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Swinging On The South Side: The Heartbeat Of Chicago Jazz This Week On Riverwalk Jazz

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Jim Cullum Jr.
This week on Riverwalk Jazz, vocalists Topsy Chapman and Vernel Bagneris, trumpeter Duke Heitger and pianist Dick Hyman join The Jim Cullum Jr. Jazz Band—club-hopping on the South Side of Chicago from the “black and tans" of the ’20s to the grand ballrooms of the ’30s.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website. You can also drop in on a continuous stream of shows at the Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound.

Tony Jackson arrived in Chicago from New Orleans in 1912, and Jelly Roll Morton showed up soon after. By 1918, New Orleans jazzmen Sidney Bechet, Freddie Keppard and Joe King Oliver were playing South Side cabarets— the DeLuxe, Dreamland and the Royal Gardens.

Bandleader Eddie Condon claimed that at the height of the Jazz Age, if you “held up a trumpet in the night air of The Stroll, it would play itself!” The Stroll was the “bright light" district on South State Street in the years before World War I when the black population in Chicago began to surge. It was a “black Bohemia" of crowded streets where cabarets and pool halls, vaudeville theaters, dance palaces and chop suey parlors provided the backdrop for fast-paced nightlife.

Click here to view a photo gallery of the South Side of Chicago in the early days of jazz

The most elaborate hotspot on The Stroll around 1913 was Teenan Jones’ Elite Club offering fine wines and cigars, and a cabaret where New Orleans’ top ragtime pianist Tony Jackson performed. But big changes were about to happen to the Chicago music scene. A sensational new sound hit the city in 1915: The Original Creole Band—a seven-piece ensemble from New Orleans—stole the show at the Grand Theater on South State. They appeared there on the vaudeville circuit with bicyclists, comedy acts—and a female impersonator.

The Original Creole Band boasted top-shelf New Orleans jazz players: cornetist Freddie Keppard, clarinetist Jimmie Noone and bassist Bill Johnson. Later, Johnson would play with King Oliver at the Lincoln Gardens. And both Keppard and Noone would lead their own bands in Chicago, jump-starting the electrifying jazz scene on the South Side in the ’20s.

As the black population in Chicago grew, the epicenter of nightlife known as The Stroll moved south to the Royal Gardens ballroom on 31st and Cottage Grove, then on down to 35th Street—home of the top “black and tan" cabarets—the Dreamland, the Sunset, and the De Luxe Cafe. Amenities at the De Luxe included a billiard room, a bar, a dance floor and consistently high-quality jazz. The house band, Sugar Johnny’s Creole Orchestra, presented star soloists from New Orleans like Sidney Bechet.

Prohibition raids and gangland violence eventually put an end to The Stroll and the “black and tan" nightclub scene of the Roaring Twenties. The grand opening of the Savoy Ballroom and Regal Theater at 47th and South Parkway also took a toll. Operated by a franchise out of New York, it was the most elegant entertainment complex in the city.

On South Parkway, six blocks away from the Savoy, the Grand Terrace Café was a showplace for Earl Hines and his twelve-piece Orchestra. The elaborate floor show featured two dozen chorus girls in tiger skin costumes and the tap-dancing Nicholas Brothers.

Hines' residency at the Grand Terrace lasted 12 years, through the worst of the Great Depression. This long engagement, frequently broadcast live over national radio, was a very important influence for a generation of jazz musicians who played in the band or heard the broadcasts. The list of jazz players who were “schooled" by Hines is a long one—Nat Cole, Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Jess Stacy, singers Sarah Vaughan and Billy Eckstine,Teddie Wilson and many more. Kansas City pianist and bandleader Jay McShann said, “My real education came from Earl Hines. When 'Fatha' went off the air, I went to bed."

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