Stroll Through 7 Sites of Jazz History in Chicago

By Aleta Hodge

From 1923 to World War II, as the Great Migration brought Black people from the Deep South to the South Side, Chicago became the jazz capital of the world. The Bronzeville neighborhood—a stretch of seven miles long and two miles wide and south of the Downtown Loop--was packed with jazz clubs, glamorous ballrooms, and exciting nightlife. State Street was referred to as “the Stroll” from 31st to 39th Streets.

Chicago was also a pivotal location along the “Chitlin Circuit,” the live Black entertainment route from Harlem, Indianapolis, Chicago, Kansas City, Memphis, and New Orleans. While musicians of color faced discrimination in public transportation (buses and trains), restaurants, gas stations, and hotels, this route was created to avoid the insulting and degrading treatment of Black entertainers. Talent managers knew the preferred hospitality venues for their travel needs in each of these cities. Most travel was done by cars or independent buses.

In this guide, take a stroll through jazz history—the people, the music, and the places—in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood and beyond.

  1. A black and white image of the drummer "Red" Sounders and his band at the Club DeLisa in Chicago (c. 1942).

    Photo By: Jack Delano/Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection LC-DIG-ds-09651

    Club DeLisa

    During the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933, the four DeLisa brothers opened Club DeLisa. An article in the "Chicago Defender" in 1938 stated: “The DeLisa is truly a new haven for Lindy Hoppers, Jitterbug, and Floy-floy addicts of the day.” Four shows were staged nightly and a Monday morning breakfast dance at 7 a.m. was popular with entertainers leaving other clubs. Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Sun Ra Arkestra, and Bessie Smith were frequent performers at the Club DeLisa. The club closed its doors in 1958.

  2. A black and white image of a band playing at the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago (c. 1941).

    Photo By: Russell Lee/Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection LC-DIG-fsa-8c00885

    Savoy Ballroom

    Located within the same complex as the Regal Theatre, the Savoy Ballroom opened on Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1927, and had the capacity to accommodate approximately 3800 dancers. Its modern interior was a major attraction for the Black community, and featured bands led by Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and more. With two major jazz bands playing all night, seven days a week (the bands took turns playing) it was an essential stop for jazz lovers until it closed in 1948, and was demolished in the 1970s. The Harold Washington Cultural Center replaced the Regal Theater and Savoy Ballroom.

  3. A black and white image of a crowd leaving the beautifully decorated lobby of the Regal Theatre in Chicago. (c. 1941)

    Photo By: Russell Lee/Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection LC-USF34-038566-D

    Regal Theater

    Designed by Edward Eichenbaum, the Regal Theatre first opened in 1928. During itʻs almost forty year run, it was an important stop for Black entertainers. When Duke Ellington was in Chicago, he performed his hit songs “Mood Indigo” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing, If It Ain’t Got That Swing” at Regal Theatre, and Lena Horne performed her famous songs, “Stormy Weather” and “Can’t Help Lovin Dat Man” here as well. While the Regal was a venue for more than just music, it was one of the earliest sites to host Black musicians while also employing Black managers and staff. It closed in 1968 and was demolished in 1973.

  4. Exterior of The Forum in Chicago

    Photo By: Courtesy of Bernard Loyd

    The Forum

    Built in 1897, The Forum, in its heyday hosted several musical legends including Nat ‘King’ Cole and Muddy Waters. It stood at the epicenter of what was called the Black Metropolis, serving as a cultural hub for music, culture, and local businesses. While it closed in the 1970s, nearly fifty years later in 2019, Urban Juncture received a grant from the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund to restore The Forum as part of a broader initiative to build up Bronzeville.

  5. A streetview image of the former location of the Dreamland Cafe.

    Photo By: Google Streetview

    Bottom’s Dreamland Cafe

    When Black businessman Billy Bottom, gained ownership of the Dreamland Cafe, he opened the Bronzeville Jazz club in October 1917 with an 800-person dance floor. One of the site’s most prominent musicians was Louis Armstrong (known as “Satchmo”) who was lured by his mentor, King Oliver from New Orleans, to make Chicago his new home. Armstrong, who transformed jazz from ensemble music to a soloist’s art form was featured at the Dreamland Cafe in 1925. Dreamland moved up the street in the mid 1930s before closing in 1946.

  6. A black and white advertisement from 1923 of the Sunset Cafe in Bronzeville. The image in the ad is of rows of tables with white linen. The text reads "Chicago's finest pleasure spot."

    Photo By: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

    The Sunset Café/Grand Terrace Café

    A former garage, this site was converted into the Sunset Cafe jazz club in 1921 before being renovated and named the Grand Terrace Cafe. While the club had many owners (including Louis Armstrong and later Al Capone) it had grandiose decor and was where Cab Calloway and Nat King Cole launched their professional performances as did legends Benny Goodman and Sarah Vaughan. While many clubs were still segregated, the Grand Terrace Ballroom was one of a wave of integrated clubs (called “Black and Tan Clubs”). On September 9, 1998, the former The Grand Terrace building received Chicago Landmark status, and while the structure is now a former hardware store, the murals from the club still remain for all to see.

  7. A cropped stereograph image of Soldier Field in Chicago taken between 1930-1940.

    Photo By: Keystone View Company/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division LC-DIG-stereo-1s43595

    Soldier Field

    In 1934, the famed lyricist, Noble Sissle and pianist, Eubie Blake were a part of a team that produced the "O Sing Me A New Song" pageant at Soldier Field. Over 60,000 people (many from Bronzeville) attended the pageant that was part of the 1933-34 Worlds Fair’s second Negro Day. The cast included 5,000 vocalists and 3,500 dancers, and included a military salute to Black contributions in the armed services as Noble Sissle was a War World I Veteran. In August 1965, Soldier Field played host to jazz legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, and Thelonius Monk as part of a two-day festival hosted by DownBeat magazine.

Aleta Hodge is a grant writer and author of “Indiana Avenue – Life and Musical Journey from 1915 to 2015 from 1915 to 2015.” In 2022, Hodge was a Diversity Scholar with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Learn more at

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