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Black Musician and the White City: Race and Music in Chicago, 1900-1967

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Amy Absher’s Music, Race, and Chicago: 1912–1966 tells the story of African American musicians in Chicago during the mid-twentieth century. After setting the stage by depicting the segregated city before World War II, Absher traces the migration of black musicians, both men and women and both classical and vernacular performers, from the American South to Chicago during th Amy Absher’s Music, Race, and Chicago: 1912–1966 tells the story of African American musicians in Chicago during the mid-twentieth century. After setting the stage by depicting the segregated city before World War II, Absher traces the migration of black musicians, both men and women and both classical and vernacular performers, from the American South to Chicago during the 1930s–1950s. While Chicago certainly provided opportunities that African Americans had never had when residing in the southern states, the city nonetheless imposed severe restrictions on where and when Blacks could perform. From the 1910s to the 1940s, leaders in Chicago’s Black community, responding to that city’s segregation practices, encouraged the development of a separate cultural sphere in which Blacks performed for Blacks, taught music to Black youth, and acquired and developed Black-owned venues for performing. Yet the success of African American musicians during the 1950s and 1960s, along with the growing civil rights movement, led many performers and teachers to want to break out of that separate sphere. The tensions crested between 1963 and 1966, when a bloc of performers and teachers, employing the politics of citizen activism and community organizing, broke away from the all-Black union local and demanded the integration of Chicago’s musician union. The integrationists succeeded, yet both traditionalist and progressives in the Black community worried that too high a price had been paid in order for African American musicians to belong to the same union as white musicians.


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Amy Absher’s Music, Race, and Chicago: 1912–1966 tells the story of African American musicians in Chicago during the mid-twentieth century. After setting the stage by depicting the segregated city before World War II, Absher traces the migration of black musicians, both men and women and both classical and vernacular performers, from the American South to Chicago during th Amy Absher’s Music, Race, and Chicago: 1912–1966 tells the story of African American musicians in Chicago during the mid-twentieth century. After setting the stage by depicting the segregated city before World War II, Absher traces the migration of black musicians, both men and women and both classical and vernacular performers, from the American South to Chicago during the 1930s–1950s. While Chicago certainly provided opportunities that African Americans had never had when residing in the southern states, the city nonetheless imposed severe restrictions on where and when Blacks could perform. From the 1910s to the 1940s, leaders in Chicago’s Black community, responding to that city’s segregation practices, encouraged the development of a separate cultural sphere in which Blacks performed for Blacks, taught music to Black youth, and acquired and developed Black-owned venues for performing. Yet the success of African American musicians during the 1950s and 1960s, along with the growing civil rights movement, led many performers and teachers to want to break out of that separate sphere. The tensions crested between 1963 and 1966, when a bloc of performers and teachers, employing the politics of citizen activism and community organizing, broke away from the all-Black union local and demanded the integration of Chicago’s musician union. The integrationists succeeded, yet both traditionalist and progressives in the Black community worried that too high a price had been paid in order for African American musicians to belong to the same union as white musicians.

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