Tag Archives: Charlie Parker

Ridge on the Rise

Back in the day, Ridge Avenue was a vibrant commercial corridor. The heart and soul of North Philadelphia was also an entertainment district. The Blue Note was at 15th Street and Ridge Avenue.

Blue Note

The Bird Cage Lounge was one block up at Ridge and 16th Street. I don’t know whether it was named after him, but Charlie “Bird” Parker played there. The legendary Pearl Bailey began her singing and dancing career at the Pearl Theater, which was at Ridge and 21st Street.

Pearl Theater Collage

Some of the jazz giants who roamed Ridge Avenue likely stayed at the Hotel LaSalle, which was close to the Pearl Theater. The hotel was listed in the The Negro Motorist Green Book. The Crossroads Bar at Ridge and Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue) was at the western tip of the storied “Golden Strip.”

Ridge began its steep decline in the aftermath of the 1964 Columbia Avenue race riots and construction of the Norman Blumberg Apartments public housing. Fast forward 50 years, Ridge is on the rise.

In 2014, the Philadelphia Housing Authority announced that transformation of the Blumberg/Sharswood neighborhood was its top priority. The Sharswood Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan is a massive $500 million project that would, among other things, revitalize the Ridge Avenue corridor.

In an op-ed piece published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, PHA President and CEO Kelvin A. Jeremiah wrote:

The redevelopment of a community is about turning ideas into public policy and putting policy into action.

PHA’s revitalization efforts are a targeted, coordinated development model designed to maximize the economic benefits of neighborhood revitalization, not the piecemeal dispersed development model of the past. To transform communities into neighborhoods of choice, there must be good schools for every child, quality affordable housing for all families, and a vibrant small business commercial corridor. The challenge is turning the ideas and rhetoric into policy and practice.

In remarks before the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s recent conference, Marion Mollegen McFadden, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Grant Programs, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, noted a community has both tangible and intangible assets:

I see preservation’s efforts to recognize and honor the cultural heritage of minority and ethnic groups as a valuable component of strong communities, in particular many of the communities that HUD serves. And I don’t just mean preservation of buildings and places, but also of diverse cultural ties and traditions, the intangible dimensions of heritage that together enrich us as a nation.

McFadden concluded with a quote from HUD Secretary Julián Castro:

History isn’t just a subject for books and documentaries. It’s alive and well in buildings, sites, and structures that shape our communities. They tell us who we are and where we come from – and it’s critical that we protect our past for present and future generations.

The Sharswood/Blumberg Choice Neighborhoods Transformation Plan raises the question: Does PHA value the area’s tangible and intangible assets that give the neighborhood its identity? If so, will a transformed Ridge Avenue preserve the neighborhood’s cultural heritage for current and future generations?

John Coltrane and Cultural Heritage Preservation

Jazz legend John Coltrane personified cool.

John Coltrane

Coltrane was into cultural heritage preservation before it was cool. His composition, “Alabama” was in response to the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls. His mournful tribute captured the zeitgeist of the Civil Rights Movement.

Philadelphia shaped and nurtured Coltrane. On June 5, 1945, the Dizzy Gillespie Quartet, featuring Charlie Parker, performed at the Academy of Music. Coltrane and Benny Golson were seated in the next-to-last row. In an interview with the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project, NEA Jazz Master Golson recalled:

When we heard – John and I – when we first heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie – I told you he was sounding like Johnny Hodges – our lives changed that night. We had never heard any music like that. Never. We were screaming like these Beatles groupies, when they used to hear the Beatles.

Coltrane kicked his heroin habit at his home in Strawberry Mansion, a neighborhood in North Central Philly. The Mural Arts Program, in collaboration with the community, honored a former neighbor. On or about Sept. 15, 2014, Pennrose Company demolished the Tribute to John Coltrane mural.

John Coltrane Mural - Resized

Pennrose has not contributed a dime to replace the tribute to an American icon. The cultural resource was paid for, in part, by taxpayers. After being called out, a company rep lied about “ongoing discussions.”

I know they lied because I was part of the only discussion that has taken place. At the March 10, 2015, meeting with Mural Arts, Lopa Kolluri, Pennrose’s Vice President of Operations, asked for a “menu of options.” Mural Arts sent a proposal and several follow-up emails to which Pennrose has yet to respond.

Pennrose’s arrogance is particularly galling given the company has feasted on public subsidies seasoned with political donations for nearly 40 years. In 1989, a Philadelphia Inquirer story noted the company’s reliance on government subsidies.

Pennrose doesn’t think our stories matter, but we do. It’s our responsibility to remember the ancestors and preserve their legacy for present and future generations.

Flamingo Apartments

Opened in 1950, the Flamingo Apartments was the first interracial apartment building in Philadelphia.

The complex was one block from Mercantile Hall which played host to jazz legends, including Cliff Brown and Fats Navarro, and a short walk to the legendary Golden Strip.

Flamingo-Apts-Source-Jet-Magazine-June-19-1952

In an interview with All About Jazz, WRTI Jazz Host Bob Perkins recalled:

A year ago, I did a short documentary on Bird (Charlie Parker), and found out about the apartment he lived in at Broad and Stiles near Girard Avenue.

[…]

Curiously, I lived in the same building 30 years later. Bird was there in 1952 to 1953. I lived there in 1980, between marriages. And, believe it or not, Dave Brubeck also lived there! He told me that, personally. It was called the Flamingo apartments—a hot place to live at the time. Arthur Prysock lived there.

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Bird Cage Lounge

As a young boy Steven Berry, director of “Jazz in Philadelphia,” used to shine shoes outside of the Bird Cage Lounge which was located in North Philly on Ridge Avenue. One day he had a chance encounter with Charlie “Bird” Parker. He later shared what happened with an uncle. His uncle’s enthusiasm was contagious – Berry was hooked on jazz for life.

Academy of Music

Opened in 1857, the Academy of Music is the country’s oldest concert hall and opera house. The “Grand Old Lady of Broad Street” has welcomed jazz, blues and R&B legends, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Shirley Horn, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and James Brown.

On June 5, 1945, the Dizzy Gillespie Quartet, featuring Charlie Parker, was in the house. Seated in the next-to-last row were Benny Golson and John Coltrane. In an interview with the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project, NEA Jazz Master Benny Golson recalled:

When we heard – John and I, when we first heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie] – I told you he was sounding like Johnny Hodges – our lives changed that night. We had never heard any music like that. Never. We were screaming like these Beatles groupies, when they used to hear the Beatles. They played this Latin tune. We never heard any Latin tune like that in our lives. The Latin tunes that we played were like Lady of Spain, the stock arrangements, My Shawl. But this Latin thing, we had never heard it. Then they played an interlude, and they made a break, and Charlie Parker made a pickup by himself. Usually it was two bars, but he did it four bars, double-time. We were going crazy. We almost – of course we were up there with the cheap seats – we almost fell over the balcony. It was A Night in Tunisia. We never heard that before. Oh my goodness.

Golson expounded on that fateful night in his autobiography, Whisper Not: The Autobiography of Benny Golson:

The concert was staged at the Academy of Music, home of the Philadelphia Orchestra. We took our places, greatly excited, in the cheap seats in the uppermost level. Diz’s band kicked off with the strangest Latin-sounding tune we had ever heard. John thought it sounded “like snake charmer’s music”: Dizzy’s “A Night in Tunisia” was weirder than anything we had heard before, but intriguing. The band moved through the melody, dove into an interlude, then opened into a bravura set of riffs, or glissandi, a sustained high-octane break by the alto player, Charlie Parker. To us, the sound was way out there. Parker was dressed in a double-breasted suit with all of the buttons closed. He looked like an adult stuffed into his grade school graduation suit. …

We both nearly fell over the balcony rail, all the cells and nerves in our bodies wild with abandon. Their music was crazy and we went into an exuberant delirium, doubtless a form of higher awareness and pure joy. John tried to crawl up my gyrating body while I was grabbing onto him with barely contained amazement. We were both screaming like schoolgirls. We had heard strong performances in our young lives, but nothing like this. This was beyond “good.” It was completely new, innovative, and profound. We were drunk with happiness and bewilderment. I felt like crying. We didn’t know then, but our musical world changed that night.

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

Down Beat Swing Room

Located on the second floor above the Willow Bar, the Down Beat Swing Room was the first racially integrated jazz club in Center City. The building in which the Down Beat was located is still there.

The Down Beat was owned by jazz impresario Nat Segall. It was open from 1939 to circa 1948. Charlie Parker came in from New York City “every other week or so.” He was paid $25 a night to jam with Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz greats-in-the-making.

Jazz musicians would hang out at the Down Beat between shows at the Earle Theater.

Earle Theater

In his autobiography, You Only Rock Once, Jerry Blavat, “the Geator with the Heator,” recounted:

Nat had owned a club called Downbeat around the corner from the Earle Theater, where Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and other giants of jazz performed. After Holiday was busted for narcotics one night, the police started raiding the place on a regular basis, and Nat was forced to close it down—but not before he and Bob [Horn] produced a series of jazz shows at the Academy of Music.

In a Smithsonian jazz oral history interview, National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and Philly native Benny Golson shared a story about the Downbeat and drummer Philly Joe Jones:

For a while they had a policeman on every street car, stand up at the front with his gun and stuff. It was so bad. During that time – because they said, you don’t have any black motormen and conductors on the streetcar. Philly Joe got a job.

Do you remember that? He got a job as a motorman, driving a streetcar. Route number 23. The longest route in Philadelphia, from south Philadelphia, all the way through north Philadelphia, all the way through Germantown. Max Roach used to come over and ride a route with him, and talk.

Philly Joe’s route came right up 11th Street, where the Down Beat Club was, on 11th Street. Philly came up one night, stopped the car in front of the Down Beat, opened the doors, got off, and went up, and took a club. Now all the people on the streetcar, they’re going crazy. He goes up into the – no, he’s not going to stay and hear a set, but he went up to do something. When he came back, boy, they were irate. He got on the streetcar and started up like he did – never heard it – like this was a matter – who would do something like that? Stop a streetcar and get off and go into a club, and everybody’s on the streetcar, waiting. Only Philly Joe would have done something like that. Only Philly would have done that.

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