Located on the second floor above the Willow Bar, the Downbeat was the first racially integrated jazz club in Center City. The building in which the Downbeat was located is still there.
The Downbeat was owned by jazz impresario Nat Segall. It was open from 1939 to circa 1948. Charlie Parker came in from New York City “every other week or so.” He was paid $25 a night to jam with Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz greats-in-the-making.
Jazz musicians would hang out at the Downbeat between shows at the Earle Theater.
In his autobiography, You Only Rock Once, Jerry Blavat, “the Geator with the Heator,” recounted:
Nat had owned a club called Downbeat around the corner from the Earle Theater, where Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and other giants of jazz performed. After Holiday was busted for narcotics one night, the police started raiding the place on a regular basis, and Nat was forced to close it down—but not before he and Bob [Horn] produced a series of jazz shows at the Academy of Music.
In a Smithsonian jazz oral history interview, National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and Philly native Benny Golson shared a story about the Downbeat and drummer Philly Joe Jones:
For a while they had a policeman on every street car, stand up at the front with his gun and stuff. It was so bad. During that time – because they said, you don’t have any black motormen and conductors on the streetcar. Philly Joe got a job.
Do you remember that? He got a job as a motorman, driving a streetcar. Route number 23. The longest route in Philadelphia, from south Philadelphia, all the way through north Philadelphia, all the way through Germantown. Max Roach used to come over and ride a route with him, and talk.
Philly Joe’s route came right up 11th Street, where the Down Beat Club was, on 11th Street. Philly came up one night, stopped the car in front of the Down Beat, opened the doors, got off, and went up, and took a club. Now all the people on the streetcar, they’re going crazy. He goes up into the – no, he’s not going to stay and hear a set, but he went up to do something. When he came back, boy, they were irate. He got on the streetcar and started up like he did – never heard it – like this was a matter – who would do something like that? Stop a streetcar and get off and go into a club, and everybody’s on the streetcar, waiting. Only Philly Joe would have done something like that. Only Philly would have done that.