Chicago’s Top 40 Artistic Breakthroughs

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Chicago’s great artistic breakthroughs

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To celebrate our magazine’s 40th anniversary this December, we name the 40 best records, restaurants, movies, and more

10. October 1933 Ernest Hemingway’s “Marlin Off the Morro: A Cuban Letter,” a spirited tale about a fish that got away, runs in the debut issue of Esquire, published and edited by two Chicagoans, David Smart and Arnold Gingrich. Thus begins a long relationship between Esquire (which remained in Chicago until 1950) and the Oak Park–born author—a relationship that helped Esquire establish itself as a premier men’s literary magazine.

9. August 1922 Lured by the promise of $52 a week, Louis Armstrong packs a suitcase and his trumpet and takes the train from New Orleans to Chicago to play with his inspiration and idol, Joe “King” Oliver, and his Creole Jazz Band. By Armstrong’s second night in town, audiences at the South Side dancehall Lincoln Gardens are demanding to hear “the youngster” play. Armstrong’s time in Chicago permeates his style: Under the tutelage of Oliver, he learns to follow the melody, and with the pianist Earl Hines, he gains the confidence to go his own direction rhythmically. Backed by Hines and the session groups the Hot Five and Seven, Armstrong records songs that showcase his furious solos, bold improvisations, and vocals—an effort that’s considered the artistic pinnacle of a virtuosic career.

8. August 1933 With the aim of developing and preserving spiritual songs, the pianist and gospel songwriter Thomas Dorsey convenes the first national assembly of gospel choirs and choruses at Pilgrim Baptist Church at 33rd Street and Indiana Avenue. The Chicago Defender calls the gala songfest “a new epoch in the musical world,” and Dorsey is credited with reviving and formalizing gospel music as an art.

7. October 1982 New York critics and audiences first learn of Steppenwolf when Sam Shepard’s hit play True West lands at the Cherry Lane Theatre. The stars, John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, become the toast of Off Broadway, and the production introduces the country to Steppenwolf’s visceral acting style.

6. July 1955 In a room off a Hyde Park bar, a cast that includes David Shepherd, Paul Sills, Roger Bowen, Elaine May, and Barbara Harris stages a satirical revue based on current events. The audience is encouraged to blurt out random character and topic suggestions, which the ensemble improvises using a quickfire method developed by Sills’s mother, the acting coach Viola Spolin. The evening inspires a theatre troupe named The Compass; after the group dies two years later, Sills, Bernie Sahlins, and the actor Howard Alk create a spinoff, The Second City, which opens its doors in 1959.

5. Fall 1930 Using techniques of northern European Renaissance painters and the stark backdrop of his native Iowa, an unknown artist named Grant Wood paints his sister and the family dentist as a weathered farmhand and his spinster daughter. When American Gothic goes up as part of an exhibition of American paintings at the Art Institute in the fall of 1930, it wins a bronze medal and a modest $300—but creates a national stir for its prim portrayal (some say satirization) of Midwestern farm life. By the time the controversy settles, the painting is on its way to becoming one of the most famous—and parodied—examples of the regionalism style.

4. 1893 At the World’s Columbian Exposition, Frank Lloyd Wright discovers Japanese art and architecture while touring a sprawling exhibition and ornamental garden designed by the imperial architect for the fair’s Empire of the Mikado. This ignites Wright’s lifelong obsession with traditional Japanese elements such as low-pitched double roofs and shakkei—using a door or window to frame a landscape outside—and two signature elements of Prairie style are born.

3. July 1909 Daniel Burnham and his assistant, Edward Bennett, publish their Plan of Chicago in a 156-page book elegantly illustrated by Jules Guerin. Commissioned by a cadre of wealthy businessmen, the plan threads together existing public land, calls for additional lakefront parks, widens boulevards, creates Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive, and establishes suburban forest preserves. Though only partially implemented, Burnham’s vision becomes a model for metropolitan planning and gives Chicago’s citizenry back something that is rightfully theirs: public space.

2. 1938 With his beloved Bauhaus quashed, European commissions dry, and the Nazi regime entrenched in power, the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe settles in Chicago to head the architecture school at the Armour Institute of Technology. He is not only charged with elevating the school’s academic stature but is asked to create an all-modern master building plan for the growing institution, which becomes the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1940. In all, he designs 20 buildings for the campus, including the monumental Crown Hall, and in doing so, ushers in a second golden age for Chicago architecture.

1. April 1948 Leonard Chess, a white Polish immigrant who owns a Bronzeville nightclub, records a few songs by Muddy Waters, a black truck driver who migrated to the South Side from Mississippi and has been sitting in on “country blues” sessions that feature the piano and acoustic guitar. Waters begs to let his electric guitar rip on two originals, “I Feel Like Going Home” and “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” and when the effort lands on Billboard’s “Most Played Jukebox Race Records” chart, Chess’s company, then called Aristocrat (later Chess Records), claims its first national hit. The partnership boosts the careers of both men and changes the direction of the music business. Waters becomes a sensation, and his success sparks the rise of the postwar electric blues. With his brother, Phil, Chess chaperones more black musicians with blistering talent (Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry, Etta James) into the mainstream and injects popular music with the powerful progressions of blues and R & B. Check out Chess’s “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” played by Muddy Waters, in the video below:

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