The Big 9: Chattanooga’s Vibrant Musical Past
From the early 1900s to the 1960s, Chattanooga was a destination for some of the best live rhythm and blues, jazz and soul in the South.
Ninth Street in downtown Chattanooga – renamed Martin Luther King Blvd. In 1981 – was the epicenter of the black community and a mecca for live music and entertainment, with a mix of shops, stores, restaurants and hotels. Known as “The Big 9,” the area was a hotbed for live blues, rhythm and blues, jazz and soul music. Some of the era’s biggest stars stayed at the Martin Hotel on The Big 9, which was located where the Bessie Smith Cultural Center is today.
The musical influence of these artists, who hailed from and played on “the Big 9,” brings a musical heritage to Chattanooga that rivals Memphis’s Beale Street and New Orleans’s Bourbon Street.
Some of Chattanooga’s early jazz and blues greats include:
American blues singer Bessie Smith, still referred to as The Empress of the Blues. Bessie sang on the street corners of the Big Nine as a little a girl and became the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s.
Sam Gooden and Fred Cash played on Ninth Street before forming The Impressions, one of the greatest vocal groups of all time.
Jazz musician Jimmy Blanton, who was a member of Duke Ellington’s band, is credited with developing Bebop jazz.
Legendary drummer Clyde Stubblefield, best known for his work with James Brown, grew up in Chattanooga in the bustling 1940s.
American jazz musician Valaida Snow was born in Chattanooga and helped spread jazz across Europe and China after World War 1.
Cora “Lovie” Austin worked with Louis Armstrong and was known as one of the top jazz piano players of her time.
Today, the “Big 9 Legends” mural at 763 E. MLK Blvd. overlooks The Big 9, featuring the faces of musicians whose sounds were once the musical soul of the city. The mural measures 60 feet long by 18 feet high and features Bessie Smith, Frazier Benefield, Mary Bessie Brown, Dorothy Courtney, Cortez Greer, Tiny Kennedy, Wilfred Middlebrooks, William Price, Johnny Screane, Willie “Papa” Stubb and Rick Upshaw, among others. The mural was facilitated by Mark Making and completed in 2012.