Chicago Music History

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

Chicago's rich musical history includes important contributions to the genres of blues, jazz, and gospel by African-Americans whose families moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration of the early 20th century.

Chicago and the Great Migration

Today, Chicago is known as the home of hip-hop artists like Kanye West and Lupe Fiasco as well as rock acts like Neko Case and Wilco. But Chicago's musical roots go back to the beginning of the 20th century and include important contributions to the fields of blues, jazz, and gospel.

Much of Chicago's music scene in the first half of the twentieth century was dominated by African-American artists like Muddy Waters and Thomas A. Dorsey. The genres, or stylistic classifications, of music most associated with Chicago, such as blues, jazz, and gospel, are also generally associated with African-Americans.

This is no accident. In the early decades of the twentieth century, millions of African-Americans moved from the South to industrial cities in the North, including Chicago, to look for work in the factories. This move, known as the Great Migration, had a profound impact on American music and culture, as these migrants brought their traditions, including music, to the North with them.

Because of this, Chicago developed distinct traditions and styles in the genres of blues, jazz and, gospel.


If there is one genre of music most associated with Chicago, it's probably the blues. The 'Chicago Blues' that developed in the early decades of the twentieth century built on traditions from the South, but created a unique sound that was distinct from the Mississippi or Delta blues.

While Delta blues was dominated by the acoustic guitar and harmonica, Chicago blues expanded the range of instrumentation. It incorporated electric guitar, drums, and piano, among other instruments. This led to the development of a faster style, often called 'boogie woogie.'

Major Chicago blues artists have included Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Howlin' Wolf. Other Chicago blues artists like Bo Diddley and Buddy Guy were integral in the development of rock and roll, of which Chicago blues was a major inspiration.


Like the blues, jazz is another musical style that migrated North as part of the Great Migration. And as with blues, Chicago artists created a unique style that separated itself from other forms of jazz. Chicago jazz grew out of the New Orleans 'Dixieland' style but became more sophisticated.

New Orleans jazz musicians like King Oliver and Lee Collins started moving north to Chicago in the late 1910s. By the 1920s, a jazz scene had developed in the segregated black sections of the city. Chicago jazz clubs like the Dreamland Ballroom were more elegant than their southern counterparts and the style developed to match the surroundings. Chicago jazz focused on faster tempos, incorporated new instruments like the guitar, and made room for longer solos.

Chicago is also known for producing some of the earliest and most important white jazz musicians, who began visiting the clubs in the 1920s and learning from the African-Americans who had moved north. These musicians, who spread jazz to a wider audience, included Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, and Bix Beiderbecke.


Chicago also played an important role in the development of black gospel music thanks mainly to Thomas A. Dorsey. Dorsey was the son of a minister who was among the earliest migrants in the Great Migration. Dorsey started out as a blues piano player but in the mid-1920s, he shifted to writing songs of Christian praise and worship set to jazz and blues arrangements. This style came to be known as 'black gospel music.'

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