Program : 
Swinging on the South Side: The Heartbeat of Chicago Jazz

Earl Hines and his Orchestra at The Grand Terrace, from the Earl Hines and Stanley Dance Collection.

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


Bandleader Eddie Condon claimed that in 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 extended 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 piano player 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 where they appeared on the vaudeville circuit with bicyclists, comedy acts—and a female impersonator.



Freddie Keppard's Original Creole Orchestra, 1922. Courtesy Red Hot Jazz.

The Original Creole Band had talented New Orleans jazz musicians in 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, jumpstarting 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 a consistently high quality of jazz. The house band, Sugar Johnny’s Creole Orchestra, presented star soloists from New Orleans like Sidney Bechet.


Vasser’s Scale Steppers at the Lincoln Gardens, cir. 1920. John Steiner Papers, Chicago Jazz Archive, University of Chicago Library.

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 Orchestra. Backed by a floor show with two dozen chorus girls in tiger skin costumes, the tap-dancing Nicholas Brothers, and a twelve-piece jazz band, Earl Hines was on the brink of success when he opened there in the late 20s.


This week on Riverwalk Jazz vocalist Topsy Chapman, singer Vernel Bagneris, trumpeter Duke Heitger and pianist Dick Hyman join The Jim Cullum 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.


Photo credit for Home Page:Earl Hines by the Grand Terrace marquee. Photo courtesy Earl Hines and Stanley Dance Collection, from World of Earl Hines by Stanley Dance.