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The Black Musician and the White City

Race and Music in Chicago, 1900-1967

Amy Absher

Publication Year: 2014

Amy Absher’s The Black Musician and the White City tells the story of African American musicians in Chicago during the mid-twentieth century. While depicting the segregated city before World War II, Absher traces the migration of black musicians, both men and women and both classical and vernacular performers, from the American South to Chicago during the 1930s to 1950s.Absher’s work diverges from existing studies in three ways: First, she takes the history beyond the study of jazz and blues by examining the significant role that classically trained black musicians played in building the Chicago South Side community. By acknowledging the presence and importance of classical musicians, Absher argues that black migrants in Chicago had diverse education and economic backgrounds but found common cause in the city’s music community. Second, Absher brings numerous maps to the history, illustrating the relationship between Chicago’s physical lines of segregation and the geography of black music in the city over the years. Third, Absher’s use of archival sources is both extensive and original, drawing on manuscript and oral history collections at the Center for Black Music Research in Chicago, Columbia University, Rutgers’s Institute of Jazz Studies, and Tulane’s Hogan Jazz Archive. By approaching the Chicago black musical community from these previously untapped angles, Absher offers a history that goes beyond the retelling of the achievements of the famous musicians by discussing musicians as a group. In The Black Musician and the White City, black musicians are the leading actors, thinkers, organizers, and critics of their own story.

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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Title Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. ix-xii

This project would have been impossible without the financial support of the history department at the University of Washington and the SAGES program at Case Western Reserve University. I wish to express my sincere appreciation to my graduate advisor, Professor John Findlay, who made all things achievable. I would also...

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pp. 1-15

By the mid-twentieth century, Chicago was a city that drew African American musicians by the thousands from throughout the American South. For many of them, Chicago was an obvious destination. After all, they knew it was a hub for the music industry, and they had purchased their recordings through the Sears, Roebuck and...

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1. Musicians and the Segregated City: Chicago in the Early 1900s-1930s

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pp. 16-47

In 1904, Joe Jordan composed “Pekin Rag,” a work dedicated to the dance hall that would over time become Chicago’s Black-owned Pekin Theater. The cover of the sheet music for “Pekin Rag” features a photograph of the crowds inside the theater. Filling the foreground are the musicians, dressed in matching uniforms. The audience...

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2. From South to South Side: Musicians in 1940s Chicago

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pp. 48-81

In the early 1940s, African American musicians arrived in Chicago by train. They disembarked at the Illinois Central Railroad station on the edge of downtown and the South Side “black belt.” In comparison to their homes in the southern United States, the speed of the city was shocking and they felt confused by the crowds of...

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3. Redefining the Music Industry: Independent Music in Chicago, 1948–1953

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pp. 82-97

Consider for a moment that Muddy Waters was a sharecropper when he migrated to Chicago in 1943, but by the end of the 1950s, the Historical Statistics of the United States no longer listed the category of sharecropping as an occupation. His initial identity as a plantation laborer was disappearing in the United States. In addition, the...

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4. From South Side to the South and the Nation, 1954–1963

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pp. 98-118

In April 1956, Nat “King” Cole took the stage in Birmingham, Alabama, before a white audience of 3,500. Cole was the final performer in an integrated tour featuring singer June Christy and the Ted Heath Orchestra—the first British jazz orchestra to tour the United States. As Cole took his place center stage, someone in the audience...

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5. Dissonance and the Desegregation of Chicago’s Musicians’ Union, 1963–1967

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pp. 119-146

In February 1963, violinist Carol Anderson, a twenty-three- year old graduate of the Boston Conservatory of Music and a social worker in Chicago, sat in with the violin section of the symphony orchestra in Oak Park—an affluent white suburb of Chicago with a total population of 60,000—less than 100 of whom were African...

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pp. 147-148

By the early to mid-1970s, Harry Gray, Walter Dyett, and Charles Elgar—the three leaders of Local 208, as well as Nora Holt, the founder of the NANM—had passed away. So too had Sam Cooke, Nat “King” Cole, and Memphis Minnie, who some believe was the first to use an electric guitar to play the blues. Howlin’ Wolfe was enjoying...


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pp. 149-186


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pp. 187-198


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pp. 199-202

E-ISBN-13: 9780472029983
E-ISBN-10: 0472029983

Page Count: 200
Publication Year: 2014

OCLC Number: 882610680
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Black Musician and the White City

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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Illinois -- Chicago -- Music -- History and criticism.
  • Popular music -- Illinois -- Chicago -- History and criticism.
  • Popular music -- Social aspects -- Illinois -- Chicago -- History -- 20th century.
  • Music and race -- Illinois -- Chicago -- History -- 20th century.
  • African American musicians -- Illinois -- Chicago.
  • Music trade -- Illinois -- Chicago -- History -- 20th century.
  • African American musicians -- Labor unions -- Illinois -- Chicago -- History -- 20th century.
  • Musicians -- Labor unions -- Illinois -- Chicago -- History -- 20th century.
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