Downstairs at the Showboat

The legendary Showboat was located in the basement of what was then the Douglass Hotel. The historical marker out front notes that Billie Holiday “often lived here.”

Billie Holiday Marker

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.

Stairs 1

 

Stairs 2

 

Stairs 3

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 bandstand that was behind the bar.

John Coltrane Live at the Showboat

 

1959: The Year that Changed Jazz

There are some years that were so momentous just their mention evokes milestones. Think 1776 and 1964. Or 1965 and “Bloody Sunday,” a retelling of which, “Selma,” is now playing in theaters.

1959 was the year that changed jazz. That year marked the release of Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue,” John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” Ornette Coleman’s “Shape of Jazz to Come” and Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out.”

Is Jazz Healthy?

The Jazz Connect Conference, organized by JazzTimes and the Jazz Forward Coalition, was held January 8-9, 2015, in New York City and led into the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference, as well as Winter Jazzfest. The Jazz Connect Conference featured a series of workshops, panels discussions, and keynote address by Philly-native Christian McBride.

South Street

In the 1920s, jazz became the soundtrack for the revolution in manners and morals that was sweeping the nation. In New York’s Harlem, South Philadelphia, the south side of Chicago, Pittsburgh’s Hill District and other northern cities, urban African Americans known as the New Negroes were finding expanded opportunities and new identities. One of the first singers to give voice to this new generation was Chester, Pennsylvania’s Ethel Waters, the first recording star of the African-American-owned Black Swan Record Company.

In the African-American-owned Standard and Dunbar theatres on South Street, Waters, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and other jazz and blues stars performed their music for black and white audiences. The Standard and Dunbar were stops on a circuit of African-American theaters that brought the best of black touring shows to their cities.

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The Golden Strip

Noted author and hip-hop scholar James G. Spady wrote:

The biggest concentration of bars and clubs frequented by blacks and offering Jazz was along Columbia Avenue (later renamed Cecil B. Moore Avenue). Among what as upwards of fifteen different venues were the Crystal Ball, 820 Club, Spider Kelly’s, Watts Zanzibar — one of the few black owned venues—and the North West Club. [Lee] Morgan played at many of these with groups made up of his peers. The trumpeter Cullen Knight remembered seeing Morgan at the North West, leading a band consisting of tenor saxophonist Odean Pope and a rhythm section of McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman and Ronald Tucker.

Both the Zanzibar and North West were private clubs, and these were often keener to employ, under-age musicians than other venues; in addition, removed from some off the commercial concerns of the regular bars, they were thought of as sites for some degree of experiment among young musicians, as ‘hardcore’ bebop clubs where players could cultivate their jazz improvisation without needing to make concessions to dancers or casual listeners. Private venues would often pay the musicians a decent nightly fee, often around $10.

In Whisper Not: The Autobiography of Benny Golson, the NEA Jazz Master recalled his days on the Golden Strip with John Coltrane:

On jam days—Saturday afternoons between four and seven—John and I started at one end of Columbia Avenue, where most of the clubs were located, and proceeded toward the other end. We played at each club for an hour, then moved to the next. If we didn’t get to a particular club, we started there the following week. These clubs were small, on the ground floor of apartment houses or in storefront slots, long and narrow.

Published by Temple University Press, Golson’s autobiography is available for purchase here.

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