Trumbauer, died a year after Teschemacher from complications following a tonsillectomy.

Interestingly enough, an In Memoriam page for these 4 young jazzmen (and Carleton Coon of the Coon-Sanders Orchestra) appears in a concert program for “New York’s First Swing Music Concert,” held at the Imperial Theatre on May 24, 1936. It seems symbolic of the transition from Chicago-style to swing – simultaneously honoring the ill-fated Chicago-style and its innovative players while celebrating the onset of the swing era.

The Dawn of the Swing Era

So the music began to lose some of the gritty “edge” that helped characterize the Chicago-style and, though still loud and exuberant, it became smoother, more dance-oriented, and more commercially-appealing. Jazz took on the new form of swing, and in this new form jazz became the mainstream popular music. Big bands are truly big, usually with 17 or more players, neatly divided into sections by instrument. Collective improvisation is even less important as individual solos become the norm.

Many credit Benny Goodman’s incredibly well-received concert at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1936 to have been the official start of what we now call the swing era. Goodman himself came of age in the Chicago-style era and was well-associated with the Austin High Gang.

Benny Goodman became one of the most popular bandleaders of the age of swing but he was far from the only one. Other bandleaders such as Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Count Basie, and Glenn Miller were elevated to a celebrity status and became household names.

The swing era injected a country struck by a harsh economic depression with the vigor and optimism to keep going. With its harmonic sophistication and danceable rhythms, swing music brought jazz to an even more widespread audience and provided a high-energy yet sentimental soundtrack for the war years ahead.

* I cannot for the life of me find where I had read this anecdote, though I clearly remember reading it. I, unfortunately, failed to cite it any of my notes. If anyone happens to find the source to this, please, please let me know so I can make note of it here!

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