Tag Archives: Cullen Knight

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 Ad

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:

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.

Read More

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.