In his autobiography, “I Walked with Giants,” Jimmy Heath lovingly recalled the jam sessions in his parents’ basement that attracted the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.
Benny Golson recounted:
Enough cannot be said about Mr. and Mrs. Heath, his mother and father, who continuously put up with all of us who used to come to their home in South Philadelphia, remove all of the furniture in the living and dining room, then begin our rehearsal. No matter what we did, how much noise (music) we made or how late we did it, they were always our champions. It was their support that, in part, enabled us to grow. And grow we did.
The Bijou Café opened on October 4, 1972. The club was in the former location of the legendary Showboat. The Bijou hosted jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Bill Evans. Grover Washington, Jr. recorded “Live at the Bijou” in May 1977.
In the 1970s and early ‘80s, the Bijou was Philadelphia’s premier showcase for up-and-coming artists, including Barry Manilow, Angela Bofill and U2.
Longtime radio personality T. Morgan recalled:
The jazz lineups were nothing short of spectacular and the comedy was even better! The National Lampoon Show with future superstars John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner and Lorraine Newman all appeared together. Another comedy troupe, Firesign Theater also appeared. Billy Crystal was an opening act four times and a headliners three times. His impersonation of Muhammad Ali was a big crowd favorite. Albert Brooks, Richard Pryor, Martin Mull and his Fabulous Furniture, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld and Dick Gregory all keep the audiences amused.
The Downbeat, located at 11th and Ludlow streets in Philadelphia, was the first racially integrated club in Center City. The building is still there.
Café Society Swing, written by Alex Webb, tells the story of the legendary Café Society, the first integrated nightclub in New York City. The jazz spot played host to, among others, Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ida Cox and Big Joe Turner. Philly Joe Jones was the house drummer.
The Café Society is where Billie Holiday first sang “Strange Fruit” in January 1939.
West Philly’s Main Street, aka “the Strip,” is a commercial corridor on South 52nd Street that stretches from Arch Street to the north and Baltimore Avenue to the south. In a 2012 interview with Hidden City Philadelphia, Shirley Randleman, then-president of the 52nd Street Business Association, recounted:
Oh, it was wonderful. It was a thriving commercial corridor surrounded by a neighborhood that was financially stable. The 52nd Street corridor had five movie theaters, many high-end clothing stores, and eateries like Horn & Hardart, with the nickel automats. There were bakeries, doctor’s offices, and independent stores, like Buster Brown shoes. 52nd Street was the entertainment capital of West Philadelphia, AKA “the Strip,” and every top notch entertainer found his way there. It was more than just shops; it was the community meeting place. People were engaged in conversations in every shop and on the streets. We lived together.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Strip was the place to see and to be seen.
Celebrities including Muhammad Ali, Cab Calloway, Billy Eckstine, Joe Frazier, Teddy Pendergrass, Stevie Wonder, and members of the Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies hung out at Mr. Silk’s 3rd Base. Everyone ordered Mammer Jammer sandwiches at Foo Foo’s Steak House. Top jazz performers played the Aqua Lounge. Etta James and Jackie “Moms” Mabley graced the stage of the State Theatre in April 1963.
For more risqué entertainment, there was the Pony Tail.
Fast forward to today, the Enterprise Center is spearheading efforts to revitalize the 52nd Street Corridor.
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.