How Chicago Owned The 1920’s

How Chicago Owned The 1920’s

How Chicago Owned the 1920’s

Chicago may be called “Second City,” but it’s second to none when we’re talking about Prohibition lore.  Gins and guns and glamour, and literally “all that jazz,” made Chicago the historical epicenter of the 1920’s. (I’ll explain, New York, but first, hold my pizza.)

Less than fifty years before Prohibition became law, Chicago nearly burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  The City lost hundreds of lives and more than 17,000 buildings in the fire.  In the years that followed, young entrepreneurs and architects poured into the city, rebuilding from the ashes the skyline recognized around the world.  In the nine years after the fire, the City’s population grew by sixty-four percent, with most of that increase being young people looking to make a buck in a brand new city.

While the City searched for a new identity and Prohibition loomed, a new Great Migration flooded into northern cities, bringing with it jazz.  It was a perfect storm and the perfect era to fall in love with Chicago.  Jazz was unique to music, but also to the culture of Chicago.  Prohibition-supporters called jazz, “the devil’s music”, which just made flappers want it more.  Gangsters saw jazz as a profit-generator in the speakeasies and gin joints and quickly struck up mutually beneficial relationships with jazz legends of the time.  Legends like Louis Armstrong regularly played in the jazz joints on the South Side.  Soon, he brought with him others, including Joseph “King” Oliver, Baby Dodds, and Lil Harden and the city had a soundtrack to go with its gin.

From the South Side, jazz spread like the next great Chicago fire through other neighborhoods and became a cultural mainstay, creating new dances like the Charleston.  People of different backgrounds and different races found one another on the dance floor.  For formerly law abiding people, the music and the gin felt a little daring and both intoxicating.

In many ways, jazz became the artistic representation of the 1920’s.  It had no traditional rules of its own, relied on inspiration and improvisation, and caused its fans to rethink music generally. And just like booze, the morals-squads tried unsuccessfully to shut it down with at least sixty cities creating laws prohibiting jazz in public.  Chicago was not one of those cities; rather, it was embracing the jazz and the money it was pushing into the speakeasies.

Some historians believe that Prohibition and jazz both migrated east and died when the Great Depression hit.  But if you’ve been to Chicago, you know that’s not true.  Jazz bled into Blues and neither ever really left Chicago.

Written by Amy Williams

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