Category Archives: Advocacy

Checker Café

The Checker Café opened in 1934. Located at 2125 Ridge Avenue, it was in the heart of the Ridge Avenue Entertainment District.

Ridge Avenue Cultural District

The Checker Café was a place to see and be seen. On May 23, 1935, Philadelphia Tribune columnist, “the Negro Councilman,” wrote:

When the show has nearly ended you will then see no other than our own sepia Gloria Swanson, who is direct from the Grand Terrace in Chicago and then you can tell the world that you have seen a real show.

As with many jazz venues, the Checker Café was about “intersectionality” before it became a thing. The “sepia Gloria Swanson” was a female impersonator.

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In the 1980s under new ownership, the nightspot was renamed the Checker Club.

2125 Ridge Avenue - Checker Club Sign

Trumpeter Cullen Knight is the recipient of the 2015 Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts “Living Legend” Award. Knight shared some memories with Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron who wrote:

It’s a bit ironic that the Checker is the only one of those Ridge Avenue joints to survive. It wasn’t the biggest or best known of the venues that lined the avenue during North Philadelphia’s jazz heyday in the mid-20th century. That distinction was probably held by the Pearl Theater on the next block, where Bailey and her sister Jura worked as ushers, and brother Bill tended the candy counter.

Trumpeter Cullen Knight, who grew up a block away, says the Checker was where musicians hung out before and after the shows, partly because the food and the house trio were equally reliable. Its motto was “Good Food. Good Cooks. Good Service.” Among those providing service was Pearl Bailey, who did a stint as a singing waitress and is now immortalized by a mural on the building’s south side. In the ’30s, a gay singer known as the “Sepia Gloria Swanson” was also a regular.

While some clubs, like Ridge Cotton Club and Blue Note, took their inspiration from famous Harlem venues, the Checker got its name from the black-and-white pattern painted on the ground floor. Its horseshoe-shaped bar had just enough space in its curve for a small band. Tables occupied the rest of the room.

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Philly Celebrates Jazz

April is Jazz Appreciation Month. The destruction of the Royal Theater, and John Coltrane and Women of Jazz murals gives one reason to believe otherwise, but Philly celebrates jazz.

Philly-Celebrates-Jazz

Mayor Jim Kenney kicked off the celebration by presenting the Benny Golson Award to multi-instrumentalist and “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” bandleader Jon Batiste.

Philly Loves Jazz - Jon Baptiste

Kenney said:

I am honored to present the first Benny Golson Award to Jon Batiste, who exemplifies what can be accomplished in using your talents in educating our youth in the importance of the arts and culture. As I have said many times, arts education is not a luxury, it is a necessity and one of the most effective ways of helping our children grow and develop into not only more creative, but also open-minded and compassionate people.

The Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy organizes the month-long Philly Celebrates Jazz. Over 200 events are scheduled, including a photo exhibition, “Live Philly Jazz Vol. 2.

The WRTI Jazz Listening Sessions will be hosted by Jeff Duperon. The hour-long conversations will be held before a live audience in the Art Gallery @ City Hall. The listening sessions are free but space is limited. Seating is first come, first serve and you must register.

Over the course of Philadelphia’s jazz heyday, roughly 1940s to 1960s, there were jazz spots from the Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue.

All That Philly Jazz - Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue

The “Philly Celebrates Jazz Community Series” harkens back to the time when the joints were jumping in every neighborhood, including  “The Golden Strip,” Ridge Avenue and “The Strip.”

Philadelphia Celebrates Jazz Community Series

A complete calendar listing of Philly Celebrates Jazz events is available here.

Historic Preservation and Social Justice

Two years ago I launched All That Philly Jazz, a place-based public history project that is telling the story of Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz. In documenting the places where jazz history unfolded, I am also contextualizing the impact of jazz musicians and the jazz culture on the struggle for social justice.

Fact is, the jazz culture was about “intersectionality” before the term was coined . As Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron notes in her column, “Ridge Avenue’s last standing jazz club,” gay performers such as the “Sepia Gloria Swanson” were an integral part of the scene.

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In a piece for PlanPhilly, I wrote about why historic preservation matters:

1409 Lombard Street helps tell the story of artistic greats like Lady Day, Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Nina Simone and McCoy Tyner. It also tells the story of disruption and defiance. In remarks to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said jazz is “triumphant music.” If walls could talk, they would tell how the jazz culture broke down social barriers. The first racially integrated nightspot in Center City was a jazz club, the Downbeat. For the first time, blacks and whites mixed on an equal basis. Jazz musicians created a cultural identity that was “a steppingstone” to the Civil Rights Movement.

At its core, historic preservation is about storytelling. The question then becomes: Who decides what gets saved and whose story gets told? The built environment reflects racial inequalities. Given African Americans’ socioeconomic status, few of the buildings associated with black history meet preservation standards regarding architectural significance. Although unadorned, they are places that tell a more complete American story. The stories of faith, resistance, and triumph are relevant to today’s social justice activists.

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Philadelphia Pyramid Club

Founded in 1937 and formally opened three years later, the Philadelphia Pyramid Club was a small, exclusive club for black professionals. Its mission was to foster the “cultural, civic, and social advancement of Negroes in Philadelphia.” The membership fee was $120, and monthly dues were $2.40.

pyramid-club

The club hosted a wide range of social and cultural activities, including performances by Marian Anderson and Duke Ellington and, after 1941, annual art exhibitions for African American artists. It also hosted events with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb. During the Pyramid Club’s heyday, its membership rolls were a Who’s Who of black Philadelphia.

The club was dissolved in 1963.

Pyramid Club Historical Marker

Ridge Cotton Club

Opened in 1947 and listed in the The Negro Motorist Green Book, the Ridge Cotton Club shows the influence of Harlem and the Cotton Club. And like the legendary Harlem nightspot, it was probably controlled by the mob. The original owners, Morris Brodsky and Harry Hirsch, died within days of each other in January 1949 following “injuries inflicted by an assailant.”

Ridge Avenue Cultural District

The Elmer Snowden Trio played here in April 1946.

Ridge Avenue

During Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz, there were jazz clubs in every neighborhood. There were so many that folks in North Philly didn’t go to joints in South Philly and vice versa. There were a handful of clubs that reached legendary status and attracted patrons from all over the city. The Blue Note at 15th Street and Ridge Avenue was “the town’s swankiest jazz emporium.”

From 15th Street to Columbia Avenue (later renamed Cecil B. Moore Avenue), Ridge Avenue was a jazz corridor where legends-in-the-making roamed.

Ridge Avenue Entertainment District - 7.26.17