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U Street and the Birth of Jazz

"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."


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 Washingtonís 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. Its 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. Segregation formed 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 neighborhoods into U Street to listen to jazz. All the great musicians came into U Street from Billie Holiday to Louis Armstrong. All musicians felt comfortable 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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