Category Archives: Advocacy

Music City

In 1947, drummer Ellis Tollin and his business partner William E. Welsh opened Music City, an instrument store that was located on the second floor of the Wurlitzer Building.

Tollin transformed the third floor into a 250-seat performance space, Music City Swing Club, where top jazz musicians, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Art Blakey and Buddy Rich held jam sessions and mentored young musicians like Bobby Timmons, Archie Shepp and Lee Morgan (circled).

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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Before 1964, Jazz Musicians Traveled While Black

Philadelphia Jazz Appreciation Month is in full swing. In a recent interview, I noted that jazz musicians performed in nightclubs where they could not sit and hotels where they could not stay. The jazz legends whose music paved the way for the Civil Rights movement were subjected to racial discrimination as they traveled while black.

In 1936, Victor H. Green, a postal worker and civil rights activist, published the first edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide to navigate Jim Crow laws in the South and de facto segregation in the North.

The “Green Book,” as it was called, lists hotels, tourist homes, restaurants, nightclubs, beauty parlors, barber shops and other services. Philadelphia hotels in the 1949 edition include the Attucks, Chesterfield and Douglass.

Douglass Hotel Bus Ad - Cropped

The list of clubs includes Emerson’s Tavern, the setting for the Tony Award-winning play, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” Café Society and Watts’ Zanzibar.

Cafe Society - Watts' Zanzibar

In the wake of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act which outlawed racial discrimination, the last edition of the “Green Book” was published in 1966-67.

UPDATE:  A documentary, “The Green Book Chronicles,” co-produced by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Becky Wible Searles, is in production.

In an interview with NBCBLK, Ramsey said:

There was no Internet back then to get the Green Book, this was put together with love from black people for each other to keep each other safe. The Green Book to me was a love letter of sorts. There was a time when we loved each other so much that we would open our homes just to keep another black person safe. You could be a superstar, a singer, an artist and in those days still have no place to stay, eat or bathe while on the road, so this book was about the love and ability to preserve our dignity.

Show Ramsey and his team some love and make a donation to help them complete “The Green Book Chronicles.”

Douglass Hotel

In Jimmy Heath’s autobiography “I Walked with Giants,” drummer Roy Haynes recounted:

I met Jimmy around 1946 when I was with Luis Russell and we played the Earle Theater in Philadelphia. A lot of the big bands would come through the Earle. We stayed at the Douglas Hotel, which was in South Philly. That was the hotel where a lot of the big black bands stayed.

The building is still there. The historical marker out front notes that Billie Holiday lived here when she was in town.

Douglass Hotel

The Douglass Hotel was first listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book in 1938. The safe space was not just a place to lay one’s head. The legendary Show Boat was located in the lower level where John Coltrane recorded a live album in 1961 and 1963.

After the Show Boat, the space became the Bijou Café. Grover Washington, Jr. recorded live from the Bijou Café in 1977.

The lower level of 1409 Lombard Street was a magical space.

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