Category Archives: Jazz Landmarks

John Coltrane House Listed on 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk

Legendary jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane belongs to the world.

John Coltrane - Google Trend - One Year

Philadelphia has a special claim to the worldwide icon because of what happened in a rowhouse in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood. It was in this house that Coltrane experienced “a spiritual awakening,” kicked his heroin addiction and composed “Giant Steps.”

John Coltrane on Porch - 1511 N. 33rd Street

Coltrane’s home was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1985. While thousands of places are listed on the Philadelphia register, only 67 are National Historic Landmarks, the highest designation for a historic property awarded by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior. The John Coltrane House was designated a National Historic Landmark on January 20, 1999.

What should be a source of civic pride has become a national embarrassment. As early as 2003, the National Park Service made recommendations regarding structural and aesthetic issues with the John Coltrane House. Good intentions notwithstanding, the National Historic Landmark is deteriorating before our eyes. So the choice is stark: Continue to wring our hands or do something. For the love of Coltrane, we chose to do something.

In collaboration with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition and Jazz Bridge, All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson prepared the nomination of the John Coltrane House for inclusion on Preservation Pennsylvania’s annual list of endangered properties. On the eve of Black History Month, John Coltrane House Philadelphia was named to 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk.

2020 Preservation At Risk

Preservation Pennsylvania is a private, nonprofit organization “dedicated to the protection of historically and architecturally significant properties.” The John Coltrane House is at risk due to its deteriorating condition and financial capacity of the owner(s):

The future is uncertain for the house. Past efforts to offer maintenance and planning assistance were unsuccessful, although the family member involved in those discussions has since passed away. As a National Historic Landmark, the designation provides the house with no protections from demolition, alterations or neglect. The house is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, which does provide protection from demolition and a process for review of proposed alterations. However, at this time, the house is simply in stasis, while the elements, age and time take their toll.

Julia Chain, Associate Director of Preservation Pennsylvania, said:

Preservation Pennsylvania hopes to work with the owners and supporters in the local preservation and jazz communities to find a way forward for this property.

The way forward includes assessing the structural stability of the John Coltrane House. Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has the authority to order the Department of Licenses and Inspections to inspect the property.

Show your love for John Coltrane by contacting Mayor Kenney and sharing your concern that the status quo is unacceptable. Mayor Kenney can be contacted by phone at (215) 686-2181 or email at james.kenney@phila.gov. He can also be contacted on Twitter or Facebook.

John Coltrane House Philadelphia matters.

Wurlitzer Music Store

Wurlitzer’s was a musical instrumental store located in Center City. It was also known as Music City.

Wurlitzer_s Music Store4

During an appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1973, Philly native Bill Cosby recounts buying a drum set and taking lessons at Wurlitzer’s. The erstwhile drummer provides a snapshot of the jazz scene back in the day

Jazz at Fay’s Theatre

Opened on August 31, 1914 as the Knickerbocker Theatre, the 2,500-seat venue was renamed Fay’s Theatre in 1918.

From West Philadelphia Collaborative History:

In its jazz heyday, Fay’s served as a symbolic place for local African Americans, if not a literal one. Fay’s booked performers like Duke Ellington—popular and highly visible members of the larger African American community—who were part of an emerging Black identity evolving in the African American press. Part of the emerging identity was a deep concern with issues of developing critical citizenship, fighting oppression, and gaining civil rights. Fay’s Theatre embodied this, having been dedicated to Florence Mills, who was remembered by the Philadelphia Tribune as a Black singer whose success in the mainstream allowed other Black musicians to succeed.

Fay’s also maintained a friendly and equitable relationship with local Black musicians. Fay’s often included performances by the Local 274, members of an African American musicians union, created to protect its members from the unethical and racist behaviors of many theater owners across the city. They performed there frequently. Famously, during a musicians’ strike in 1935 when most of the musical venues in the city went dark, shows at Fay’s kept going, thanks in part to their willingness to raise worker wages in accord with the requests of the Local 274.

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Franklin Motor Inn

The Franklin Motor Inn was located off Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 22nd Street and Spring Garden.

Franklin Motor Inn - New York Magazine Ad 1980

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed here on his final visit to Philadelphia. It is also where most of the acts performing at the legendary Uptown Theater stayed. From Philadelphia magazine:

Built in 1959, the hotel used to be called the Franklin Motor Inn. New York boxing promoters used to put up their guys here. Hookers idled, businessmen prowled, and the bar used to stay open till 4 a.m.

There was an A-list presence too. The last time Martin Luther King ever visited Philly, according to a 1994 piece in the Philadelphia Tribune, he spent the day sick in bed at the Franklin Motor Inn, his favorite hotel in the city. Joe Frazier, a regular, always sat in the same seat, on the far right end of the bar. (Marvis Frazier tells me his father ate breakfast at the hotel at least once a week for more than 30 years, but really came to “play the numbers.”)

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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.

Empire Records

Empire Records Shop was located on the edge of “The Strip” at 52nd and Market Streets.

Empire Record Shop - Overlay -Zoom

Empire Records was the oldest, continually-operated Philadelphia jazz record shop (1930 to 1970). In an online profile, Bill Morlitz shared his story:

I was born in Camden NJ since my mom’s cousin was head of Obstetrics at West Jersey Hospital on February 1, 1950 and have lived my whole life in Philadelphia and/or its suburbs. My dad had the first jazz record shop in Philadelphia so at an early age, I was immersed in the music business. Maybe that’s why I can’t sing a note on key nor have the 10 years of piano lessons stayed with me. Chopsticks is beyond me.

During my teens, I was fortunate to personally meet many great jazz artists including Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Buckner (who developed the locked wrist rhythm style of piano playing and was Lionel’s pianist), Lionel Hampton and many others. Grover Washington, Jr. worked in the store on the weekends and we used to go listen to jazz sets together. My photography is included on his “Live at the Bijou” album.

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