Chicagoans You Maybe Never Heard Of

A section devoted to telling the stories of some notable, but lesser-known, Chicagoans. I'll be adding to it every so often, so please revisit once in a while.

John Alden Carpenter: Art Deco Jazz Composer

One of the most familiar stories in music history is how George Gershwin was the first composer to blend jazz and classical music—in his Rhapsody in Blue (1924). For example, in Supreme City: How Jazz Age Manhattan Gave Birth to Modern America, historian Donald Miller wrote that Gershwin’s concerto marked “the first time jazz was played on the concert stage.”

But more than two years earlier, another American composer premiered—on the concert stage—a classical composition that incorporated jazz. This composer was from Chicago.

The work was an orchestral piece called Krazy Kat: A Jazz Pantomime, based on the comic strip by George Herriman. The composer was John Alden Carpenter, who was born in Park Ridge, Illinois, on February 28, 1876. A direct descendant of John Alden of Mayflower fame, his musical gifts were obvious from his youngest days. His mother was an excellent singer, who inspired him to write songs. At Harvard he was a pupil of John Knowles Paine, a leading American composer. After graduating in 1897, he studied in Rome with an even more distinguished musician, Sir Edward Elgar. When Carpenter returned to Chicago, he took lessons from the German-born Bernhard Ziehn, an author of textbooks on harmony and composition who was considered an advanced music theorist and original thinker.

Carpenter’s first published piece of music was a violin sonata in 1912. His first work to gain national attention was the popular Adventures in a Perambulator (1915), a musical depiction of a day in the life of a baby. Two years later he presented his Piano Concertino, which has been called “a landmark in American concert music” for its incorporation of ragtime and Latin rhythms.

Krazy Kat is divided into eight sections, none longer than two and a half minutes. The piece depicts a day in the life of Herriman’s beloved cartoon character. It begins with Krazy waking from a nap, then follows her as she (or he—Krazy’s gender is deliberately ambiguous) tries to dress for a ball, only to be pelted with a brick by her constant nemesis, Ignatz Mouse. With the exception of the “Fox-Trot” section, which only lacks lyrics to work as a popular tune, the score doesn’t have the melodic richness of Gershwin’s rhapsody, but it is a lot of fun, with its jazzy rhythms, wailing saxophone, and wa-wa trumpets that seem to be modeled after jazzman King Oliver, who was playing in Chicago at the time. One commentator has speculated that Carpenter’s score might have been a partial inspiration for the music that later accompanied the cartoons of Walt Disney and Warner Brothers.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra gave the first performance of Krazy Kat on December 23, 1921. The reviewers were lavish in their approval. One commented that the composition showed “a rich vein of fantastic and ingenious burlesque, of indigenous humor, of honest strife for something truly and delightfully American.” Edward Moore of the Chicago Tribune wrote a lengthy, ecstatic appraisal that began, “To John Alden Carpenter belongs the credit for having introduced the largest slice of Christmas cheer in music yet discovered.” He went on to say, “It is the best bit of musical humor I have heard in many a year…. [Mr. Carpenter] has elevated jazz music to a position in the great orchestra…. The orchestra chuckles, and snorts, and bursts into loud laughter. And so did yesterday’s audience.” Afterward, Frederick Stock, conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, became a champion of Carpenter’s music and played it more often than the music of any other American composer.

Five years after Krazy Kat, Carpenter produced another jazz-infused piece, a ballet entitled Skyscrapers. Although the first performance of Skyscrapers took place in New York, the subject was Chicago, the birthplace of the skyscraper. The orchestra included tenor banjo, saxophones, a xylophone, and a piano, as well as two traffic lights, which were placed right and left downstage. The rhythm and duration of their flashings were notated in the score and controlled by an offstage keyboard. The score included snatches of popular songs and a rag from the 1890s. The reviews were enthusiastic; one hailed the composition’s description of the “vital forces” of “our distinctive national life.” The composer-critic Virgil Thompson wrote, “This is not literal jazz, but jazz as it has been filtered through the mind of a musician who thinks in terms of art.” Given that Skyscrapers celebrates Chicago's modern towers, which in the 1920s were being built in the flashy and innovative Art Deco style, he might be thought of as not only a jazz composer but also as the first (and probably only) Art Deco composer.

Carpenter continued to compose music, but, like his better-known contemporary Charles Ives, he didn’t make his living that way. He opted to remain vice president of the Chicago-based family business, George B. Carpenter & Co., a “Marine Outfitters” firm that specialized in equipment for motorboats, yachts, and racing sailboats. Early in his career, Carpenter dwelt in a red brick house on the corner of Rush and Huron streets; he turned the basement kitchen into a music room where he composed several of his best-known works. Later he lived in an apartment at 999 North Lake Shore Drive, which he filled with Chinese objets d’art.

Later compositions by Carpenter include Sea Drift (1933), which was based on a poem by Walt Whitman, two symphonies, three concertos, and many songs. The premiere of Carpenter’s second symphony in 1942 was conducted by the great Bruno Walter, leading the New York Philharmonic. In addition to texts by Whitman, Carpenter’s songs used poems by Rabindranath Tagore and Langston Hughes.

In honor of Carpenter’s 75th birthday in 1951, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by Rafael Kubelik, played musical suites drawn from Skyscrapers and another Carpenter composition, The Birthday of the Infanta. Two months later, on April 26, 1951, Carpenter died in his Lake Shore Drive apartment.

I don’t know of any recordings that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has made of Carpenter’s music and have failed to find any indications that it has programmed any of it in recent concerts. Carpenter’s music was popular in the first decades of the 20th century but fell out of fashion with the advent of more aggressively modern forms of classical music, such as atonality and the 12-tone system. Now that tonality is back in favor, however, perhaps it’s ripe for a comeback. It would have been fitting if the Chicago Symphony Orchestra could have played Krazy Kat in its centennial year, 2022, but apparently the composer actually is, for the people who do the scheduling for the CSO, a Chicagoan they never heard of.

Lucy Page Gaston: Anti-Cigarette Crusader

You Be the Judge. Lucy Page Gaston claimed she looked like Abraham Lincoln. What do you think?

Alcohol wasn’t the only thing the righteous in America wanted to ban in the early 20th century. They also set their sights on cigarettes.

Heading this campaign was a tireless Chicago crusader named Lucy Page Gaston. Born in Ohio in 1860, her family moved to Illinois, where she became a schoolteacher. She became convinced that cigarettes were a leading cause of juvenile crime and claimed she could spot a budding felon by his “cigarette face.” A “tall, bony” woman, as head of the Chicago Anti-Cigarette League (later a national organization) she became a persuasive lobbyist for anti-tobacco legislation, and by 1913, 15 states had passed cigarette bans. Thousands of youngsters took her Clean Life Pledge: “I hereby pledge myself with the help of God to abstain from all intoxicating liquors as a beverage and from the use of tobacco in any form.”

But then came the Great War. It became patriotic to send cigarettes to the troops (tobacco was thought to be calming), and women, now working in factories, took up the habit. After the war, these women viewed smoking as a declaration of liberation, and cigarette sales to women more than doubled. States repealed their cigarette laws, preferring to concentrate on banning sales to minors. Gaston was even asked to resign as head of the league. Undaunted, in 1920 she ran for president, one of her qualifications being that she “looked like Lincoln.”

Lucy Page Gaston died of throat cancer in 1924—ironically, a disease usually associated with tobacco. When she began her anti-cigarette campaign, sales of cigarettes were about two billion per year. In 1930 sales were 100 billion. Cigarettes had become a defining symbol of the Jazz Age.

It's tempting to dismiss Lucy Page Gaston as a dreamer and a crank. But a hundred years later, attempts to ban alcohol are as dead as could be, while Gaston's crusade incongruously is thriving. Anti-smoking measures have been instituted in many places in the last few decades (remember when people could smoke in movie theaters and restaurants?) The city of Brookline, Massachusetts, recently passed an ordinance permanently banning tobacco sales to anyone born after January 1, 2000, which means that eventually sales of cigarettes will be illegal to everyone. The strategy is called TGF, or "tobacco-free generation." New Zealand's government plans to pass a TGF policy soon and Finland says it will be tobacco-free by 2040. Somewhere, Lucy must be smiling.

Octave Chanute: Pioneer of Flight

The standard story is that the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, and that’s that. They did, but they probably wouldn’t have without a certain Chicagoan who came before them.

His name was Octave Chanute and he was one of its earliest pioneers of heavier-than-air flying machines. Born in Paris in 1832, Chanute came to America six years later with his father. He became one of the most successful civil engineers of the age. Among his projects were the Chicago Stock Yards (1865) and the first bridge over the Missouri River (1869). After retiring in 1883, he devoted his time to his passion—the airplane. He gathered information on aviation experiments from around the world and in 1894 published an influential book entitled Progress in Flying Machines. Two years later he began conducting glider experiments on the shore of Lake Michigan at Miller Beach, Indiana, where he determined that the ideal design for a plane was to use two or more wings, one above the other. He was too old himself to test the gliders, but his assistants happily leapt off the high dunes and floated in the sky as onlookers gaped. One of Chanute’s glider designs became the model for the Wrights’ first successful airplane.

Orville and Wilbur Wright exchanged hundreds of letters with Chanute, who was generous in encouraging all aviation pioneers. In fact, flight historians David Young and Neal Callahan said of Chanute, “for two decades he acted as the world’s clearing house for aviation developments.” The Wrights visited Chanute in Chicago and it was he who advised them to make their tests on soft sand and suggested looking for a windy spot on the Atlantic seaboard. Chanute in turn went to see the Wrights at their home in Dayton, Ohio, and he was in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903, the year the Wright’s first flying machine got off the ground, but ill health and the chilly weather forced him to return home before he could observe the Wrights’ success. The Wrights’ sister sent him a telegram saying simply, “The boys have done it.” Six years later, Chanute looked on as aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss made the first recorded airplane flight in the Chicago area. Chanute died in 1910, not just one of the first aviation pioneers in Chicago, but also one of the first in the world.

Today a statue of Chanute and a replica of his glider can be found at the Aquatorium in Marquette Park in Gary. The site is a National Historic Landmark that commemorates both Chanute and the Tuskegee Airmen. In 2020 the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center hosted the national premiere of a film titled Octave Chanute: Patron Saint of Flight. At the time, Paul Nelson, director of the documentary, said, “These sites that are located right on the lake in Northwest Indiana should be revered in the same way that Kitty Hawk, North Carolina is for flight enthusiasts.”

Franklin Denison: Forgotten Hero of World War I

In recent years we’ve been seeing a trend in Chicago toward renaming streets, parks, schools, and the like after notable African Americans. Trouble is, it seems that outside of Jean Baptiste Point De Sable (the correct spelling, by the way), Ida B. Wells, and perhaps Harold Washington (and also maybe Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who were not connected to Chicago), people don’t seem to have a lot of names to suggest. May I propose Franklin A. Denison, a forgotten African American hero from Chicago.

Franklin A. Denison was the highest ranking Black American officer in World War I. He was the colonel in command of the 370th Infantry Regiment, a unit of the 93rd division, which was one of two all-Black divisions in the U.S. Army during the Great War. When he retired from the Army, Denison was promoted to brigadier general, at that point the highest rank ever attained by a Black man in the U.S. military.

Denison was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1862, and his family moved to Chicago when he was young. After graduating from Lincoln University, he went to the Union College of Law, (now Northwestern University Law School). In 1890 he graduated as valedictorian of his class, in which he was the only Black student. Even before his graduation, he had become only the 12th African American to pass the Illinois bar. Due to his “brilliant academic record,” Chicago mayor Hempstead Washburn appointed him assistant city prosecutor, and he was later promoted to chief assistant prosecuting attorney. He formed a legal partnership with another Black attorney, Samuel Asbury Thompson Watkins, and in June 1916 Denison became a member of the Illinois delegation to the Republican National Convention, which met in Chicago’s Coliseum.

Denison was also a soldier, a member of the 8th Regiment of the Illinois National Guard, an all-Black unit that was sent to Cuba in August 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Denison, then a major, was appointed judge of claims in Santiago. In 1914, Denison, now a colonel, took over the command of the regiment and the outfit moved into a new armory especially built for it—the first armory in the country built for Black soldiers. In September 1915 a distinguished-looking Denison, in full military regalia, was featured on the cover of The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He returned to active duty in 1916 when the 8th Illinois was sent to the Mexican border as part of the effort to suppress Pancho Villa’s raids on U.S. territory.

The United States declared war on Germany on April 4, 1917, and the 8th Illinois reported for duty on the following July 25, consisting of 42 officers and 1,405 men, Col. Franklin A. Denison commanding. Half-Century Magazine, a Black-owned periodical, called it “the only regiment in America that is colored from the Colonel down to the last buck private.” They trained at Camp Logan in Texas and In June 1918 were sent to France. Most Black U.S. soldiers during World War I were given menial, noncombat tasks, like unloading ships. Not the 370th, which was sent into combat (under French command). They went into battle on June 21, 1918, when they were ordered into the St. Mihiel sector. In early July the regiment was shipped to the Argonne Forest. They fought the German foe with intensity and bloodshed. When the regiment landed in France, it had about 2,500 men; when it returned to the states, it had 1,260.

At about this time, Col. Denison came down with what was described as rheumatism, and on July 12 he was relieved of his command and a white officer took his place. Historians Arthur E. Barbeau and Florette Henri have expressed skepticism that illness was the reason for Denison’s removal; a member of the division stated that Denison was removed “simply on prejudicial grounds.” Denison was sent to the hospital at Camp Dodge in Des Moines for recuperation. While passing through La Salle Street Station in Chicago, a man came up to him and said that he had four sons “over there.” Col. Denison replied, “I have 3,500.”

Back in Chicago the following October, Denison was given a reception at the Appomattox Club. The 370th finally returned to Chicago on February 17, 1919. After arriving at LaSalle Street Station, the men proceeded to the Chicago Coliseum for a banquet. The loudest cheers of the event exploded when Col. Denison, who had been separated from his comrades for seven months, entered the hall.

In 1919, Denison, along with his partners, S. A. Watkins and James E. White, formed a law firm with offices at 36 West Randolph Street. He retired from the military in 1922. Denison died on April 14, 1932, and some 6,000 mourners attended his rites at the Eighth Regiment Armory. Ten days later the Illinois House of Representatives passed, without a dissenting vote, a resolution honoring Denison as “a military hero and a political leader who possessed the highest degree of courage and a type of honesty that is seldom found….” In 1927 a monument to the men of the “Old 8th” was erected in 1927 at the corner of 35th Street and South Parkway (now Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive). Denison’s name on one of four plaques commemorating Black military figures from Chicago.

If Denison is not well-known in Chicago, maybe there’s a reason. Shortly after his death, the Chicago Defender, the largest and best-known Black-owned newspaper in the country, published a commentary on Denison. It lamented that young African Americans didn’t know that he was the first Black brigadier general in the U.S. Army and then went on to say, “There may be some excuse for their ignorance in this regard, however, for General Denison was not a ballyhoo man, but one who sought to be measured by his accomplishments rather than by his ability as a self-advertiser.”