Category Archives: Cultural Heritage Preservation

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.

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.

Preservation Month 2017

May is Preservation Month, a time to celebrate places that matter to you. On May 6, I led a Jane’s Walk, “Ridge Avenue Stroll through Philly’s Jazz History.” The first stop was the legendary Blue Note. The Ray Bryant Trio was the Blue Note’s house band. It is interesting to note that Bryant co-wrote the smash hit, “The Madison Time,” which was released in 1959.

The highlight of the stroll was 2125 Ridge Avenue, the former location of the Checker Café, a “black and tan” (read: racially integrated) jazz club. The nightclub’s motto was “Good Food. Good Cooks. Good Service.” One of the servers was a teenage singing waitress named Pearl Bailey.

Checker Cafe - This Place Matters Collage

Since October 2016, I’ve been locked in battle with the Philadelphia Housing Authority which wants to demolish the building that has been a visual anchor for more than 100 years. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission agreed with me the building is of historical significance. Last week, PHA signed a programmatic agreement that saves the building for now. Under the agreement, PHA must stabilize the building.

I say for now because PHA has made it clear it wants to demolish the building. I guess it doesn’t fit their “vision” for a revitalized Ridge Avenue. In an area full of vacant lots, PHA wants to replace a building that is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places with yet another vacant lot.

I encouraged the 40+ people who participated in my Jane’s Walk to make some noise and tell decision-makers that this place matters. If you care about preserving Philadelphia’s cultural heritage, DM me on Twitter or send message to phillyjazzapp[@]gmail.com.

Ridge Avenue Stroll through Philly’s Jazz History

On Saturday, May 6, from 11am to 12pm, All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson will lead a Jane’s Walk, “Ridge Avenue Stroll through Philly’s Jazz History.”

Ridge Avenue Stroll Cover

In the wake of the Great Migration, the demographics of North Philadelphia’s Sharswood neighborhood changed. The new residents fueled the growth of commercial establishments along Ridge Avenue that catered to African Americans. From the Blue Note (15th Street) to Irene’s Café (22nd Street), Ridge Avenue was a jazz corridor and entertainment district.

Ridge Avenue was also a safe haven from the indignities of racial discrimination. African American entertainers performed in Center City at places such as the Earle Theater and Ciro’s, but they were not allowed to stay in downtown hotels. The Negro Motorist Green Book helped black travelers navigate Jim Crow or de jure (legalized) segregation in the South and de facto (in practice) segregation in the North. Published from 1936 to 1964, the “Green Book” listed hotels, restaurants, night clubs, beauty parlors and other services that enabled African Americans to “vacation and recreation without humiliation.”

Green Book - NMAAHC

Our stroll will begin at the legendary Blue Note. We’ll walk around the corner and stop at the Nite Cap.

Blue Note - Nite Cap Collage - 5.5.17

We’ll then head north up Ridge Avenue, stopping at the Bird Cage Lounge and Don-El Records.

Don-El Records - 2020 Ridge Avenue

Moving along, we’ll check out the Hotel LaSalle which was listed in the “Green Book” and advertised in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine.

Hotel LasSalle Collage - 4.30.17

We’ll then stop by V-Tone Records, the LaSalle Beauty Parlor and Butler’s Paradise Café (listed in “Green Book”).

Next stops: Ridge Cotton Club (listed in “Green Book”) and the Pearl Theatre.

Ridge Cotton Club - Overlay

The highlight of the walk will be the Checker Café, the last vestige of the Ridge Avenue entertainment district.

2125 Ridge Avenue - 2007

We’ll end our stroll at Mr. Chip’s Bar and Irene’s Café (listed in “Green Book”).

Mr. Chip's Bar - Irene's Cafe Collage

Rain or shine, we will walk the streets where future jazz legends such as Pearl Bailey, Clifford Brown, Cab Calloway, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Philly Joe Jones, Charlie Parker and Nancy Wilson once roamed. For more information about the free event, visit Jane’s Walk.

#NEAJazz17 Recap

The 2017 Jazz Masters are in the history book. With threats to its funding, will the National Endowment for the Arts itself be history? First, a recap of #NEAJazz17.

The NEA conferred the NEA Jazz Master award, the nation’s highest honor in jazz, on Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ira Gitler, Dave Holland, Dick Hyman and Dr. Lonnie Smith.

NEA Jazz Masters - Resize
2017 NEA Jazz Masters Dave Holland, Dick Hyman, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Dr. Lonnie Smith (not pictured: Ira Gitler) at the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Dinner, sponsored by BMI, on April 2, 2017. Photo by Yassine El Mansouri

The celebration kicked off with the NEA Jazz Masters Listening Party at NPR, moderated by Jason Moran. The Jazz Masters and Fitz Gitler (representing his father) were joined in conversation by musicians whose lives they have influenced. They generously – and humorously – shared stories about their musical journey.

NPR Listening Party Collage

On April 3, the NEA held a tribute concert in the Jazz Masters’ honor at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

While joy filled the air, there are some discordant notes. If the NEA is defunded, the Class of 2017 may be the last Jazz Masters. The New York Times reported:

President Trump’s budget proposal last month called for eliminating the endowment entirely — the first time any president has proposed such a step. While some members of Congress in his own Republican Party have opposed the move, it is a reminder of the agency’s vulnerability.

[…]

Created in 1965, the endowment provides funding to arts organizations, including jazz projects that are supported with dozens of grants each year. It also sends nearly half of its funding budget to regional arts organizations that disperse funds themselves.

The NEA can’t advocate for its own survival. So, as jazz and film critic Gary Giddins noted, it’s “jazz advocacy of the hip, by the hip and for the hip shall not perish from the Earth.”

Truth is, NEA is about more than jazz.

#SavetheNEA

The arts matter. Art transforms lives and communities. The arts are also an economic driver. So let’s make some noise. Here’s what you can do in two minutes to help #SavetheNEA.

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.

Checker Cafe Ads

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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