Category Archives: Advocacy

2016 NEA Jazz Master Archie Shepp

The 2016 NEA Jazz Masters were honored at a tribute concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

This year’s class includes Archie Shepp who grew up in West Philadelphia. During an NEA interview, Shepp talked about jazz and Philadelphia:

The music that we call jazz has always been important in the African American community, especially in the poorer neighborhoods.

There was a lot of racism and prejudice, but a lot of music, a lot of blues and some good times. Music was all over Philadelphia. You could go down to North Philadelphia and hear young John Coltrane or Johnny Coles, Jimmy Oliver, Jimmy Heath. I suppose that’s what jazz is all about, suffering and good times, and somehow making the best of all of that.

At the tribute concert for Benny Carter, I got a chance to spend some time with Shepp during the break. He reminisced about the jam sessions at the Heath Brothers’ Family Home. He shared that he learned how to play chords from Coltrane and Lee Morgan.

Truth be told, Philadelphia’s contribution to jazz is mostly an untold story. We must capture stories about Philly’s jazz scene while those who know the history are still here.

Music City

In 1947, drummer Ellis Tollin and his business partner William E. Welsh opened Music City, an instrument store. Tollin transformed the 4th Floor into a unique performance space where top jazz musicians, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis held jam sessions and mentored up-and-coming musicians like Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons and Archie Shepp.

Music City Collage

Trumpeter Ted Curson recalled:

It was like the scene in Philadelphia for young cats and old cats. They would bring guys in from New York to play and they would have the young guys sit in with them. If you played pretty good you always ended up with some kind of gig.

Jazz legend Clifford Brown gave his last performance at Music City. He left directly from here for a gig in Chicago. He never made it. He was killed in a car accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on June 26, 1956.

In a piece for Hidden City Philadelphia, archivist and Philadelphia music historian Jack McCarthy wrote:

On Tuesday evenings in the mid 1950s, young jazz enthusiasts from all over the city would gather inside the popular music store, Music City, at what is now 1033 Chestnut Street. Some came to jam, while others sat back and listened to intimate performances by major players of the era. It was an especially fertile period in Philly jazz when the city hummed with lively clubs and was home to many of the genre’s important instrumentalists. For aspiring teenage musicians who were too young to get into the clubs, Music City was a place to trade notes with fellow young players and even to play with their musical heroes if they were lucky. Many emerging Philly jazz performers of the 1950s cut their teeth there.

[…]

[Clifford] Brown had established himself as one of the top trumpeters in jazz by the mid1950s. He was living in Philadelphia during this period and was a frequent, featured guest at Music City. As the original story went, Brown performed at the store on the evening of June 26, 1956, accompanied by Ellis Tollin on drums and several other Philly musicians, and left directly from there to drive to a gig in Chicago. With him on the trip were the pianist Richie Powell and his wife, Nancy, who did the driving. On the Pennsylvania Turnpike between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, the car ran off the road and crashed, killing all three.

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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 the 1930s 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.

Two of the original owners, Morris Brodsky and Harry Hirsch, died within days of each other in January 1949 following “injuries inflicted by an assailant.”

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