U Street and the Birth of Jazz
Jazz as an art form began to develop in the rich Carribbean and African-American cultures of New Orleans of the 1910's. There were many simultaneous developments of jazz in other American cities where there existed strong African cultures. Washington, D.C. was one of the prominent centers in the development of jazz beginning in the early 1900s. A Washington, D.C. community rich with a jazz history is the U Street District. In 1912, at the Howard Theater on 7th and T streets, Northwest, ragtime based orchestras began to play. Ragtime was the predecessor to the development of jazz. Around 1915, many musicians began experimenting and moving away from ragtime to a freer style known as jazz. In the 1930's at Howard University, adjacent to the U Street neighborhood, the tradition of European classical music reigned supreme. Jazz was considered a lower artistic form. Nationally, jazz was a creation of communities such as U St. Later, jazz gained broad recognition in American culture. For instance, jazz became an entertainment staple at the White House beginning in the 1960's. In the same decade, Howard University established a strong jazz program. Finally, in 1997, Congress passed a bill, H.R. 57, to recognize jazz as a "national treasure."
Jazz is truly a modern form of music, exemplifying the development of the modern American city. Historic events are reflected in the history of jazz and can particularly be seen in Washington’s U Street community. Jazz is a profound part of the history of Washington, D.C. and overall the history of the racial issues in the city.
Washington, D.C. has always been permeated with the spirit of jazz.
development was rich, but somewhat contained, and a vital
part of the culture from the 1910's to the 1960's.
The U Street District was
particularly rich with the life and vitality of jazz.
strong black communities in American cities such as U Street.
In U Street
there was a rich and productive black community with many businesses and
professionals. Jazz was a strong part of the community and existed as
one of the main forms of entertainment. U street was plentiful with jazz
clubs such as Crystal Caverns and
theaters such as the great
Howard Theater. The Howard Theater was particularly a focal point of the community
and "the" place to go. Due to segregation blacks had few places where they
could go for entertainment, whereas whites migrated from their
U Street to listen to jazz. All the great musicians came into U Street from
Billie Holiday to Louis Armstrong. All musicians felt
and at home here in this strong black community where there were
black businesses, black professionals that always catered to their needs and
black owned places to stay such as the Dunbar Hotel.
While it appears
superficially that famous jazz musicians brought the outside world to a
racially contained environment on U Street, it was much more that U Street
was a hotbed for regional and national jazz innovation and a site for
producing and nurturing famous jazz artists.
To understand the historic nature of jazz production and performance on U Street, click here.
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