How New York City Became the Epicenter of Jazz

A nighttime look at 52nd Street, former hotbed of jazz, circa 1948.

A nighttime look at 52nd Street, former hotbed of jazz, circa 1948.

(This story was adapted from the summer issue of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.)

Jazz has gone global. Just like your job, your mortgage and the cost of gas at the pump, the music now responds to global forces.

As a jazz critic, I now need to pay attention to the talent coming out of New Zealand, Indonesia, Lebanon, Chile, and other places previously outside my purview. Almost every major city on the planet now has homegrown talent worthy of a worldwide audience.

Yet one thing hasn’t changed on the jazz scene: New York still sits on top of the heap. Great jazz artists often don’t come from Manhattan, but they struggle to build a reputation and gain career traction if they don’t come to Manhattan.

The recent sensation over Indonesian jazz prodigy Joey Alexander is a case in point. At age 8, this formidable youngster had already caught the attention of jazz icon Herbie Hancock, and at 9, he beat out 43 musicians (of all ages) from 17 countries to win a prestigious European competition. A year later, Alexander’s parents moved to New York, realizing that even the greatest prodigy in jazz needed what only the city could offer.

How did it work out? At age 11, Alexander received a glowing write-up in The New York Times, a record contract and headline billing at the Newport Jazz Festival. He became the first Indonesian musician with a record on the Billboard 200 chart in the United States. His debut album earned two Grammy nominations, and Alexander performed on the TV broadcast, reaching an audience of 25 million people—and earning a standing ovation. None of that would have happened if the Alexander family were still living in Bali.

Joey Alexander.

Joey Alexander.

Saxophonist Melissa Aldana, recent winner of the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition, followed a similar path, moving from her native Chile to study music in Boston, and then taking the plunge into the New York jazz scene. “It’s challenging for a musician,” she says. “You have to go to jam sessions and meet the right people. You have to find a way to pay the high rent in New York. And you also have to keep focused on the creative side of your music.”

But she never considered another option. “From the start, it was where I wanted to live. New York was the place where all my idols had lived. Here you have the opportunity to play with the best of the best.” The payoff has been striking. Aldana’s recent album, Back Home, is among the most lauded jazz releases of 2016, and she seems poised to enter the upper echelon of global jazz stars.

Lara Bello, a singer and composer from Spain, has lived in New York since 2009. She’s learned that it’s actually easier to make high-level contacts in the Spanish music industry from her home base in Harlem. “If any of the big composers, writers, producers, from Spain come here, the consulate asks you to come to the meetings to be part of their welcoming to the city…It’s funny, people who in Spain are unreachable, you are side by side with in New York.”

Many jazz fans assume that New York has always been the preferred destination for up-and-coming musicians, but this hasn’t always been the case. In fact, New York came late to the jazz party.

13th August 1925: Traffic on the intersection of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City.

Traffic on the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in New York City on August 13, 1925.

Back in the Jazz Age—the name famously given to the 1920s by F. Scott Fitzgerald—Chicago was the epicenter of hot music. Before that, New Orleans stood front and center in the jazz field, at a point when most people in New York didn’t even know what the word “jazz” meant.

The first New Orleans jazz bands to perform in New York arrived in town as vaudeville acts, sharing the lineup with jugglers, comedians and other traveling entertainers. Northeast vaudeville audiences hardly expected a jazz revolution in their midst, and few had any sense that music history was being made on stage.

When legendary cornetist Freddie Keppard brought authentic New Orleans jazz to New York’s Winter Garden in 1915, the New York Clipper reviewer praised the band solely for its “comedy effect” and ignored the music while lavishing attention on the accompanying dance of an “old darkey” who “did pound those boards until the kinks in his knees reminded him of his age.” When the band returned in 1917, press coverage was even less enthusiastic; one reviewer denounced “a noise that some persons called ‘music’ ” and insisted that the musicians were “each vying with the other in an effort to produce discord.”

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a group of white New Orleans musicians, got a better reception in New York that year. Columbia Records, hoping to capitalize on the group’s successful engagement at Reisenweber’s Cafe in Manhattan, invited the musicians to its Woolworth Building studio on January 31, 1917. But the label execs decided that the ensemble’s strange, loud music was too noisy to record. They dismissed the players before the day was done, and no records were issued. Four weeks later, the Victor label succeeded in recording the band in its New York studio, and the resulting tracks—the first jazz records ever—were instant hits, eventually selling more than 1 million copies.

Here at the dawn of jazz recordings, New York could have outpaced the competition and taken the lead. But the Original Dixieland Jazz Band soon left New York to enjoy a long residency in Europe. New York record labels might have seized the opportunity by signing the leading African-American musicians from the South, but for a variety of reasons, they didn’t.

I suspect that many record executives saw those first jazz records as novelties—much of the appeal of the ODJB’s hit record “Livery Stable Blues” came from the band’s imitation of farm animals with their instruments—and not the birth of a new art form. Why invest time and energy, they may have felt, imitating a fluke hit that will soon sound stale? But even record producers who grasped the commercial potential of jazz soon ran into obstacles, including well-publicized denunciations from prominent New Yorkers who found this new style too ragged, too noisy, or just too sinful.

The musicians themselves may have been the biggest obstacles of all. Many were reluctant to make recordings for New York labels.

When W. C. Handy, then living in Memphis, was invited to bring a 12-piece band to New York to record for Columbia, he could find only four musicians willing to make the trip. He traveled to Chicago to fill the remaining spots, but encountered hesitancy and suspicion there, too. “Like Memphians, Chicago musicians had never heard of a colored band traveling to and from New York to make records,” he later recalled. When Freddie Keppard had a chance to make the first jazz recordings for Victor in 1916, he also expressed reservations, but for a different reason. “Nothin’ doin’ boys,” he told his bandmates. “We won’t put our stuff on records for everybody to steal.”

Meanwhile, jazz was taking Chicago by storm. The greatest talents in New Orleans jazz set up shop in the Windy City during the years following World War I. Sidney Bechet moved to Chicago in 1917. Jelly Roll Morton had visited Chicago in 1914 and would later return for a long stay—the city served as his home base when he made his most important recordings in the 1920s. King Oliver first found widespread acclaim as a Chicago bandleader during that same period, and Louis Armstrong first came to public attention as a member of Oliver’s ensemble, while it was performing in Chicago.

Why did jazz ever leave New Orleans? Today, the Big Easy still tries to build tourism claims around its jazz heritage, but all the boasting and brochures can’t hide the fact that New Orleans’ jazz scene has been declining for almost 100 years. In 1918, Columbia Records tried to seize the momentum of the first jazz records by sending talent scout Ralph Peer to search for recording acts, but Peer shocked the home office with his telegram after three weeks on the job: “no jazz bands in new orleans.”

That was a slight exaggeration. A few outstanding jazz players still made their homes in New Orleans. Check out the music that trumpeter Sam Morgan later recorded for Columbia, which testifies to the homegrown talent that stayed in the Crescent City. Nonetheless, the most famous jazz musicians from New Orleans had already left home by the time the public started talking about the “Jazz Age,” and the city wouldn’t come to the forefront of the idiom again until the rise of Wynton Marsalis and others in the 1980s.

The usual reason given for the departure of the first generation of New Orleans talent is the closure of the city’s red-light district in 1917. Without brothels, the story goes, jazz musicians had no place to play. The real history is more complex. True, many musicians lost gigs as a result of the navy’s determination to clean up New Orleans, but other factors contributed to this exodus, from the influenza epidemic that ravaged the city to sheer wanderlust.

But the biggest reason jazz musicians had for moving to Chicago was the simple desire to escape the institutionalized racism of the South and find better economic opportunities. A half-million African-Americans eventually relocated from Southern states to Chicago—musicians, along with everyone else.

A colorful tale is often told about jazz musicians moving into the Midwest via Mississippi River steamboats. In fact, this migration mostly took place via railroads, and scholars have shown that a black Southerner’s likelihood of migrating north could be predicted based on the proximity of a railroad station to the person’s place of birth. Many made their relocation decisions depending on which major city lay at the end of the line. The Great Migration changed the musical history of America, with blacks from Louisiana and Mississippi—along with their jazz and blues traditions—often settling in Chicago, while those from Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas frequently headed for New York.

New York City's East Side in the 1925.

New York City’s East Side in 1925.

Here, at the outset of jazz’s dissemination into the broader culture, New York seemed as though it would miss out on most of the fun.

In the early 1920s, New York newspapers often reported on exciting jazz performances in Chicago—and sometimes even featured ads for the more popular Windy City nightspots. As hard as it is to believe today, New York’s music scene suffered from an excess of virtue and public morality. Until the 1926 election of Mayor Jimmy Walker, whose tolerance for illegal speakeasies (where he could often be found) changed the tone of New York nightlife, Chicago had a definite advantage in partying after dark.

New York also saw its black population grow during this period, but its most significant contribution to the jazz idiom in the early 1920s came mainly from local talent. The first native New York jazz style was “Harlem stride,” a rambunctious piano music. The name refers to the striding motion of the performer’s left hand, which dances back and forth from the bottom of the keyboard to the middle register on every beat, as well as to the New York neighborhood where this performance style flourished.

New York native Thomas “Fats” Waller probably did more than anyone to prove that the city didn’t always need to import its jazz talent. He was the most famous of the Harlem stride players, but a host of other brilliant keyboardists—including James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Donald Lambert, Luckey Roberts, and Art Tatum—were also major contributors to the movement. With the exception of Tatum, all these musicians were born in the Northeast.

American jazz band leader and composer, Duke Ellington.

American jazz band leader and composer, Duke Ellington.

I suspect that Duke Ellington’s decision to move from Washington, D.C., to Harlem in the early 1920s—in retrospect, a turning point in jazz history—was spurred by the vibrancy of the local piano tradition. At that juncture, Chicago still would have been the favored destination for most aspiring jazz talents, but as a professional pianist immersed in the stride tradition, Ellington had different priorities.

Soon, others followed in Ellington’s footsteps.

As New York grew more familiar with vice and alcohol-fueled nightlife in the late 1920s, under the benign supervision of Mayor Walker, a host of jazz stars left Chicago for Manhattan.

In 1928, Ben Pollack moved his successful jazz orchestra from Chicago’s Southmoor Hotel to New York, where he settled into a residency at the Park Central Hotel. Band member Benny Goodman, a native Chicagoan and the most successful musician from that city during the Swing Era, found frequent work in the New York studios, and never looked back. Louis Armstrong had made a brief stay in New York to join Fletcher Henderson’s band in 1924. He soon retreated to Chicago, but his triumphant Manhattan return in 1929 to perform in the Hot Chocolates revue proved a milestone in his career. Armstrong bought a house in Queens, and kept it as his home base for the last 28 years of his life.

By 1930, New York had replaced Chicago as the center of the jazz world. For a brief spell, Kansas City looked like a contender, but that city couldn’t hold on to its talent. The most important band in Kansas City jazz, Count Basie’s hot orchestra, with sax icon Lester Young in its horn section, set up a new home base at the Woodside Hotel in Queens in 1937 and was soon drawing dazzling audiences at the Roseland Ballroom, Savoy Ballroom, and Apollo Theater. A few months later, saxophonist Charlie Parker—the greatest jazz talent to come out of Kansas City—also relocated to Gotham. By then, the verdict was clear: those who aspired to jazz stardom had to prove their mettle in Manhattan.

Charlie Parker playing at Three Deuces in Manhattan.

Charlie Parker playing at the Three Deuces in Manhattan.

Since that time, New York has faced only one serious challenge to its jazz dominance. In the 1950s, West Coast jazz captivated music fans, and the jazz press began writing about California and New York as rivals for up-and-coming talent.

The West Coast not only boasted world-beating homegrown musicians, such as Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and Art Pepper, but also attracted a host of aspiring stars who saw California as a suitable home base for a jazz career. Hollywood film studios needed skilled musicians, as did television, commercials, and all the other ancillary entertainment businesses that flourished in the L.A. area during the years following World War II. For the first time in a quarter of a century, an aspiring jazz musician had two options—East or West?—and many opted for the Pacific Coast. As I heard one musician opine: “I figured I could starve or freeze in New York, but in L.A., I’d only starve.”

But the West Coast jazz scene—like those in Kansas City and Chicago before it—couldn’t hold on to its star talent. Musicians who first made their name in California—Brubeck, Mingus, Ornette Coleman, and many others—eventually relocated to the Northeast. Those who stayed behind often struggled for gigs and record deals. By the early 1960s, the glory days of West Coast jazz were over, and New York was again the world’s undisputed jazz center.

Why did Los Angeles falter? I put the blame on the very industry that brought musicians to California in the first place. The film business has long dominated West Coast entertainment. When forced to choose between attending a live music event or going to a movie, Los Angelenos usually pick the latter. I saw that firsthand during my teenage years in Los Angeles. My friends were movie addicts—I even had one who tried to see a different film every day of the week. When I started going to L.A. jazz clubs shortly after my 16th birthday, I found few companions willing to join me, and the nightspots themselves were rarely crowded.

My wife, a dancer and choreographer living in New York when I met her, was shocked when she moved out West by the public preference for filmed over live entertainment. “Who could possibly choose canned stuff over live performance?” she marveled, in the tone of an anthropologist faced with some disturbing local custom. But that’s the California ethos. So who could be surprised when the leading West Coast jazz clubs eventually shut down, while their East Coast equivalents flourished?

Even today, New Yorkers support live entertainment: not just jazz but the full gamut of theater, dance, chamber music, symphonies—you name it. And tourists add to the vitality of the scene, determined to take in a Broadway show or a jazz set at the Village Vanguard. In an age of virtual entertainment, Manhattan remains committed to presenting flesh-and-blood artistry on the stage.

Nat King Cole plays with his jazz orchestra on the stage of the Apollo Theatre, in Harlem, in New York in the 1950s.

Nat King Cole plays with his jazz orchestra on the stage of the Apollo Theatre, in Harlem, in New York in the 1950s.

Could this change? It’s worth noting that the New York jazz scene thrives off borrowed goods. In this regard, the jazz business isn’t much different from advertising or Wall Street. Indeed, almost every New York jazz player is a transplant. Some born in New York even see their origins as a disadvantage. When you are a hometown hero from somewhere else, laments one native New Yorker, you “have a base you can always go home to. New Yorkers do not have that option.”

Yet even native New Yorkers consider relocating when conditions get too tough. If musicians ever decide that New York just isn’t worth the hassle—and the musicians I consulted for this article offered a long list of hassles, from storing instruments to finding a place to practice—other cities might emerge as preferred destinations. And unlike Wall Street bankers, jazz players are sensitive to changes in cost of living and quality of life.

I don’t see an exodus happening any time soon. Jazz may be going global, but New York jazz musicians don’t believe that any other city offers the same opportunities and rewards.

“I feel that my career would be nonexistent elsewhere,” trombonist David Gibson tells me. “I play music with amazing musicians who both frighten and inspire with regularity. I would never encounter the challenges that the New York music scene provides daily. I’m fortunate to play many different kinds of music here and am always learning. I can be a part of a community of high-quality artists who love and honor their art…New York City is the only place that allows me to be 100 percent myself.”

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Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz.