A stop on the “Chitlin Circuit,” the Standard Theater was owned by African American entrepreneur John T. Gibson.
In 1914, Gibson bought the Standard Theatre on the 1100 block of South Street. His timing couldn’t have been better, for in the following years, tens of thousands of southern blacks would pour into the city of Philadelphia as part of the Great Migration unleashed by the First World War.
Young men and women, with good jobs and money in their pockets, flocked to Gibson’s Standard Theatre to see a fare of “High Class and Meritorious Vaudeville,” stage shows, and popular music. The Standard became a regular stop for Black performers on their national tours: comedians Bylow and Ashes, singers Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters, Erma C. Miller’s Brown Skinned Models, popularly known as the “Black Rockettes,” and jazz bands led by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
Opened in 1947 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. 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.
Watts’ Zanzibar was located on the “Golden Strip.”
In the 1940s, the house band was led by tenor saxophonist Jimmy Oliver who later played with Bootsie Barnes, the Heath Brothers and John Coltrane, and recorded with Dizzy Gillespie.
In an essay in “Lost Shrines of Jazz,” noted author and scholar James G. Spady wrote:
Perhaps no institution in the city was more responsible for Philly’s bop revolution than a North Philly club named Watts’ Zanzibar, located at 1833 W. Columbia Avenue (now named Cecil B. Moore Avenue, in honor of a black attorney and 1960s Civil Rights leader in Philadelphia). It was recognized as the bop spot, the home of modern African American culture. Sonically and sartorially hip, it both nurtured and reflected bop ethics and aesthetics. The very name reflected the old and the new: Africa and America, Watts’ Zanzibar. The proprietors were brothers Richard and Robert Watts.
Emerson’s Tavern was listed in The Negro Motorist Travel Guide. According to The John Coltrane Reference on June 17, 1948, Coltrane and Percy Heath stopped by Emerson’s to see saxophonist Lester Young.
Billie Holiday’s gig at the South Philly dive bar on March 14, 1959 — four months before her death — is the setting for the Broadway play, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.”
Audra McDonald won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play.
The Bijou Café opened on October 4, 1972. The club was in the former location of the legendary Showboat. The Bijou hosted such jazz greats 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 Charlie Parker Quintet with Little Benny Harris (trumpet), Charlie Parker (alto sax), Walter Bishop Jr. (piano), Teddy Kotick (bass) and Roy Haynes (drums) performed here in June 1951.
In John Coltrane: His Life and Music, Lewis Porter writes:
The Club 421 on Wyalusing Avenue also became one of the leading venues for jazz. Rice recalls: “I was the first band in [421 Club]. That was right around the corner from me. That place used to be a restaurant at first. We used to hang around there—it was called the Coffee Pot. Then a guy bought it and made a nightclub there—a gentleman named Mr. Roach. So they decided to have music, and I had the first band in there with [saxophonist] Vance Wilson, [William] “Reds” [later known as “Red”] Garland [on piano; 1923-84], [bassist] Bob Bushnell, and a good trumpet player, Johnny Hughes, who passed on some time ago.”
Rice is legendary drummer Charlie Rice who led the first house band at Club 421.
Charlie Rice passed away on April 22, 2018, two years shy of his 100th birthday.
The legendary Showboat was located in the basement of the Douglass Hotel. The historical marker out front notes that Billie Holiday “often lived here.”
A while back, I visited what used to be the Showboat with Yasuhiro “Fuji” Fujioka, founder of the Coltrane House of Osaka and co-author of “The John Coltrane Reference”; Lenora Early, founder of the Philadelphia John Coltrane House; and Dr. George E. Allen, author of “I Was Not Asked.”
Until that visit, I assumed the Showboat was in the basement space with the two windows facing Lombard Street. As we descended the stairs, Dr. Allen said something was wrong. Back then, there was no landing between the steps. Instead, the club was down a steep set of stairs. And sure enough, after a bit of snooping, we found what remains of the original steps that led down to the Showboat.
So imagine the likes of Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, Bootsie Barnes, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Heath, Thelonious Monk, Dinah Washington, Ray Charles and Ramsey Lewis descending those steps to take their place on the small bandstand behind the bar.