Congo Café

The Congo Café was located on Ridge Avenue in an old bank building (Northwestern Trust Company?). In a December 6, 1959 conversation with celebrated jazz journalist Ralph J. Gleason, Philly Joe Jones shared memories of the Congo Cafe:

In 1945 I came home, I was just out of the service and I wanted to play and I knew about the drums, I actually knew about the drums in 1939, an old fellow in Philadelphia who’s still there playin’, he’s playin’ every night, named Coatsville [James “Coatsville” Harris], and he used to help me, he used to teach me how to play the drums. I used to sit underneath the bandstand in the club because I was too young to be there. I wasn’t supposed to be there but he’d sneak me in and I’d be underneath the bandstand. It was an ex-bank and they made a nightclub out of it and they had a floor show and I used to watch the dancers and the chorus and three, four girls in the line and this drummer. I just idolized him and he’s still one of the swingingest older cats I’ve met, and I wanted to play so that he used to help me.

In the 1950s, Coatsville led an orchestra that featured a tenor saxophonist thought to be John Coltrane.

Conversations in Jazz: The Ralph J. Gleason Interviews is available on Amazon.com.

Lennox Grill

The Lennox Grill was located in North Philly across from drummer Philly Joe Jones’ childhood home on N. 19th Street between Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue) and W. Montgomery Street. In a December 6, 1959 conversation with celebrated jazz journalist Ralph J. Gleason, Philly Joe shared memories of the Lennox Grill:

I lived across the street from a place called the Lennox Grill in Philadelphia and I used to peek through the windows in the back of the club, and they had bars on the windows, so I used to always stand there and peek and look at this drummer. This man used to kill me, he had a pipe in his mouth and a regular old setup of drums, you know, no high hat, nothing like that, just a bass drum and a little cymbal. Cymbals were small then, but he was swinging like I don’t know what and I used to like to go there. My brother used to come around the corner and look up and see me peeking in the window and say, “Come on now!” and I’d go home—I only lived across the street. I used to sneak out of the house sometimes at night because they’d be playin’ after my bedtime, I had to go to school, but I used to sneak out of the house and run across the street, 10:30 and 11 o’clock at night I used to sneak out of the house and run across the street and peek in that window and listen to him playin’ drums.

Conversations in Jazz: The Ralph J. Gleason Interviews is available on Amazon.com.

Rendezvous Club

The Rendezvous Club was located in the basement of the Douglass Hotel.

Douglass Hotel

In a May 11, 1959 conversation with celebrated jazz journalist Ralph J. Gleason, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie shared an anecdote:

… in Philly, I had an interesting experience with Roy [Eldridge]. All the bands used to come to Philly. When I got to Philly in ’35, Roy was with Teddy Hill and Chu [Berry], and they used to jam downstairs in the Rendezvous up under the Douglas Hotel where the Showboat is now. Well, those guys used to play and I wouldn’t dare play, you know. I’d just go and listen to those guys. So one time, I remember, Rex Stewart, Duke Ellington, and Teddy Hill were there at the same time and they had a session downstairs and Roy was down there that night. And Rex, you know, Rex was Roy’s idol. Roy tells now about the time he first heard Rex play that high B flat. Roy finally found that B flat. I guess, ‘cause when he come to Philadelphia that night they was jammin’ round there and Roy started playing. Damn, Rex started crying and just tightened up and left ‘cause Roy was in rare form that night. I didn’t meet Roy until way later. I met him there, but he didn’t remember me.

Conversations in Jazz: The Ralph J. Gleason Interviews is available on Amazon.com.

Club Zel-Mar

Opened in 1947, Club Zel-Bar was located in West Philly. In April 1947, the “ultra modern” club played host to Three B’s and A Honey.

The “Home of the Mambo” welcomed José Curbelo who popularized the Mambo and the Cha-cha-cha in the 1950s.

Club Zel-Mar Flyer

Bill Carney’s Hi-Tones had a weeklong engagement here February 28-March 5, 1955. The group was comprised of Bill “Mr. C” Carney, Al “Tootie” Heath, Shirley Scott and John Coltrane.

Hi-Tones - Club Zel-Mar

A Room with a View of the Blues

Earlier this month, I attended a panel discussion on “Art in Public Space” held in the Hamilton Garden of the Kimmel Center. As I waited for the program to start, I checked out the view from the top floor. What I saw left a hole in my heart.

PRI Vacant Lot

The hole is where Philadelphia International Records once stood.

PRI Collage - June 4, 2017

Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff have earned their place in history.

Kenny Gamble - Leon Huff - History

Sadly, the building that held the stories of the songwriters, musicians, producers and arrangers is now lost to history. For the love of money, African Americans’ cultural heritage was erased from public memory.

Gamble and Huff sold the historic building to Dranoff Properties which plans to build a luxury hotel and condos for the one percent. Three years after the demolition of “309,” there’s just a hole in the ground. The reason: Dranoff Properties is waiting for a corporate welfare check to the tune of $19 million before breaking ground on the “biggest, tallest and most expensive” project the company has ever done.

In the poorest big city in the country, spending taxpayers’ money to further enrich the rich is the sound of Philadelphia.

African-American Music Appreciation Month 2017

On June 7, 1979, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed the month of June “Black Music Month.” Every president since then has recognized the contribution of black musicians to the nation’s cultural heritage. In 2009, President Barack Obama changed the month-long celebration to “African-American Music Appreciation Month.”

The tradition continues with President Donald Trump:

During June, we pay tribute to the contributions African Americans have made and continue to make to American music. The indelible legacy of these musicians who have witnessed our Nation’s greatest achievements, as well as its greatest injustices give all Americans a richer, deeper understanding of American culture. Their creativity has shaped every genre of music, including rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel, hip hop, and rap.

[…]

We also take time this month to recognize the musical influence of two of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, Dizzy Gillespie and Ella Fitzgerald, as this year marks their centennial birthdays. Gillespie, through his legendary trumpet sound and Fitzgerald, through her pure, energetic voice, treated people around the world to spirited and soulful jazz music. Their work has influenced countless musicians, and continues to inspire listeners young and old.

NOW, THEREFORE, I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim June 2017 as African-American Music Appreciation Month. I call upon public officials, educators, and all the people of the United States to observe this month with appropriate activities and programs that raise awareness and appreciation of African-American Music.

I kicked off this year’s celebration by attending opening night of Motown The Musical.

The multi-media musical recaps familiar stories about how Berry Gordy Jr. founded the Motown Record Company; Gordy’s affair with Diana Ross; self-destructive Florence Ballard; the tempting Temptations and their rivalry with the Four Tops; songwriter, singer and Motown lifer Smokey Robinson; child prodigy and history-maker Stevie Wonder; and the discovery of The Jackson 5. The Motown breakups include Mary “My Guy” Wells, Marvin Gaye, songwriting and production team Holland-Dozier-Holland, and Diana Ross and the Supremes.

The audience went nuts when Martha Reeves and the Vandellas gave “Philadelphia, PA” a shout-out in “Dancing in the Streets.” Although one knows how the stories end, the retelling is fresh and joyous. The musical culminates with a “family” reunion to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Motown.

I remember like it was yesterday watching the television special, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. In 1983, I sang the songs at the top of my lungs, danced in front of the TV, and marveled as Michael Jackson debuted the moonwalk. At the Academy of Music, I danced in my seat and tried not to sing too loud.

But it wasn’t just the songs and dancing that kept a smile on my face. I love that the music is contextualized. Motown addresses racial segregation in the South and the North, the senseless war in Vietnam, the March on Washington, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the Black Power Movement. By the 1970s, the “Motown Sound” was the sound of the struggle for racial justice.

Motown The Musical is playing at the Academy of Music through June 11. For ticket information, visit kimmelcenter.org.

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