Category Archives: Green Book

Ridge Avenue Stroll through Philly’s Jazz History

All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson leads a walking tour, “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 the Crossroads Bar (23rd Street), Ridge Avenue was a jazz corridor and entertainment district.

Ridge Avenue Entertainment District - Satellite

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 laws in the South and racial segregation in the North. Published from 1936 to 1966, the “Green Book” listed hotels, restaurants, night clubs, beauty parlors and other services that enabled African Americans to “vacation without aggravation.”

Green Book - NMAAHC

Our stroll will begin at the legendary Blue Note. We walk around the corner and stop at the Nite Cap. We 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 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 then stop by V-Tone Records, the LaSalle Beauty Parlor and Butler’s Paradise Café (listed in the “Green Book”).

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

Pearl Theater

The highlight of the walk  is the Checker Café, one of the last vestiges of the Ridge Avenue entertainment district.

2125 Ridge Avenue - 2007

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

Mr. Chip's Bar - Irene's Cafe Collage
We talk and 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, email Faye and greenbookphl@gmail.com.

Irene’s Cafe

Listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book, Irene’s was one of several “cafés” along Ridge Avenue. In his book, Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation, Drexel University professor Alphonso McClendon notes:

The influence of Harlem and the legendary Cotton Club with its extravagant floor shows of light-skinned chorus girls are noted in the previous descriptions, as well as the naming of the Ridge Cotton Club along the Ridge Avenue entertainment district. In addition, the ubiquitous title of café such as Art’s Café, Pocahontas Café, Hy De Ho Café and The Roseland Café implied inspiration from Europe and the desire to accentuate superior social mingling.

In a 1996 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer jazzman Jimmy Oliver recounted that he used to play at Irene’s Café whose regulars included Pearl Bailey.

Jimmy Oliver is one of Philly’s many unsung jazz greats. From Wikipedia:

James Henry Oliver was a tenor saxophonist and bandleader based in Philadelphia. Active from the mid-1940s, his bands, including the house band at local venues, featured, among other musicians, Philly Joe Jones, Steve Davis, Red Garland, Johnny Coles, Charlie Rice, Sam Reed and Mickey Roker. He has been cited as one of several sax players who influenced John Coltrane.

Turning down the temptation to work in New York, he preferred to play locally in Philadelphia, alongside local jazz stars such as Bootsie Barnes, the Heath Brothers and Philly Joe Jones as well as visiting stars Charlie Parker, Pearl Bailey and Max Roach, and, especially around 1946-47, while in residence at the Zanzibar Café, he was noted for playing “against” visitors Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, George Auld and Charlie Ventura.

On one of his very few known recordings, on September 16, 1950, Oliver sat in for John Coltrane, who was ill, and recorded with the Dizzy Gillespie sextet for Prestige. The album, Prestige 1st Sessions, Vol. 3, released in 1994, features a solo by Oliver on the track “She’s Gone Again.”

Butler’s Paradise Café

Incorporated in 1937, Butler’s Paradise Café was listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book, It was one of several “cafés” along Ridge Avenue.

In his book, Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation, Drexel University professor Alphonso McClendon notes:

The influence of Harlem and the legendary Cotton Club with its extravagant floor shows of light-skinned chorus girls are noted in the previous descriptions, as well as the naming of the Ridge Cotton Club along the Ridge Avenue entertainment district. In addition, the ubiquitous title of café such as Art’s Café, Pocahontas Café, Hy De Ho Café and The Roseland Café implied inspiration from Europe and the desire to accentuate superior social mingling.

Saxophonist Jimmy Woods  was a regular at this nightspot.

At some point Butler’s Paradise Café closed. After refurbishing, in December 1952 it reopened as Butler’s Café. Billboard reported that the headliner was “Bill Doggett and his organ and trio.” Doggett co-wrote the smash R&B hit, “Honky Tonk,” which sold four million copies.

Dunbar/Lincoln Theater

African American bankers E. C. Brown and Andrew Stevens opened the Dunbar Theater in 1919, with plans to offer refined entertainment. However, within two years, business floundered and Brown and Stevens sold the theater to John T. Gibson, the black owner of the more raucous Standard Theater on South Street.

Later during the Depression, Gibson was forced to sell the theater to white owners who renamed it the Lincoln Theater.

Dunbar Theatre - Lombard Street Sign

From the 1920s to 1940s, the 1600-seat theater hosted major performers such as Duke Ellington, Louise Beavers, Willie Bryant, Lena Horne, Don Redman, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson and Fats Waller.

Lincoln Theater 1.2

The joint was jumping.

Café Society

Located on the Golden Strip, the Café Society was listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book.

In Whisper Not: The Autobiography of Benny Golson, the NEA Jazz Master recounted:

I used to dream of playing with Philly Joe. He played with all my recorded heroes when they came to town: Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Eddie Heywood. I came home from my first year in college, in 1948, and “Bass” Ashford, a mainstay on the local scene, asked me to join his quartet for the entire summer season at Café Society, at 13th Street and Columbia Avenue. Café Society was a very popular jazz spot in North Philly, not far from where I lived and only three blocks from John Coltrane’s house. John often popped in while the group played there. I showed up for the first rehearsal to find that Philly Joe would be our percussionist! I almost fainted. I acted as if nothing were unusual, but I was flying.

Cafe Society - Philly Joe Jones - Benny Golson - Caption

Published by Temple University Press, Golson’s autobiography is available for purchase here.

Showboat

The legendary Showboat was located in the basement of the 1409 Hotel, formerly the Douglass Hotel.

#TBT Showboat - Douglass Hotel

The historical marker out front notes that Billie Holiday “often lived here.”

Douglass Hotel

In 1964, Herb Spivak bought the property and renamed the jazz spot in the basement “Showboat Jazz Theatr” (purposely leaving off the “e”). All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson interviewed Spivak on International Jazz Day 2019.

Herb Spivak - Faye M. Anderson

Spivak increased the seating capacity from 100 to 200. The small bandstand was behind the bar. The Showboat played host to jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, Bootsie Barnes, Philly Joe Jones, Thelonious Monk, Dinah Washington and Ramsey Lewis.

On June 17, 1963, John Coltrane Quartet recorded “Live at the Showboat” featuring Coltrane (sax) McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Roy Haynes (drums).

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 couldn’t 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 racial segregation 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 1967.

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.

Douglass Hotel Bus Depot

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, later renamed 1409 Hotel, was not just a place to lay one’s head. The legendary Showboat was located in the basement.

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

The basement of 1409 Lombard Street was a magical space.

Attucks Hotel

Named after Crispus Attucks, the first patriot to die in the Boston Massacre, the Attucks Hotel was popular with Black entertainers and athletes who were not allowed to stay at Philadelphia hotels that catered to whites. Guests included Hank Aaron, Roy Campanella, Ella Fitzgerald, Redd Foxx, Satchel Paige, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Billie Holiday.

John Timpane of the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote:

The year 1947 was a year of betrayal for [Billie] Holiday. She was at the peak of her career, earning upward of $60,000 a year, but hooked on heroin and opium. After a show at the Earle, her room at the Attucks Hotel was raided, and she was arrested on charges of narcotics possession.

From Monrovia Sound Studio:

Jelly Roll Morton and members of his orchestra would have had just a short drive of about 5 miles from the Attucks Hotel … to the R.C.A. studios in Camden, N.J. to carry out a contracted recording assignment. The route would have taken them across the Delaware River via the Delaware River Bridge (formally the Benjamin Franklin Bridge).

Attucks Hotel is now home to Universal Institute Charter School.

Hotel Attucks - Universal Institute Charter School

The school is part of Universal Companies, founded and chaired by legendary producer and songwriter, and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Kenny Gamble.

Royal Theater

Opened in 1920, the Royal Theater was advertised as “America’s Finest Colored Photoplay House.” The all-black staff formed the nucleus of the Colored Motion Picture Operators Union.

The 1,200-seat theater showed movies by African American film pioneer Oscar Micheaux. The small stage played host to luminaries such as Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Pearl Bailey, Della Reese and Cab Calloway.


South Philly residents were the Royal’s most loyal patrons and participated in talent shows and radio broadcasts. Business owners received increased foot traffic after Royal shows. But by the 1960s, the threat of the construction of an expressway in the neighborhood (that never materialized) and civil rights legislation which allowed blacks to move freely and patronize other entertainment venues, decimated the Royal’s neighborhood and attendance.

The Royal closed its doors in 1970. It is listed on the Philadelphia Register (1976) and National Register of Historic Places (1980).

Royal Theater Mural

The Royal Theater and adjoining parcels were purchased by music mogul Kenny Gamble from the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia in 2000 for $250,000.

UPDATE: In 2016, Kenny Gamble’s Universal Companies sold the Royal Theater. The facade is all that remains of the historic landmark. It, too, would have been demolished but the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia holds an easement.

Royal Theater Facadectomy