Stories from PA History
Jazz in Pennsylvania
Jazz in Pennsylvania
Overview: Jazz in Pennsylvania

The Negro
With the trumpet at his lips
Has dark moons of weariness
Beneath his eyes
Where the smoldering memory
Of slave ships
Blazed to the crack of whips
About his thighs...

The music
From the trumpet at his lips
Is honey
Mixed with fire.
The rhythm
From the trumpet at his lips
Is ecstasy
Distilled from old desire...

Head and shoulders painting.
Langston Hughes, by Robert Shetterly.
In his great poem, "Trumpet Player: 52nd Street," African-American poet Langston Hughes, a graduate of Lincoln University in Chester County, Pennsylvania, evoked a sense of how within jazz one could hear the sound of the African-American soul. Hughes was a great lover of jazz, a form of music that spoke deeply to all races of people around the world.

Born in New Orleans in the early twentieth century, jazz was loud, raucous music that drew upon a whole range of rhythm and playing wild, highly individualistic improvisations off of the basic melody line.

During the First World War, close to a half million African Americans moved to northern cities in search of good jobs and better lives. The musicians who joined this Great Migration brought jazz north to Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and other northern cities where black southerners made new homes. Drawn by the promise of steady work and good wages, more than 200,000 southern blacks migrated to Pennsylvania from 1910 to 1920. Philadelphia's African American population swelled from 84,000 to close to 220,000 and Pittsburgh's from 34,217 in 1910 to 53,517 ten years later.

Chicago and New York quickly became the creative centers of the new music, but Philadelphia and Pittsburgh immediately became regular stops for the nation's great jazz performers and training grounds for homegrown musicians, some of whom would go on to national fame. The two cities also supported their own local dance bands and "hot" jazz combos that developed their own regional sounds.

A black and white photo of Dizzy Gillespie playing the trumpet in a club. Visible in the background are members of his band.
Dizzy Gillespie, 1948.
First associated with African-American musicians and culture, jazz in the 1920s quickly became the music of a generation. Like the decade itself, jazz was fast, loud, uninhibited, joyous and highly controversial. The controversy came from concern with the music's physically stimulating rhythms, occasionally crude lyrics, and disreputable associations; it embodied the new dynamism, permissiveness and rebellion of the Roaring Twenties.

"Jazz," wrote R. W. S. Medni in 1926, "is the product of a restless age: an age in which the fever of war is only now beginning to abate its fury; when men, and women, after their efforts in the great struggle, are still too much disturbed to be content with a tranquil existence; when freaks and stunts and sensations are the order – or disorder of the day...when America is turning out her merchandise [at] an unprecedented speed and motor cars are racing along the roads... Amid this seething, bubbling turmoil, jazz hurried along its course riding exultantly on the eddying stream."

Jazz's appeal to American youths of all races helped break down the hard lines of racial segregation. In his poem "Harlem Night Club," Langston Hughes wrote of the racial mixing unleashed by jazz's popularity; of how "White girls' eyes Call gay black boys" and "Dark brown girls in blond men's arms...Jazz-boys, jazzboy, – Play, PLAY, PLAY! Tomorrow .... Is darkness. Joy today!"

Tommy Dorsey playing the trombone and Jimmy Dorsey playing the saxophone
Movie still from The Fabulous Dorseys, with Tommy Dorsey on trombone and Jimmy...
White youths, too, joined the jazz bands. Trumpet player Bix Beiderbecke from Davenport, Iowa, violin and guitar players Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang from Philadelphia, and clarinetist Benny Goodman from Chicago all followed the call of jazz. Phonograph records and radio carried jazz into homes across the nation, putting young Americans outside the cities under its spell; kids like the Dorsey brothers in Shenandoah, a coal mining town in northeastern Pennsylvania, and bandleader Fred Waring from Tyrone, Pennsylvania. Trombonist Harold Betters got his start in a family band that played in his mother's hotel in Connellsville, swing-era vocalist Maxine Sullivan hailed from Homestead, and modern jazz pianist Keith Jarrett grew up in Allentown.

Lionel Leo Hampton(left), Benjamin David "Benny Goodman"(center), and and Theodore Shaw "Teddy" Wilson (right).
Lionel Leo Hampton(left), Benjamin David "Benny Goodman"(center), and and Theodore...
The ability of music to move our emotions - and our bodies - is a powerful one. And in the 1920s no music was more exciting, or more threatening, than jazz. Concerned parents, black and white, were quick to express their disapproval of the raucous, high-energy, and often erotic music that drew their children to nightclubs and dance halls.

In the 1920s new forms of entertainment and leisure activities fulfilled the cultural needs of millions of Americans who were living in an increasingly urban, industrial world. Immigrants from Europe, African Americans from the South, and white Americans fleeing the farms watched motion pictures, listened at home to phonographs, read magazines, and visited amusement parks, baseball stadiums, and vaudeville theaters. The great dance crazes of the 1910s and 1920s had young Americans gyrating their pelvises to erotic rhythms and grasping their partners in close embraces in the dance halls and nightclubs that sprang up in American cities.

Duke Ellington is seated at a piano, surrounded by other musicians and fans.
Duke Ellington Seated at a Piano, Philadelphia, PA, 1943.
In the 1920s white Americans fell in love with African-American music and dance. Jazz drew patrons to illegal "speakeasies" and to the black and tan clubs of Harlem and Philadelphia, clubs where the performers and staff were African-American but the patrons were white. In 1921, Sissle and Blake's Shuffle Along became the first black musical to make it on Broadway. On records, Bessie Smith's soulful blues won the hearts of white and black listeners. Broadcasting live from the Cotton Club, radio carried the sounds of Duke Ellington and his Orchestra into homes throughout the nation. White musicians like Paul Whiteman and George Gershwin also took up jazz and blues, reaching even broader audiences. Radio and records spread the new music far and wide, permanently transforming American music. White American youth embraced the African-American derived music and dance forms.

Not everyone was pleased with the new music or movies or any of the other offerings of the new mass consumer culture. Today it is difficult to realize the threat that jazz once represented to the moral order of American social and popular culture: indeed, to civilization as a whole! Parents and public officials were concerned that the "jungle rhythms" and savage crash and bang of jazz were seducing American youths into sin and lawlessness. National Music Chairman of the General Federation of Women's Clubs, Mrs. Max E. Oberndorfer spoke for mothers around the country when she warned that jazz was an "expression of protest against law and order." Fenton T. Bott of the National Association of Masters of Dancing warned that jazz dancing was "a worse evil than the saloon used to be... Those moaning saxophones and the rest of the instruments with their broken, jerky rhythm make a purely sensual appeal. They call out the low and rowdy instinct."

As jazz gained broader acceptance, however, the critics became less strident. Later generations of jazz musicians were also taking the music into new directions. Once widely considered crass and unrefined, jazz by the late twentieth century would become revered internationally as one of America's greatest art forms.

"Woogie" Harris at a piano on a small elevated stage behind a bar. Several patrons are at the bar enjoying the music.
Crawford Grill owner "Woogie" Harris, Pittsburgh, PA, circa 1950....
Though not as well known as New York or Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh both made significant contributions to the evolution of jazz in the twentieth century. Both cities had vibrant African-American communities with rich musical cultures. Both trained and nurtured musicians who found in this raucous, exciting and improvisational popular music new means of expression and new means of employment. Both cities had large populations of southern and eastern European immigrants. In their tough, working-class neighborhoods youths of different races and ethnicities participated in a music that drew on a true "melting pot" of cultural influences.

Kenny Clarke at his drums.
Kenny Clarke at his drums
During World War Two, a second great wave of southern blacks headed to northern and West Coast cities in search of jobs and a better life. Vibrant bar and club scenes in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh provided opportunities for a new generation of musicians, some of whom, including Pittsburgh's Kenny Clarke and Philadelphia's John Coltrane, went on to become central players in the Bebop revolution of the 1940s and 1950s, as well as the "New Thing" and Free Jazz movements of the 1960s. New York may have been the epicenter of American jazz, but Philadelphia and Pittsburgh played vital roles, for in these cities musicians could more easily get the union cards necessary to play the major gigs, and both had close-knit local music scenes.

Head and shoulders portrait of John Coltrane with his saxophone.
John Coltrane with his saxophone, circa 1965.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, American music - both popular and classical - mimicked that of Europe. American orchestras hired European conductors, European opera singers were the rock stars of their generations, and Tin Pan Alley songwriters churned out thousands of sentimental and romantic songs for the mass market of amateur musicians and singers who could pick out a simple tune on pianos in the family parlor. When asked in 1884 to write a book about his country's music, American music critic Richard Grant White declined on the grounds that there was nothing worth writing about!

Today, jazz is studied at universities around the world, and listened to in concert halls once reserved for the European classics. Always evolving, jazz continues to take new shapes as we enter a new period of musical synthesis and experimentation. In the last century, the musicians were newcomers, African-Americans, Italians, Jews, and others who met and played together in cities and towns across Pennsylvania and the nation.

In the twenty-first century, jazz musicians have more options and more influences than ever before. Once again, they are compelled to wrestle with new questions about musical crossover, integration, and cross-fertilization. The music that they produce may not be the jazz we once knew, but as we move into the twenty-first century, it will certainly be interesting, and Pennsylvania is sure to continue to play a vital role in its development.

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