For more than a century, Chicago has played an outsize role in shaping music trends worldwide. Much of the credit is due (and often long overdue) to Chicago’s Black artists, who formed the city’s epicenters of jazz, blues, and gospel, laying the groundwork for rock ‘n’ roll. Black artists in Chicago also made the music that would become known as house, sparking a global dance movement. In a staunchly segregated city where neighborhood boundaries hem in people and possibilities, Black artists have repeatedly created music that crosses national borders to move bodies, change minds, and touch hearts—and in doing so they’ve established the foundations for the success of so many artists who followed them.
Today, Chicago artists make connections, collaborate, and perform across genres, mostly outside the white-hot spotlight of coastal media machinery. They put their work into the world in every forum and every format. In the best tradition of independent artists, Chicago musicians do the work, and they let that work speak for itself. By the time the music industry comes knocking, they know themselves, their art, and their options. Just as Chicagoans forged original genres such as footwork and drill, the city’s musicians continue to generate new and vital musical forms—music so alive and of its moment that it moves audiences even before it has a name.
In May 2020, the Arts & Business Council of Chicago (A&BC) launched ChiMusic35, an online campaign celebrating the organization’s 35th anniversary (which coincides with the Year of Chicago Music) and supporting its mission to provide business expertise and training to creatives and arts organizations across all 77 Chicago neighborhoods. For the #ChiMusic35 Challenge, A&BC invited the public to suggest and vote for great moments in Chicago music history. Chicago music and media luminaries signed on as #ChiMusic35 Ambassadors and seeded the list of nominated moments with musically momentous occasions that mean the world to them. But even with the valued input of those who voted and submitted their moments, along with the contributions of the #ChiMusic35 Ambassadors, A&BC recognizes that it’s in no position to declare any 35 moments “the greatest,” especially in a city with as much musical greatness as Chicago.
So A&BC concludes the challenge today with the release of the following 35 great moments in Chicago music history, all of which have changed music—the ways in which it is written, recorded, played, and heard—in our city and around the world. Of course, it’d require far more than 35 slots to account for every great moment in Chicago music, so this list is merely an incomplete introduction to the city’s musical history.
Despite the onslaught of COVID-19 and the social inequities it underscores, and informed by ongoing protests against systemic racism, Chicago’s Black, Brown, and Indigenous voices are composing a soundtrack for change and lighting a path of innovation. May we all do what music fans do best: listen.
Thirty-five great moments in Chicago music history
1926: Jelly Roll Morton & His Red Hot Peppers make their first recordings with the Victor Talking Machine Company in Chicago.
1992: Common releases his debut album, Can I Borrow a Dollar?
1946: Sun Ra, a pioneer of Afrofuturism, lands in Chicago’s jazz scene.
2004: Chicago’s Grupo Montéz de Durango reaches number one on the Billboard Top Latin Albums chart with their album En Vivo Desde Chicago.
1987: Phuture releases “Acid Tracks,” widely considered the first acid house record—a sound that went on to define the UK rave movement.
1955: Bo Diddley releases his tunes “I’m a Man” and “Bo Diddley” on Chess Records.
1963: Chicago-born Herbie Hancock joins the Miles Davis Quintet.
1974: As lead vocalist for Rufus, Chaka Khan wins a Grammy for “Tell Me Something Good,” the first of ten she’s won (so far).
1936: Teenage Chicagoan Nat “King” Cole records for Decca Records as part of Eddie Cole’s Solid Swingers.
1994: Wilco forms in Chicago under the leadership of Jeff Tweedy. After two million album sales, a Grammy win, and seven Grammy nominations, Tweedy and his bandmates still make their musical home in a loft on the city’s northwest side.
1978: Wax Trax! Records, a label that will later provide an important home for Chicago’s industrial-music scene, is founded in Lincoln Park by life partners Jim Nash and Dannie Flesher.
2004: Kanye West wins his first Grammy for Best Rap Album with College Dropout.
1923: Blues singer and queer pioneer Ma Rainey makes her first eight recordings, including “Bad Luck Blues,” for Paramount.
1965: The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) is founded in Chicago; over the decades its members have included jazz luminaries Lester Bowie, Roscoe Mitchell, Nicole Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Jeff Parker, and Henry Threadgill, and it’s spawned acts such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
2009: The YouMedia Center opens at Harold Washington Library. At this creative and educational space for local teenagers, the late Mike Hawkins, known as Brother Mike, would mentor a generation of Black poets and hip-hop artists, including Noname, Chance the Rapper, Saba, Lucki, and Mick Jenkins.
1963: Chicago’s Black-owned Vee-Jay label drops the first U.S. release by an unknown band called the Beatles.
1984: Jesse Saunders and Vince Lawrence release “On and On,” generally recognized as the first house-music record.
1957: Buddy Guy moves to Chicago, where he establishes himself as a lasting legend of the electric blues and an influence to the likes of Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck, and John Mayer.
1995: Pitchfork Media is founded, making Chicago a hub of indie-music criticism and curation. In 2006, Pitchfork launches its eponymous annual music festival in Chicago.
1965: Chicago pianist, composer, and arranger Ramsey Lewis wins his first Grammy for a version of the Billy Page song “The ‘In’ Crowd.” It reaches number five on the Billboard Hot 100 that same year.
2005: Homegrown Chicago Latin-music genre Duranguense holds as many as five of the top ten spots on the Billboard Latin charts.
1969: Chicagoans Maurice White, Don Whitehead, and Wade Flemons form a group called the Salty Peppers. After renaming themselves Earth, Wind & Fire, they go on to sell more than 90 million records.
1929: Mahalia Jackson meets Thomas A. Dorsey in Chicago. Dorsey will become the father of gospel music, and his composition “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” will become Jackson’s signature song—and a favorite of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
1964: The Impressions record “People Get Ready” in Chicago, inspired by the 1963 March on Washington. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will name the song, written by the legendary Curtis Mayfield, the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement.
1970: Soul Train first airs on WCIU-TV in Chicago. Before its syndicated run ends in 2006, the much-loved music program will propel the careers of many Black artists, among them the Jackson Five, LL Cool J, and Lenny Kravitz.
1891: The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of the “Big Five,” is founded.
1922: Louis Armstrong arrives in Chicago to join King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.
1958: Chuck Berry records “Johnny B. Goode,” laying down what will become one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most iconic opening guitar riffs, at Chess Records, 2120 S. Michigan.
1950: Chess Records is founded. Chess will come to be known for recording and promoting brilliant and influential Black artists such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bo Diddley, and Chuck Berry. Their work is often copied by British Invasion artists, such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cream, and Led Zeppelin, who rise to levels of wealth and fame that the Black Chicagoans who originated the music never will.
1921: Sister Rosetta Tharpe makes her solo debut at age six, performing at the 40th Street Church of God in Christ in Chicago. She will go on to become a guitarist, songwriter, and recording artist known around the world as the “Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
1977: Frankie Knuckles begins DJing at the Warehouse, 206 S. Jefferson, the club from which the dance genre known as house music derives its name.
1915: The word “jazz” is printed in the Chicago Tribune. This is believed to be the first time the word is used in American media to describe the musical form. (Those seeking the article in the Tribune archives should be forewarned that it is accompanied by an offensive illustration.)
2017: Chance the Rapper upends the music industry by winning three Grammys for a streaming-only album, without the support of a record label.
1943: Muddy Waters moves to Chicago. Waters will go on to influence generations of blues players and rockers in the UK and U.S. With his pounding performance of “Mannish Boy” in 1955, Waters asserts Black personhood: “I’m a man / I spell M / A, child / N / That represent man / No B / O, child / Y.”
With humility, gratitude, and hope, the Arts & Business Council of Chicago reserves the number one place on the list of great Chicago musical moments for all the artists and events not mentioned—especially those who nurtured their talent and made their art in the face of systemic racism and insidious discrimination, enabling many who followed them to find success. This place is reserved also for the next Chicagoan (or Chicagoans) to influence the music world—perhaps a musician or band working somewhere in the city today. Even as A&BC celebrates Chicago’s rich and varied musical history, it asserts that the city’s best musical moments lie ahead. Let us all fix our eyes on the present and future of Chicago music, with our ears wide open.
The Arts & Business Council of Chicago thanks the #ChiMusic35 Challenge Ambassadors, each of whom contributed Chicago music moments that have inspired them and their art: Add-2, Martin Atkins, Pugs Atomz, Jeff Baraka, Mark Bazer, Ayana Contreras, DJ Lori Branch, Leor Galil, Pat Grumley, Mark Kelly, DJ Lady D, Damon Locks, Rob McKay, Rhymefest, Tim Samuelson, and Wayne Williams. v