While New York City and Chicago stand out as the major centers of influence in the history of jazz, Philadelphia has played a major role in the genre’s development over the last century. The city has served as an important tour destination, furnished opportunities for world-class talent, and provided a home for a variety of influential artists.
The origins of jazz in Philadelphia date back to World War I, when nearly 500,000 African Americans moved from rural areas in the South to cities in the North in search of economic opportunity and a better quality of life. Relocating to cities including Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, migrants carried their cultural traditions with them. Former inhabitants of major Southern music capitals, such as New Orleans, introduced blues music in their new communities, paving the way for the development of jazz into a major, widely appreciated art form.
By the early 20th century, Philadelphia’s African American community had become a national leader in the arts, possessing a strong cultural legacy stretching back to the United States’ earliest years. Trumpeter and composer Francis Johnson — the first African American to publish sheet music — hailed from Philadelphia and was responsible for introducing syncopation into popular music in the first half of the 19th century, long before jazz emerged as a genre.
With Philadelphia’s musical history and fertile cultural scene, jazz took root in the city, especially in South Philly, where jazz clubs popped up and began attracting some of the nation’s biggest names. South Street served as the home for a number of significant jazz clubs, where black and white patrons intermingled at performances featuring Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong. John T. Gibson owned two of these clubs — the Standard and Dunbar —and became the wealthiest black Philadelphian in the late 1920s due to their success.
The Great Depression shuttered many of the city’s jazz venues, but the genre continued to thrive in the few that remained. After the United States’ entry into World War II, new demographics began to fall in love with jazz via government-sponsored clubs such as the Philadelphia Stage Door Canteen. Housed in the basement of the Academy of Music, the Stage Door Canteen brought military personnel face-to-face with some of the most dynamic musicians of the era, including Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington.
Though jazz chipped away at the social and institutional barriers separating people of different races by bringing together diverse audiences, its practitioners existed in a music industry rife with racism. The American Federation of Musicians (AFM) ranked among the most segregated unions affiliated with the American Federation of Labor. This meant that black musicians — whose cultural heritage gave birth to jazz — had to organize separately. In Philadelphia, the all-black AFM Local 274 became one of the most influential locals in this segregated system. Its headquarters became a fully functioning jazz venue known as the Clef Club. Before its dissolution in 1971, the local provided opportunities for artists ranging from John Coltrane to Nina Simone. Even after Local 274’s demise, the Clef Club continued, and exists to this day as a venue and music school on the Avenue of the Arts.
In addition to nurturing influential institutions, the Philadelphia region has fostered outstanding artistic talent. Langston Hughes — the influential Harlem Renaissance leader and progenitor of “jazz poetry”— attended Lincoln University in Chester County. Ethel Waters hailed from Chester. Billie Holiday, among the greatest jazz vocalists in history, was born in Philadelphia. In 1943, Coltrane moved to Philadelphia from North Carolina with his mother. He went on to study music and commence his extraordinary career in the city, playing with the likes of Jimmy Heath (a Philadelphia native) and Dizzy Gillespie (like Coltrane, a Philadelphia transplant from the South). In 1968, experimental jazz composer Sun Ra relocated his influential Arkestra to Philadelphia, where he and his ensemble took jazz to new frontiers.
Philadelphia’s importance in the development of jazz continues to this day, with organizations such as the Ars Nova Workshop cultivating talent and presenting experimental jazz performances firmly rooted in the 21st century.
Patrick Glennon is a communications officer at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. email@example.com