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Early New Orleans and Chicago Style Jazz

Chapter Summary

New Orleans

New Orleans bred more notable jazz musicians than any other region of the country. It is often credited as the city that gave birth to jazz. However, the more in-depth the research, the more difficult it is to claim one city as the origin. New Orleans is an exciting city that keeps alive many of its early customs and traditions. The city is tolerant of all races and was a natural setting for the music of West Africa and Europe to meet and merge. When considering New Orleans the birthplace of jazz, one must keep in mind that slaves were brought first to Virginia in 1619 and that the first instrumental jazz was recorded in New York City in 1917.

New Orleans provided a receptive environment for jazz to develop and grow. All “Early New Orleans” bands did not sound the same. The style of playing varied with the job, whether it was music for a parade, funeral, or dancing. Melody was fixed but everything else was improvised during performance. Music played in some African American clubs was considered too “rough” by established New Orleans society. By contrast, music played for white dances had a “sweeter” style.


Storyville was a section of New Orleans where early jazz developed and flourished until the district was closed in 1917. This part of town owes its name to Sidney Story, a city official who supported an ordinance that confined this red-light district to a 38-block area. Storyville made important contributions to the beginnings of jazz.

Characteristics of Dixieland

Primary characteristics of Dixieland music include rhythmic complexity, collective improvisation, creative interaction and instrumental independence among the players. The structure of Dixieland music consisted of:

  1. ensemble chorus
  2. solo choruses
  3. return to the ensemble chorus

Each frontline instrumentalist (cornet, clarinet, & trombone) had specific playing obligations to fulfill. Frontline players played their parts polyphonically (simultaneous melodic lines). The cornet (trumpet) played melody because it was the loudest instrument in the orchestra. The clarinet had a dual role. First, the clarinet played harmony and second, because it is more agile than coronet, it was used to create momentum. The trombone plays the most important note of a chord, the bass note, to mark the change in harmonies. Banjo, tuba and drums play the rhythm parts in a flat four beat with no accents. Early Dixieland groups did not use piano.

Band leader Joe “King” Oliver (1885–1938) was the last trumpeter to be called “King.” He led King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and was the most important figure of the Early New Orleans style. Oliver achieved a wide array of sounds on his trumpet. He mentored and taught Louis Armstrong.

Sidney Bechet (1897–1959) was a child prodigy who began playing professionally in 1903. Bechet was the first jazz musician to achieve fame with his soprano sax, though he also played the clarinet. His sax playing produced a rich and heavy vibrato. Bechet moved to Chicago as did other well-known musicians and bands and later traveled to Europe to perform. Sidney Bechet rivaled Armstrong as one of the important solo improvisers from New Orleans.

Out of New Orleans

Jazz spread to Chicago in 1916 and then to New York in 1917. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band in New York consisted of a group of white musicians who copied the “black bands.”

Louis Armstrong (1901–1971) is considered the greatest of all jazz musicians. He displayed amazing technical abilities as a performer. Armstrong took up the trumpet in reform school and later joined the school band and chorus. He started to play for social affairs outside his home and became Joe “King” Oliver’s protégé. Armstrong is considered the greatest trumpet player who ever lived and a genius of improvisation. He had great musical tone, stamina, range, creativity, and technique. In addition to his instrumental skill, he is considered one of the best jazz singers. Throughout his career, he became great as a showman and even a comedian. Louis Armstrong strived to please his audiences and amazed them with his playing style.

Chicago Style (the 1920s)

The “Roaring Twenties” was a time of straw hats, arm bands, Model T and Model A Fords, raccoon coats, and new dances like the Charleston. Chicago at this time enjoyed prosperity. Gangsters ruled the city and operated “speakeasies” (nightclubs in the 1920s that typically sold alcohol illegally during the period of Prohibition). Speakeasies offered musicians many opportunities for employment. During the Twenties, recordings were done in New York City and on the outskirts of Chicago.

The New Orleans and Chicago Styles

Both styles used cornet, trombone, clarinet and drums, added the piano, and replaced the tuba with the string bass. New Orleans style was “marching” music and, unfortunately, not many recordings exist. Chicago Style differentiated itself from that of New Orleans in several ways:

  • A saxophone was added.
  • Guitar replace the banjo.
  • Elaborate introductions and endings were common.
  • Ease and relaxation in playing style gave way to tension and drive.
  • Individual solos were more important than the collective improvisation.
  • The time signature and rhythm changed from 4/4 to 2/4 (accenting beats 2 and 4, rather than 1 and 3).

The move of jazz from New Orleans to the North shifted the emphasis from a predominately “ensemble style” of playing to one that centered on the soloist. This was due to the influence of Louis Armstrong.

The 1920s brought many professionally trained instrumentalists into jazz. Until the 1920s jazz was mainly an African American folk art form. Chicago style used large numbers of white players with formal musical training. Ironically, one of the most popular groups in Chicago was called the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.

A significant artist of this time was Earl Hines (1903–1983) who was influenced by Louis Armstrong. He developed what was called the “trumpet style,” or melodic style, of playing the piano. Bix Beiderbecke (1903–1931) was an excellent white trumpeter who played creative ideas with great vitality.

Later Developments

Musicians such as the Dorsey Brothers and Bob Crosby perpetuated the Chicago Style and adapted jazz for larger orchestras. Complete sections would play written parts based on lines originally invented for one instrument. Larger bands began to absorb the better jazz players. Some historians feel that the Jazz Age ended around 1927 although jazz music would continue. By the end of the 1920s, the heart of jazz had moved again; this time from Chicago to New York.

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