United We Jazz

Jazz music, America’s original art form, has been uniting races and cultures since the late 19th Century. Savannah boasts a rich Jazz history from its early downtown red-light districts, Baptist churches and clubs, all the way out to Tybee Island with Johnny Mercer. Jazz has been uniting people of all races since its dawn and continues on today.

(Top) Ben Tucker and Bass; (bottom) Hotel Savannah Orchestra


Jazz. It makes us swing, bop, mess around, scat and mop up.  The word conjures the essence of coolness and freedom. From the sophisticated showmanship of Dizzy Gillespie to the bouncing, scatting stylings of the great Louis Armstrong to the lyrical swoons of Savannah’s own Johnny Mercer, Jazz music today inspires a whole pop generation of pork-pie-hat-wearing hipsters to co-opt its coolness. Jazz is at once structured, with its intricate notes and complex chord progressions, and also freewheeling, with its mandate for conversational improvisation. When Louis Armstrong tried to explain it, he said, “If you have to ask what Jazz is, you’ll never know.”

Jazz is transforming. It is the only American art form to crush racial and economic barriers; in today’s climate of racial division, we need it now more than ever. Born of African syncopated drumming, Ragtime music, the Blues, and military brass, Jazz is the American language that brings  us together in search of individual identity.

Jazz is hot and irreverent. Its African tribal syncopation, mixed with classical European melodic structures excite people to exotic dance moves, like the Camel, the Mess Around, and the Turkey Trot. It is as comfortable in churches as it is in a brothel.

Johhny, Ginger Mercer 1936 DeSoto Hotel local Jazz scene legends



Although New Orleans claims the birthplace of Jazz, Savannah’s rich history of Jazz is equally important.  It developed concurrently; yet with a different more African vibe.  Jazz was borne of Southern black cultures that had no choice but to improvise, to find a way to integrate into a foreign place to which they were subjugated. The Blues was nurtured in black Baptist churches, working fields and factories, wherein the “call” and “respond” communication form of Jazz was derived.  The “hey’s” and the “ho’s” of today’s pop culture.  

The African slave cultures in New Orleans’ Congo Square, starting in 1817, were allowed to perform their tribal drumming, singing and dancing for the first time, drawing in white audiences with their foreign sounds and exotic moves. The syncopation of this African drumming is the seed of from which sprang Ragtime, Blues, and Jazz music.

Savannah has been home to Jazz giants such as Louis Armstrong’s mentor, James “King” Oliver, Johnny Mercer, Ben Riley, James Moody, Kenny Palmer, Ben Tucker, and such contemporaries as Teddy Adams, Howard Paul, and Jody Espina.  The Hostess City continues to serve as a petri dish for nurturing great new talent on the world stage of Jazz. The Coastal Jazz Association was founded 35 years ago and today carries on the traditions of Jazz music in Savannah where, in its heyday, there were over 190 clubs offering Jazz music events in both black and white social clubs and theaters along West Broad (now MLK Boulevard), all the way out to Tybee Island at the Tybrisa Pavilion.  

Downtown Savannah through the 1950s was when the white folks went to black clubs to be entertained, and Tybrisa was where whites went to hear black bands and dance their feet off to big swing bands with Johnny Mercer and Cab Calloway. The evolution of this essentially black art form has conjoined the races to produce great white Jazz musicians including Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman and Stan Getz. 


To read more about the history of Jazz and its influences on Savannah, subscribe now or pick up the August/September issue of South Magazine.