What is it about jazz that grabs me, calms my spirit, focuses my mind? I enjoy jazz almost every evening. It is my tranquilizer after the cares of the day. It provokes memory and imagination and relaxation. It shows that there is no monopoly on joy.
Our family listened to all kinds of music. But it was jazz that grabbed me, and it has held me all my life. At the age of three or four, I was already hooked. I first heard Louis Armstrong when I was at most five years old. I had friends, long before I ever met Nat Cole in high school, who were playing jazz as children. You couldn’t walk down a street in this neighborhood, any street, and not hear some jazz. There were teachers all over, musicians who supplemented their income by giving lessons. I didn’t learn how to play, but I was so crazy about jazz that when I heard Duke Ellington and then saw Johnny Hodges, I became captivated.
My daddy worked hard. When he got a job at the U.S. Steel mill in south Chicago, he worked a ten-or twelve- hour day. But on Saturday we would enjoy music together. On Sunday, we’d go to church and hear some good gospel or some spiritual music. We’d come home, and Daddy would put on Ethel Waters or Louis Armstrong, and we’d dance and share our feelings of spirit together. I know this is no longer the scheme of life. But this is what music can do. You want it to do what that music did for our families and for our sense of community— even across racial boundaries, as occurred when Tommy Dorsey and other whites began to come into our area to hear and share jazz.
As a kid, what I wanted was to play alto sax. What my mama wanted was for me to play piano. She gave me the money to go take piano lessons at Warwick Hall with Erskine Tate, a big- time bandleader who played in the pit bands of the movie theaters when films were silent. The multitalented Mr. Tate was a jazz violinist, a pianist, and a composer. His extraordinary band gave many top artists their start. In his big band, at
various times, he had Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, and so many of the greats. He also gave music lessons, as did the members of his band. I’d usually walk right on past Mr. Tate’s place and spend the money going to the movie theater instead. I did learn where middle C was, and I could play “Little Boy in a Boat.” But when Mama found out what I was up to, she stopped giving me the money for lessons.
Years later, I returned to Warwick Hall as a teenager. The hall was the live performance venue in the Warwick Hotel at Forty- Seventh and St. Lawrence Avenue. Many big bands played the Warwick, and the bands of high school– aged musicians were wildly popular. Several professional musicians had studios in the building, including my momentary piano teacher Erskine Tate.
In the 1930s, Warwick Hall offered afternoon dance parties a few times a week, and “Battle of Rhythm” competitions, where teens could socialize and dance to live music. Many of the bands who performed there featured outstanding high school musicians like my DuSable classmate Nat Cole and his “Rogues of Rhythm,” and the multitalented Ray Nance— singer, trumpeter, violinist— who attended Wendell Phillips High School and went on to play and collaborate with Duke Ellington. There was Tony Fambro, who went to Hyde Park High and played the alto sax. Fambro gave his band the daring name “Jungle Rhythm Orchestra.” These were all youngsters from the neighborhood who went on to establish musical dynasties. The older musicians who played in the pit bands were their mentors and coaches. Earl “Fatha” Hines, arguably the greatest pianist of the day, loved to sit at the piano with Nat Cole and encourage him.
I am neither a musicologist nor an academic expert on music. But I guess when you live this long, you stumble across some information. My childhood and my adolescence happened to occur in the height of the Jazz Age, and nowhere was that period richer or more alive than in our South Side neighborhood, my Sacred Ground.
Again, we were very densely packed into our ghetto. When I say ghetto, I refer not simply to poverty, but to the confinement, as was true in the Jewish ghettos in Europe. You were confined because of race. All the social classes were here. And the parallel institutions that we created helped us to get and somehow control that which we needed to survive, including our culture, our arts. We had a movement of socially conscious artists in all fields— revolutionary visual artists like my friends Margaret Burroughs and Charles White, playwrights and novelists, dancers and poets, and above all, musicians. We had everyone from Archibald Motley to Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, but the musicians still stand out. Under these conditions arose our uniquely American classical music: jazz.
After human beings showed up on this earth more than a million years ago, there were three fundamental things they had to have in order to survive: food, clothing, and shelter. These are universals. Everyone needs them. But after you get these three, what do you do next? Now that you’re feeling pretty comfortable, you want to have some fun. And the way to have that fun is to be creative. It can be art, it can be athletics. But for many, if not most people, it’s music— either making it or enjoying it.
In the confines of ghettoization, you may possess the academic or mechanical qualifications to fit into the larger world, but you may not have the social or political opportunities. We had lots of musicians. Our early jazz musicians were, for the most part, classically trained. Yet they could not get employment as symphonic musicians. In the period just before and during World War I, our jazz musicians became extremely popular. Some of them went off to Europe during the war, never to return to America. Black musicians continued to live in France, Switzerland, and other countries, where they found that their music was accepted and enjoyed.
Many experts have observed that jazz is a combination of the African beat and the European melodic line. Now I don’t know how accurate that definition is. But I do know that the combinations and endless variations of those diverse national and international themes and rhythms, and the act of sharing them, bring people together to appreciate the wisdom of their backgrounds.
So jazz was what joined us together— me and many others who didn’t know how to play a single note (or at least not many). On the blocks where we lived, there were no nightclubs or jazz clubs. We had what they called a Grafonola in the house, and later, a Victrola. The Grafonola had a big morning- glory horn on it, and you had to crank it in order for it to play. We had in the house the classical music of Brahms and Mozart
and all that stuff. My mama wanted to be sure we could go wherever life might take us and talk about Paderewski. That was part of our upbringing. But we also had some Bessie Smith and some Mamie Smith. And there was Louis Armstrong, whom I just adored.
When I was just five years old, Mama took my brother Walter and me to the Vendome Theater on Thirty- Third and State Street. And there I heard this magnificent sound. Louis Armstrong. I had never heard anything like that. It was for me as a small child a sound so profound and embracing. I was absolutely hypnotized by the music of Louis Armstrong. That was the day I fell in love with jazz.
Black, Timuel. Sacred Ground. With Susan Klonsky. Edited by Bart Schultz. Evanston:
Northwestern University Press, 2019. Chapter 2 excerpt of approximately 1000 words.
Copyright © 2019 by Northwestern University Press. Published 2019. All rights
Timuel D. Black Jr. is an acclaimed historian, archivist, educator, and storyteller who has spent his life furthering the cause of social justice. His two volumes of oral histories, Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s First Wave of Black Migration and Bridges of Memory: Chicago’s Second Generation of Black Migration, published by Northwestern University Press, chronicle black Chicago history from the 1920s to the present.
Link to University of Chicago’s “The Time and Times of Timuel D. Black: A Centenary Sympostium.”