Library #8: Drums In The Twenties On The Map: Chicago

Today, another first from DITT: we’re going to take a break from listening for once, and go all cartological instead.

In the course of writing about our Heroes, an important question I’ve tried always to bear in mind is the dissemination of musical ideas from drummer to drummer. It’s vital to consider, when discussing a particular player’s style or development, which of their peers they might have seen, heard and been influenced by, directly or indirectly, over the course of their careers. Therefore, I’ve often tried to make a point of noting those venues where our Heroes held long-term residencies, in order that I could look up what other musicians might have been playing nearby. Over time, certain addresses seemed to come up again and again, and I began putting together some rough sketch maps (see above) of areas that appeared to have been drumming hotspots during the 1920s. Gradually, I’ve come to realise that – bizarre though it might sound – looking at maps can actually enhance our understanding of music and musicians! If, for example, I read that Paul Barbarin was resident with King Oliver’s Dixie Syncopators at the Plantation Café in early 1927, it’s really worth knowing that Zutty Singleton would have been playing just next door at the Sunset Café with Carroll Dickerson, and that Johnny Wells would have been just across the street at the Apex Club with Jimmie Noone.

The majority of my little sketches involved small districts (such as the one descibed above) of the city whose legacy looms large over all others when it comes to the development of jazz in the 1920s. New Orleans may have been the birthplace of some of our most important Heroes, and New York may have been where many of them had ended up by 1930. Yet neither city can seriously rival Chicago’s claim as the true epicentre of the music during the Jazz Age’s frantic first decade, from around 1918-28. Now initially, my maps of various bits of Chicago were rough and made purely for my own reference, to help contextualise the music scene in the Toddlin’ Town and conceptualise the geographical relationship between the various entertainment neighbourhoods such as the Loop, the Stroll, and certain streets immortalised in band names and song titles, such as State Street, Wabash Avenue and the Parkway. Over time, however, it dawned on me that perhaps a more elaborate and neatly-presented version might be a real asset to DITT readers, and help to place many of our Heroes’ lives and careers into a clearer context.

Therefore, I’m excited to present the first draft of a 1920s ‘Drumming Map Of Chicago’ below!

Now it’s important when looking at this map to bear a few things in mind. Firstly, there were many, many more sites of interest I would like to have included – not least, where more of our Heroes lived – but since they were often further out from the centre of the city, they didn’t all fit comfortably onto a map that was also closely-zoomed in enough to show the relationship between all the various clubs and dancehalls in the downtown area.

There were also a great many more venues that hosted jazz in the 1920s beyond those listed here, and nearly every hotel, restaurant and movie theatre would have had a drummer of some sort playing at least occasionally. I’ve tried to focus on the places that were really significant for the important Heroes that have featured in these pages so far – or were important for jazz drumming in some other way. Doubtless, as I research more Heroes in the years to come, this map will be expanded and revised.

One interesting side note concerning the names of the various venues; note the preponderance of ‘cafés’ and ‘gardens’ – not one is place is called a ‘bar’ or ‘saloon’, despite the fact that nearly all of them actually were such establishments. Whilst this might at first seem a bit counterintuitive, we must remember that (at least post-1920), the Volstead Act prohibited the public sale and consumption of alcohol. Thus, whilst alcohol was undoubtedly purchased and consumed every night at just about every public building on the map, it would have been an extremely silly move for any of the owners to have advertised it so brazenly.

Another point is that not all venues, of course, existed concurrently. When Stein’s Band From Dixie were playing at Schiller’s Café in 1916, the large ballrooms of the Stroll either did not yet exist, or if they did, were not yet playing host to jazz bands. The epicentre of true jazz activity in fact seems to have gradually migrated South; beginning around the Loop in the late 10s and early 20s, moving to the clubs closely clustered around State Street & 35th in the middle years of the decade, then drifting further south to ‘Chicago’s Harlem’ around 47th Street towards 1927-9; as the new generation of Chicagoan-born musicians (such as the Austin High School Gang) gradually became more prominent in the north of the city.

In nearly all cases there just wasn’t the space on the labels to explain exactly why each venue was interesting or important – reference back to the ‘Hero’ articles in question (Heroes’ names are all in bold type) is recommended to provide information further to the brief tags given here.

The Heroes mentioned on the map above are, in alphabetical order; Andrew Hilaire, Anton Lada, Baby Dodds, Ben Pollack, Carleton Coon, Gene Krupa, Jasper Taylor, Johnny Wells, Jimmy Bertrand, Paul Barbarin, Tony Sbarbaro, Tubby Hall, Vic Berton, Vic Moore, Zutty Singleton.