Early Jazz in Philadelphia
While historians generally cite New Orleans, Chicago, and New York as key cities in the emergence of jazz in the early twentieth century, Philadelphia was an important center in the early years of jazz as well. Philadelphia was the nation’s third largest city in 1900, behind New York and Chicago, with a large and rapidly growing African American population. The city had a long and especially rich history of Black popular music dating to the early nineteenth century, a period when it was also the nation’s cultural capital and a vibrant center of music in the European tradition. The merging of African and European musical practices and styles in America that gave birth to jazz in the early 1900s had been unfolding for hundreds of years in Philadelphia, making the city a particularly fertile musical environment as jazz was taking shape.
Almost a century before jazz emerged, Philadelphia bandleader and composer Francis Johnson (1792-1844) was reinventing popular songs and dance tunes of the 1820s and 1830s with new rhythmic and melodic elements, a practice that would later become a hallmark of jazz. Nationally renowned in his day, Johnson was the first African American to have his music published and the first American, Black or white, to lead a musical ensemble on a tour of Europe (in 1837). Johnson was an important early figure in the long tradition of African Americans playing a prominent role in musical arts and entertainment in Philadelphia.
Jazz began to emerge as a distinct musical style around the turn of the twentieth century, a blending of two vernacular African American musical styles—ragtime and blues—with elements of popular music. New Orleans, the “cradle of jazz,” was the most important city in this process, but as jazz was gaining popularity in the late 1910s, many of its early practitioners began leaving New Orleans for the cities of the North. Chicago and New York were primary destinations, but Philadelphia also welcomed some of these early jazzmen. New Orleans trumpeter Freddie Keppard (1889–1933), a key figure in early jazz, had an extended engagement in Philadelphia in 1917 at the Standard Theatre on South Street, the city’s premier Black entertainment venue. Keppard’s former New Orleans bandmate, clarinetist George Baquet (1881–1949), moved to Philadelphia in 1923 and remained active in the city’s jazz scene for the rest of his life.
1917 was the year that the word “jazz”—or its variant, “jass”—began appearing in Philadelphia newspapers for the first time. The Philadelphia Tribune, the city’s African American newspaper, noted appearances by “Charley Taylor’s Jass Band” and “Rickett’s World Renown Jazz Band,” in May and June 1917, respectively, at the Dream Waltz Academy on North 13th Street in North Philadelphia. In September 1917, The Philadelphia Inquirer advertised an engagement by the “Original Georgia Jazz Band” at the Arcadia Café on Chestnut street in Center City. Charlie Taylor and Bob Ricketts were Philadelphia-based musicians; presumably, the Original Georgia Jazz Band was a visiting group from out of town. Ricketts was only in Philadelphia for two years, 1917-1918, but was very active during that time, serving as bandleader at the Standard Theatre and other local venues. Charlie Taylor had a long career as a Philadelphia violinist and bandleader.
Other notable Philadelphia musicians in the early years of jazz include vocalist Ethel Waters (1896-1977), born in nearby Chester, Pennsylvania, who was singing in Philadelphia clubs in the 1910s before going on the road and becoming one the most successful early jazz singers; trumpeter and bandleader Charlie Gaines (1900-1986), who was born in Philadelphia and started playing with local bands in the 1910s before moving to New York City, then returning in the 1930s and forging a long career in the city; and pianist/bandleader/composer Charles Luckyth “Luckey” Roberts (1887-1968), born and raised in a Philadelphia Quaker family, who in his youth was a minstrel performer and ragtime pianist in the city before moving to New York and becoming a pioneer of the “Harlem Stride” style of jazz piano. A more obscure Philadelphia ragtime pianist of the time was Harvey Brooks. Duke Ellington, in his autobiography, remembers stopping in Philadelphia in 1913 to hear Brooks, who inspired him musically. “He was swinging and he had a tremendous left hand,” Duke recalled. Singer Bessie Smith (1894-1937), the “Empress of the Blues,” moved to Philadelphia in 1923 at the beginning of her very successful recording career. One of the great blues singers of all time, Smith toured constantly but maintained a home in South Philadelphia and performed in the city often.
All of the foregoing musicians were African American. Jazz was created primarily by Black musicians in its early years, but white musicians adopted the style early on and made important contributions to its development. Two South Philadelphia childhood friends from Italian immigrant families—guitarist Eddie Lang (1902 – 1933; real name Salvatore Massaro) and violinist Joe (Giuseppe) Venuti (1903 – 1978)—played with some of the nation’s top white jazz bands in the 1920s and 1930s and made a series of duo recordings in 1926 that were very influential. Another South Philadelphia musician, Howard Lanin (1897 – 1991), the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, began his career in the 1910s and became a very successful bandleader, specializing in dance music and “sweet jazz” for Philadelphia high society.
Jazz was featured in clubs, theaters, and dance halls throughout the city in the 1920s and 1930s, but the main venue was the Earle Theatre, which opened in 1924 at 11th and Market Streets in Center City. An ornate showplace, The Earle drew the biggest names in jazz and popular entertainment. By the mid-1930s, jazz had “matured” from its early period of development and become American’s popular music, with radio, recordings, and live shows bringing the music to millions on a regular basis.
By Jack McCarthy, Archivist/Historian. Parts of this article were first published by the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia, sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Humanities at Rutgers University-Camden