Category Archives: Jazz Venues

Congo Café

The Congo Café was located on Ridge Avenue in an old bank building (Northwestern Trust Company?). In a December 6, 1959 conversation with celebrated jazz journalist Ralph J. Gleason, Philly Joe Jones shared memories of the Congo Cafe:

In 1945 I came home, I was just out of the service and I wanted to play and I knew about the drums, I actually knew about the drums in 1939, an old fellow in Philadelphia who’s still there playin’, he’s playin’ every night, named Coatsville [James “Coatsville” Harris], and he used to help me, he used to teach me how to play the drums. I used to sit underneath the bandstand in the club because I was too young to be there. I wasn’t supposed to be there but he’d sneak me in and I’d be underneath the bandstand. It was an ex-bank and they made a nightclub out of it and they had a floor show and I used to watch the dancers and the chorus and three, four girls in the line and this drummer. I just idolized him and he’s still one of the swingingest older cats I’ve met, and I wanted to play so that he used to help me.

In the 1950s, Coatsville led an orchestra that featured a tenor saxophonist thought to be John Coltrane.

Conversations in Jazz: The Ralph J. Gleason Interviews is available on Amazon.com.

Lennox Grill

The Lennox Grill was located in North Philly across from drummer Philly Joe Jones’ childhood home on N. 19th Street between Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue) and W. Montgomery Street. In a December 6, 1959 conversation with celebrated jazz journalist Ralph J. Gleason, Philly Joe shared memories of the Lennox Grill:

I lived across the street from a place called the Lennox Grill in Philadelphia and I used to peek through the windows in the back of the club, and they had bars on the windows, so I used to always stand there and peek and look at this drummer. This man used to kill me, he had a pipe in his mouth and a regular old setup of drums, you know, no high hat, nothing like that, just a bass drum and a little cymbal. Cymbals were small then, but he was swinging like I don’t know what and I used to like to go there. My brother used to come around the corner and look up and see me peeking in the window and say, “Come on now!” and I’d go home—I only lived across the street. I used to sneak out of the house sometimes at night because they’d be playin’ after my bedtime, I had to go to school, but I used to sneak out of the house and run across the street, 10:30 and 11 o’clock at night I used to sneak out of the house and run across the street and peek in that window and listen to him playin’ drums.

Conversations in Jazz: The Ralph J. Gleason Interviews is available on Amazon.com.

Rendezvous Club

The Rendezvous Club was located in the basement of the Douglass Hotel.

Douglass Hotel

In a May 11, 1959 conversation with celebrated jazz journalist Ralph J. Gleason, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie shared an anecdote:

… in Philly, I had an interesting experience with Roy [Eldridge]. All the bands used to come to Philly. When I got to Philly in ’35, Roy was with Teddy Hill and Chu [Berry], and they used to jam downstairs in the Rendezvous up under the Douglas Hotel where the Showboat is now. Well, those guys used to play and I wouldn’t dare play, you know. I’d just go and listen to those guys. So one time, I remember, Rex Stewart, Duke Ellington, and Teddy Hill were there at the same time and they had a session downstairs and Roy was down there that night. And Rex, you know, Rex was Roy’s idol. Roy tells now about the time he first heard Rex play that high B flat. Roy finally found that B flat. I guess, ‘cause when he come to Philadelphia that night they was jammin’ round there and Roy started playing. Damn, Rex started crying and just tightened up and left ‘cause Roy was in rare form that night. I didn’t meet Roy until way later. I met him there, but he didn’t remember me.

Conversations in Jazz: The Ralph J. Gleason Interviews is available on Amazon.com.

Club Zel-Mar

Opened in 1947, Club Zel-Bar was located in West Philly. In April 1947, the “ultra modern” club played host to Three B’s and A Honey.

The “Home of the Mambo” welcomed José Curbelo who popularized the Mambo and the Cha-cha-cha in the 1950s.

Club Zel-Mar Flyer

Bill Carney’s Hi-Tones had a weeklong engagement here February 28-March 5, 1955. The group was comprised of Bill “Mr. C” Carney, Al “Tootie” Heath, Shirley Scott and John Coltrane.

Hi-Tones - Club Zel-Mar

Club Bali

Opened in April 1940, Club Bali was a popular nightclub in West Philly.

Club Bali

This outdoor neon sign beckoned passersby inside (hat-tip Hidden City Philadelphia).

Club Bali - West Philadelphia

The Ink Spots performed here throughout the 1940s. Their setlist typically included their smash hit, “If I Didn’t Care.”

Circa 1953, Club Bali was taken over by Norma Sockel whose brother-in-law, Herb Spivak, owned the legendary Showboat.

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 Ads

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 who wrote:

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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Aqua Lounge

Owned by Paul Myers, the Aqua Lounge was the heart of “the Strip” during the 1960s and ’70s. The first jazz club on the Strip, the Aqua Lounge played host to jazz and blues greats, including Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Roy Ayers, Dave Burrell, Bootsie Barnes and Irene Reid.

In an interview with the University of Pennsylvania School of Arts and Sciences’ West Philadelphia Music Project, jazz drummer Lucky Thompson shared his memories of the Aqua Lounge:

And right along 52nd street, there was a club called the Aqua Lounge, it used to bring a lot of famous musicians through there, like Miles, Max [unclear], and I mean they would come out and stand in one of the corners smoking a cigarette, and Philly Joe Jones, and umm, a lot of Shirley Scott, a lot of famous musicians. Called the Aqua Lounge. That was one of the clubs known for being on the strip.

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