Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

Chicago's music scene an early crucible for civil rights

Rich heritage of jazz, blues and gospel to be honored at Civil Rights Game

CHICAGO -- Carlos Johnson has been playing the blues in Chicago for more than 40 years, and he says the secret to the popularity of the genre -- which originated in the South -- is the expression of deep suffering that permeates its roots.

"[Blues music] was kind of adaptable because coming from the South there was not a lot of opulence for African-Americans," said Johnson during a break between sets at the Buddy Guy's Legends blues bar. "So when we got here, we basically had the same thing -- but just on a higher level.

"The level of struggle and pain and indifference was still there, so the music developed that. Any time you're in a social environment and you're doing anything, it absorbs you."

As he made his way among the audience members with his electric guitar, Johnson was absorbed in his music -- the passion that has taken him around the globe, singing the blues in places like Japan and Argentina.

But Johnson's home, like the home of the blues, is Chicago, whose White Sox will host the Civil Rights Game on Saturday at U.S. Cellular Field. The game itself will be preceded by a roundtable discussion at 12:30 p.m. CT on Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center, featuring White Sox executive vice president Kenny Williams and moderator Harold Reynolds, and the Beacon Awards Luncheon at 11:30 a.m. CT on Saturday at the Downtown Chicago Marriott Magnificent Mile. Tickets for Saturday's luncheon -- featuring Commissioner Bud Selig, Beacon Award winner Bo Jackson, Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, White Sox great Minnie Minoso, Cubs great Ferguson Jenkins and keynote speaker Michael Wilbon -- can be purchased at

Legendary singer Aretha Franklin, the Beacon of Change honoree, informed Major League Baseball on Monday that she will not be able to attend the luncheon because of health reasons.

The blues genre -- which is joined by jazz and gospel to form a powerful and world-famous musical triumvirate in the city -- is thought to have originated in the Mississippi River Delta and migrated north with the hundreds of thousands of African-Americans who relocated as part of the Great Migration that began around 1916.

The early blues genre in Chicago was a "country blues" style, of which there were many variations -- including the Delta blues (from Mississippi), Texas blues, Saint Louis blues, Kansas City blues, Piedmont blues and Memphis blues.

An urban style of the blues became popular in Chicago, beginning with the second wave of the Great Migration. The first wave was during World War I, when European immigration to the U.S. was halted, creating job opportunities for African-Americans in the North. The second wave came with the begining of World War II, which resulted in many new industrial jobs during the war effort, and the migration continued until 1970.

Pioneers of the new urban blues style, which came to be known as "Chicago blues," included McKinley Morganfield (better known as Muddy Waters), Chester Arthur Burnett (better known as Howlin' Wolf) and Willie Dixon. All three came to Chicago as part of the Great Migration, and in the 1950s, they incorporated electric guitars and amplified harmonicas into their sound. They became major influences on popular music at large, including the development of rock 'n' roll.

Ellas Otha Bates, better known as Bo Diddley -- who moved to the South Side of Chicago with his family at age 6 in 1934 -- played a major role in the transition from blues to rock, and had a huge influence on the direction of popular music as a result. He was one of the founders of rock 'n' roll, with his unique rhythm and ability to build upon the blues, gospel and R&B music of the time.

Indeed, the African-American musical heritage that traveled to Chicago in the early 20th century, part of which evolved into the "Chicago blues," had a far-reaching impact on popular culture. It influenced such future artists as Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and many others.

The blues, however, wasn't the only musical genre African-Americans brought with them from the South when they settled in Chicago. Jazz was also central to the cultural renaissance that flourished in the city -- particularly its South Side -- following their arrival.

And while New Orleans may lay claim to being the birthplace of jazz as we know it, many of its most significant historical moments belong to Chicago.

According to Neil Tesser, adjunct lecturer on jazz history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, early jazz was a combination of musical influences from the diversity of cultures in New Orleans -- including French, Spanish and African-American.

One of the pioneers of that early form of jazz was Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe -- also known as Jelly Roll Morton -- who brought structure to the genre by becoming its first noteworthy composer, writing songs for his Red Hot Peppers group.

Morton, along with many other jazz musicians -- including the famous cornetist Joe "King" Oliver, moved to Chicago looking for opportunity after the New Orleans government in 1918 shut down Storyville, the city's red-light district, putting many of them out of work.

It was King Oliver who would bring Chicago its most famous jazz icon.

"Oliver knew Louis Armstrong from New Orleans," said Tesser. "As jazz was in its infancy, Oliver gained fame as one of the best cornet players in [New Orleans]. He acted as the younger trumpeter's mentor. A few years after Oliver moved to Chicago in 1919, he invited Armstrong to the city to play second cornet in his band, which had become the most popular and influential outfit playing the still-new music, jazz."

That band was the Creole Jazz Band, which played at Lincoln Gardens on the South Side. It soon became very apparent that the protégé was ready to surpass his mentor.

"Within a few years, the student had outstripped the master with a new, radically different approach that placed the emphasis on individual soloing instead of group improvisation," Tesser explained.

The radical departure from group improvisation to an emphasis on soloing changed the direction of the entire genre, making Armstrong -- nicknamed "Satchmo" as a shortened version of his self-given moniker, "Satchelmouth" -- one of the most influential jazz artists in history.

Armstrong's unparalleled skill and innovation led many prominent white musicians in the city to head to the South Side to see what Satchmo was all about. Artists such as Benny Goodman, Jimmy McPartland, Frank Teschemacher and Bud Freeman came to the Lincoln Gardens regularly to hear the Creole Jazz Band.

After watching the band, Goodman's group copied its style and incorporated its own edge to create the "Chicago Style" that would impact the country's jazz artists for several years to come. Goodman also eventually took an important step, not only musically but also in terms of race relations, by adding black musicians to his group.

"There's no argument that the entertainment business -- specifically popular music, which at that time was synonymous with jazz -- predated sports by a decade or so in breaking the color barrier," said Tesser. "Some of this was happening in after-hours joints in the early '30s. But the official breach occurred when Benny Goodman integrated African-Americans -- pianist Teddy Wilson and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton -- into his orchestra in 1936. Before that, blacks and whites did not play together on stage in formal settings."

Meanwhile, Armstrong would eventually take his talents to an even bigger stage: New York City. But he soon found that musical environment ill-suited for his style, prompting his return to Chicago.

"You might make the argument that the city played a part in his unhappiness, in the sense that [Armstrong's band leader Fletcher] Henderson was trying to appeal to New York's urbane, sophisticated audiences, and that this perhaps led him to stifle Armstrong," said Tesser.

"[Armstrong] found [New York] was a stifling environment," said Christopher Reed, professor emeritus of history at Roosevelt University in Chicago. "In New York, you couldn't improvise the way you could in Chicago. You had to play at a pace that the whites of New York and their segregated clubs could appreciate. ... So he left and came back to Chicago, [where] the music was so exciting that he said, 'I have to stay,' and here he became the king. ... This was unfettered creativity in Chicago."

Another legendary jazz musician of the period was Nat King Cole, who moved with his parents to the South Side community of Bronzeville when he was a young child in 1921. By the age of 15, he dropped out of school to pursue a musical career like the man who inspired him when he went to the local jazz clubs, Earl Hines.

Before he dropped out, though, Cole was a classmate of Timuel Black at DuSable High School.

"He sat right in back of me in our homeroom," said the 94-year-old Black, who has been an educator, political activist, community leader, and oral historian in Bronzeville. "[At first], we didn't know he could sing, [but] he could play the piano. He was fantastic. ... In one of his pieces that he sang, [one of the lyrics] was, 'I'm just a shy guy.' And that's the way he was, unless he was at the piano."

Cole went on to become one of the most famous jazz pianists and vocalists of his time. He even had his own television show, "The Nat King Cole Show," in 1956, becoming the first African-American performer to have his own national television variety program.

But even with stops along the way that included Hollywood, Chicago -- just as he sang in one of his songs -- was always his hometown.

With Chicago's rich jazz heritage, it's truly remarkable that the genre is only one of three distinct musical forms that the city is world famous for. But unlike jazz and blues, the third genre -- gospel -- is one that it can claim as its own from birth.

Gospel music was actually born out of a marriage of rhythm and blues with African-American church music, first combined by "the father of gospel music," a blues piano player named Thomas Dorsey.

Dorsey moved to Chicago from Georgia as part of the Great Migration in 1919, and in 1931, he assembled the first gospel choir at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

The genre would be carried and popularized by such Chicago greats as Mahalia Jackson and Inez Andrews, who was an influence on Franklin, who will be awarded by MLB for her contributions to the civil rights and gender equality movements.

Gospel, blues, and jazz music -- each in its own distinctive way, yet also as a collective -- transformed Chicago's culture over the past century, thanks to the rich musical heritage brought to the city by African-Americans who moved north in search of opportunity.

"After the jazz [musicians] headed north to Chicago, many early blues musicians followed, and gospel music was invented here," said Tesser. "And since music has always played a huge role in the lives of African-Americans, and in their African forebears, any cultural movement, [particularly] in an area as predominantly black as Chicago's South Side, would necessarily be rooted in music."

That music is one of the many facets of African-American contributions to Chicago and to the nation that will be celebrated at the Civil Rights Game, as the White Sox host not only the Texas Rangers, but the honoring of a rich culture and history.

Manny Randhawa is an associate reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @MannyBal9.
Read More: Chicago White Sox