Blues, Jazz, and the Great Migration
The paragraphs that follow are excerpted from
The Southern Diaspora:
How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America
by James N. Gregory

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Complicated debates surround the precise origins of blues and jazz and the exact mechanisms that turned them into the wellsprings of twentieth century American (and world) popular music, but the basics are clear: southern musical styles needed to come North to achieve commercial take-off. The Black Metropolises became for musicians what they were for writers, settings that supported both innovation and recognition.

            The Mississippi River served as the chief highway of the Jazz/Blues revolution. Black musicians had been traveling its length either by boat or train in the late nineteenth century, some following the minstrel show circuit, others the red light districts from New Orleans to Memphis, St. Louis, and on to Chicago. Scott Joplin pushed Ragtime up the river in the late 1890s, performing and publishing his rags in St. Louis and Sedalia, Missouri, Chicago and then New York where after the turn of the century the syncopated beat found its way into countless tin pan alley compositions and vaudeville shows, raising the tempo of American popular music.

            Dixieland jazz followed during World War I....

The interactions were multiple and bi-directional. The Black Metropolises drew the musically talented and musically curious from all over and from various ethnicities. One of the interchanges was between black and white musicians, some of them Jewish. The whites came to the blues and jazz clubs in Harlem, on Chicago’s South Side, and on Central Avenue in Los Angeles to listen and learn, taking many of the sounds they heard and turning them into numbers that big crowds of young whites danced to in the ballrooms and clubs across town. There was flattery in this theft and much more. The white jazz bands paved the way for mainstream white audiences to begin to appreciate new forms of music and the black artists who produced it. By the 1930s some African American bandleaders would be working the big ballrooms and appearing on the popular radio shows. The Swing era would also see the first high visibility integrated bands, most notably the Benny Goodman orchestra. White musicians got by far the better end of the bargain but these interactions were changing not only the sounds but also the sociology of American music.

            Another interaction was regional. The northern city entertainment zones were the principal hubs of an occupational migration system that both drew musicians out of the South and moved them back through it again. Like the attorneys, writers, and artists who knew they had to move north to practice their professions, musicians were drawn to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and other cities by the chance to make a career and hopefully a living. The record companies, booking agents, and important clubs were almost all in those cities and so was the excitement of hearing, learning, and perhaps creating the hottest new music.

            Southern cities had a role to play in this musical system. Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, and Memphis each had numerous and important jazz clubs and blues cellars. In the mid 1920s, after race records had proved their market, the invention of portable electric recording machines made it possible for the record companies to send teams to these and other southern cities looking for new talent. But the southern recording tours, which ended in 1931 when the Depression gutted the record industry, did not alter the fundamental geography of musical opportunity. The southern cities served as unofficial farm teams for the Black Metropolises (just as they would in the system of Negro baseball that was developing contemporaneously). Southern musicians got started on Atlanta's Decatur Street or Memphis's Beale Street and the best of them then headed for New York, Chicago, Kansas City, or Los Angeles hoping for a chance in the majors. Alphabetically we can list a hundred names of blues and jazz greats from Perry Anderson to Muddy Waters and all will tell the same story: grew up in the South, honed their skills in the bordellos or clubs of a southern city, went on to fame, if rarely fortune, in one of the music capitals of the North or West.


excerpts from  Ch 4 "The Black Metropolis"



The Southern Diaspora: How The Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America is the first historical study of the Southern Diaspora in its entirety. Between 1900 and the 1970s, twenty million southerners migrated north and west. Weaving together for the first time the histories of these black and white migrants, James Gregory traces their paths and experiences in a comprehensive new study that demonstrates how this regional diaspora reshaped America by "southernizing" communities and transforming important cultural and political institutions.

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Read the Preface and Introduction.