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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2017 NEA Jazz Masters

Since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts has conferred the NEA Jazz Master award, the nation’s highest honor in jazz. The 2017 NEA Jazz Masters are Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ira Gitler, Dave Holland, Dick Hyman and  Dr. Lonnie Smith.

2017 NEA Jazz Masters

In collaboration with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the NEA will celebrate the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters at a tribute concert on Monday, April 3. The event will be live-streamed beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET at arts.gov and Kennedy-Center.org. The concert will be broadcast live on SiriusXM Channel 67, Real Jazz.

2017 NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert

On April 3, 2017, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts will celebrate the 2017 NEA Jazz MastersDee Dee Bridgewater, Ira Gitler, Dave Holland, Dick Hyman and  Dr. Lonnie Smith.

NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert

The celebration will be moderated by Kennedy Center Artistic Director for Jazz Jason Moran, who said in a statement:

This will be another special celebration for people who have been integral to the ever evolving stage of jazz. From the journalist, to the innovator, each of the honorees has demonstrated a timeless devotion to jazz ethics. Each honoree arrives at the music from a different avenue and helps focus the audience’s vision of as the music continues to evolve. Kudos to the NEA for continuing to honor artists who have devoted their livelihoods to contributing to the cultural fabric of America.

The tribute concert will feature conversations with the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters alongside musicians whose lives they have influenced. The performers will include NEA Jazz Masters Paquito D’Rivera and Lee Konitz; National Medal of Arts recipient and Kennedy Center Honoree Jessye Norman; vocalist Dianne Reeves; multi-instrumentalist Booker T. Jones; Sherrie Maricle and the Diva Jazz Orchestra; and Hammond B-3 artist Matthew Whitaker, a 15-year-old protégé of Dr. Lonnie Smith.

The free concert is “sold out.” You can view a live-stream of the event beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET at arts.gov, Kennedy-Center.org and NPR.org/Music. The concert will be broadcast live on SiriusXM Channel 67, Real Jazz.

Jazz Appreciation Month 2017

Founded by the National Museum of American History in 2002, April is Jazz Appreciation Month.

JAM Collage

The Smithsonian kicks off its celebration with a loving tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, the “First Lady of Song.”

The First Lady of Song - Ella Fitzgerald at 100

To find new ways to celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month, visit Smithsonian Jazz.

Philly Celebrates Jazz

April is Jazz Appreciation Month. The destruction of the Royal Theater, and John Coltrane and Women of Jazz murals gives one reason to believe otherwise, but Philly celebrates jazz.

Philly-Celebrates-Jazz

Mayor Jim Kenney kicked off the celebration by presenting the Benny Golson Award to multi-instrumentalist and “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” bandleader Jon Batiste.

Philly Loves Jazz - Jon Baptiste

Kenney said:

I am honored to present the first Benny Golson Award to Jon Batiste, who exemplifies what can be accomplished in using your talents in educating our youth in the importance of the arts and culture. As I have said many times, arts education is not a luxury, it is a necessity and one of the most effective ways of helping our children grow and develop into not only more creative, but also open-minded and compassionate people.

The Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy organizes the month-long Philly Celebrates Jazz. Over 200 events are scheduled, including a photo exhibition, “Live Philly Jazz Vol. 2.

The WRTI Jazz Listening Sessions will be hosted by Jeff Duperon. The hour-long conversations will be held before a live audience in the Art Gallery @ City Hall. The listening sessions are free but space is limited. Seating is first come, first serve and you must register.

Over the course of Philadelphia’s jazz heyday, roughly 1940s to 1960s, there were jazz spots from the Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue.

All That Philly Jazz - Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue

The “Philly Celebrates Jazz Community Series” harkens back to the time when the joints were jumping in every neighborhood, including  “The Golden Strip,” Ridge Avenue and “The Strip.”

Philadelphia Celebrates Jazz Community Series

A complete calendar listing of Philly Celebrates Jazz events is available here.

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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