The story of jazz is the story of people and the cities they live in.
New Orleans contributed most to the beginnings of jazz in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but which city holds the title of “ ” by the 1920s is slightly unclear. Certainly, the contest is between Most Important Jazz City Chicago with its South Side clubs and New York with its Harlem and Times Square clubs. Although Chicago did contribute a lot to the development of jazz in the 1920s, New York helped jazz to mature much more than ever could have. Essentially, both cities were fertile lands for jazz, but Chicago had a richer musical history, a unique socioeconomic situation for the black population, and the attention of the nation and the world – all extra fertilizers for growing jazz. New York
The social landscape of 1920s
New York for blacks offered a distinct opportunity: the Harlem Renaissance, a milieu of new black culture, art, literature, and music, but also representative of a divide between the black upper and lower classes living in Harlem, the largest black population in the nation. In Ted Gioia’s History of Jazz, he points out that “Jazz was very much a part of this second Harlem – more at home here than in the “other” Harlem of high culture and higher aspirations. True, the Harlem Renaissance created an ideology, a cultural context for jazz. But the Harlem of rent parties and underground economies created music (94, emphasis added). It was this cultural context that New York possessed and Chicago lacked – although Chicago’s South Side had a thriving jazz scene, the eyes of the nation and the world were set on . Whether or not the literary elite of Harlem liked it, lower class New York Harlem, including jazz, was a crucial part of their Renaissance.
Before Harlem, the largest black community in
New York was San Juan Hill, and sure enough, the history of jazz is tied to this location as well. This is also something Chicago lacked: an older foundation of black musicians who created this cultural context in early on. As Professor Stewart pointed out in lecture, James P. Johnson and his predecessors had been making music even before New Orleans jazz took hold, developing the famous stride piano style that would be crucial to the growth of jazz when it reached New York (Oct 21). Using the piano, Johnson was able “to bridge [the] gap between highbrow and lowbrow” in black culture, as the piano was both “a calling card of lowbrow nightlife” as well as “a symbol of middle-class prosperity” (Gioia, 95-6). Johnson’s work gave the gift of a new piano style to other New York jazz stars such as Willie “the Lion” Smith, Thomas “Fats” Waller, Art Tatum, and more, making stride piano the true musical landmark of New York jazz. New York
New York being New York, the new jazz styles that grew out of the art being formed in San Juan Hill and Harlem soon became part of the cultural dialogue in the wider urban community. Jazz truly became part of the club scene in Times Square when artists such as Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson began to perform there. ’s arranger, Don Redman, essentially gave birth to the modern saxophone there (Discussion, Oct 25), and Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra commercialized jazz for a larger white population (Lecture, Oct 21). The list of famous artists and bands goes on. Henderson