Category Archives: Historic Preservation

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. Interestingly, Bryant co-wrote the smash hit, “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.

2125 Ridge Avenue - Checker Cafe

2125 Ridge Avenue - This Place Matters

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 may be 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 email to phillyjazzapp[@]gmail.com.

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 Ad

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:

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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Historic Preservation and Social Justice

Two years ago I launched All That Philly Jazz, a place-based public history project that is telling the story of Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz. In documenting the places where jazz history unfolded, I am also contextualizing the impact of jazz musicians and the jazz culture on the struggle for social justice.

Fact is, the jazz culture was about “intersectionality” before the term was coined . As Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron notes in her column, “Ridge Avenue’s last standing jazz club,” gay performers such as the “Sepia Gloria Swanson” were an integral part of the scene.

Checker Cafe Ads

In a piece for PlanPhilly, I wrote about why historic preservation matters:

1409 Lombard Street helps tell the story of artistic greats like Lady Day, Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Nina Simone and McCoy Tyner. It also tells the story of disruption and defiance. In remarks to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said jazz is “triumphant music.” If walls could talk, they would tell how the jazz culture broke down social barriers. The first racially integrated nightspot in Center City was a jazz club, the Downbeat. For the first time, blacks and whites mixed on an equal basis. Jazz musicians created a cultural identity that was “a steppingstone” to the Civil Rights Movement.

At its core, historic preservation is about storytelling. The question then becomes: Who decides what gets saved and whose story gets told? The built environment reflects racial inequalities. Given African Americans’ socioeconomic status, few of the buildings associated with black history meet preservation standards regarding architectural significance. Although unadorned, they are places that tell a more complete American story. The stories of faith, resistance, and triumph are relevant to today’s social justice activists.

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Show Boat

The legendary Show Boat was located in the lower level of the Douglass Hotel. Pianist Sam Dockery led the house band. The historical marker out front notes that Billie Holiday “often lived here.”

Douglass Hotel

Herb Keller owned the Show Boat from 1950 to 1964. Herb Spivak bought the property in 1964 and renamed the jazz spot “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

The Show Boat was compact. 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, Aretha Franklin, 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).

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 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.

Bijou Café

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.

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