The “Golden Strip” spanned Columbia Avenue from 8th Street to 23rd Street. With neon signs aglow, it was also known as the “Great White Way.” 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.
West Philly’s Main Street, aka “the Strip,” is a commercial corridor on South 52nd Street that stretches from Arch Street to the north and Baltimore Avenue to the south. In a 2012 interview with Hidden City Philadelphia, Shirley Randleman, then-president of the 52nd Street Business Association, recounted:
Oh, it was wonderful. It was a thriving commercial corridor surrounded by a neighborhood that was financially stable. The 52nd Street corridor had five movie theaters, many high-end clothing stores, and eateries like Horn & Hardart, with the nickel automats. There were bakeries, doctor’s offices, and independent stores, like Buster Brown shoes. 52nd Street was the entertainment capital of West Philadelphia, AKA “the Strip,” and every top notch entertainer found his way there. It was more than just shops; it was the community meeting place. People were engaged in conversations in every shop and on the streets. We lived together.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the Strip was the place to see and to be seen.
Celebrities including Muhammad Ali, Cab Calloway, Billy Eckstine, Joe Frazier, Teddy Pendergrass, Stevie Wonder, and members of the Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies hung out at Mr. Silk’s 3rd Base. Everyone ordered Mammer Jammer sandwiches at Foo Foo’s Steak House. Top jazz performers played the Aqua Lounge. Etta James and Jackie “Moms” Mabley graced the stage of the State Theatre in April 1963.
For more risqué entertainment, there was the Pony Tail.
Fast forward to today, the Enterprise Center is spearheading efforts to revitalize the 52nd Street Corridor.
During Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz, there were jazz clubs in every neighborhood. There were so many that folks in North Philly didn’t go to joints in South Philly and vice versa. There were a handful of clubs that reached legendary status and attracted patrons from all over the city. The Blue Note at 15th Street and Ridge Avenue was “the town’s swankiest jazz emporium.”
From 15th Street to Columbia Avenue (later renamed Cecil B. Moore Avenue), Ridge Avenue was a jazz corridor where legends-in-the-making roamed.
In the early years of the twentieth century, the church and concert based musical culture of black
Philadelphians was challenged by the popularity of a new, high energy, uptempo, loud, and improvisational music coming up from the South. At first, respectable churchgoing families looked down upon “jazz,” but the music had a life of its own, and its performers and audiences had little use for what they considered antiquated notions of respectability.
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.
Jazz has always been an improvisational and constantly evolving music. A new wave of African American migration to Philadelphia during the Second World War helped set the stage for a jazz renaissance in the City of Brotherly Love. Jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, and the Heath Brothers all came to Philadelphia from the Carolinas. The legendary Billie Holiday was born in the city. The musical ferment of the 1940s and 1950s in Philadelphia was similar to the explosion of jazz and pop music in the 1920s, especially within the black community.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, jazz is once again entering a new period of musical synthesis and experimentation. Philadelphia continues to boast more than its share of innovators and virtuosos, including Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Bobby Zankel, Uri Caine, Ahmir Thompson and many others. With its rich musical cultures and vibrant jazz scene, Philadelphia promises to build upon its rich history as a center of jazz innovation.
Joey DeFrancesco was born in 1971 in Springfield, Pennsylvania. He was born into a musical family that included three generations of jazz musicians. He was named after his grandfather, Joseph DeFrancesco, a jazz musician who played the saxophone and clarinet. His father, “Papa” John DeFrancesco, was an organist who played nationally and received the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame’s Living Legend Award in 2013.
DeFrancesco began playing the organ at the age of 4 and was playing songs by Jimmy Smith verbatim by the time he was 5. His father John began bringing him to gigs from the age of 5, letting him sit in on sets. At the age of 10, DeFrancesco joined a band in Philadelphia that included jazz legends Hank Mobley and Philly Joe Jones. He was considered a fixture at local jazz clubs, opening shows for Wynton Marsalis and B.B. King.
DeFrancesco attended the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. During his high school years, DeFrancesco won numerous awards, including the Philadelphia Jazz Society McCoy Tyner Scholarship. He was also a finalist in the first Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition.