The legendary Showboat was located in the basement of the Douglass Hotel. Pianist Sam Dockery led the house band. The historical marker out front notes that Billie Holiday “often lived here.”
Herb Keller opened the Showboat circa December 1949. Herb Spivak bought the property from Keller in 1964 and renamed the jazz spot “Showboat Jazz Theatr” (purposely leaving off the “e”). All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson interviewed Spivak on International Jazz Day 2019.
The Showboat was compact. Spivak increased the seating capacity from 100 to 200. The small bandstand was behind the bar. The Showboat played host to jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, Bootsie Barnes, Philly Joe Jones, Thelonious Monk, Aretha Franklin, Dinah Washington and Ramsey Lewis.
On June 17, 1963, John Coltrane Quartet recorded “Live at the Showboat” featuring Coltrane (sax) McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Roy Haynes (drums).
The 2016 NEA Jazz Masters were honored at a tribute concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
This year’s class includes Archie Shepp who grew up in West Philadelphia. During an NEA interview, Shepp talked about jazz and Philadelphia:
The music that we call jazz has always been important in the African American community, especially in the poorer neighborhoods.
There was a lot of racism and prejudice, but a lot of music, a lot of blues and some good times. Music was all over Philadelphia. You could go down to North Philadelphia and hear young John Coltrane or Johnny Coles, Jimmy Oliver, Jimmy Heath. I suppose that’s what jazz is all about, suffering and good times, and somehow making the best of all of that.
At the tribute concert for Benny Carter, I got a chance to spend some time with Shepp during the break. He reminisced about the jam sessions at the Heath Brothers’ Family Home. He shared that he learned how to play chords from Coltrane and Lee Morgan.
Truth be told, Philadelphia’s contribution to jazz is mostly an untold story. We must capture stories about Philly’s jazz scene while those who know the history are still here.
The Elate Ballroom was located on the second floor of 711 S. Broad Street. The Elate Club Ballroom was on the ground floor.
Joe Webb and his Decca Recording Orchestra featuring Big Maybelle played here at the “Shine on the Harvest Moon Dance” presented by legendary dance promoter Reese DuPree.
John Coltrane biographer Lewis Porter wrote:
Coltrane was hired when [Joe] Webb played for dancers in Philadelphia’s Elate Ballroom at 711 South Broad Street on Friday, September 13, 1946. Cal Massey (1928-72), a trumpeter from Pittsburgh, called “Folks” after his mother’s maiden name, happened to walk by when the band was playing and he ended up in the trumpet’s section. A lifelong friendship between Massey and Coltrane began as the two toured the country with the Webb band.
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.
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.
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?
On Saturday at the Merriam Theater, bassist Christian McBride performed like it was 1969. McBride’s “The Movement, Revisited” is centered around the words of four Civil Rights icons, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali.
McBride shared that he grew up reading Jet and Ebony which gave him a history lesson in the black experience. The four icons stood out for him. “The Movement, Revisited” stems from a commission by the Portland Arts Society to compose a piece for Black History Month:
The genesis for this project began in 1998 when McBride was commissioned by the Portland (ME) Arts Society to compose THE MOVEMENT, Revisited, a two-part composition for small instrumental group and gospel ensemble. This year, McBride envisioned a project of wider scope on the same theme and it has grown into a full-scale, 90-minute production.
The narrators brought to life the personality and passion of their character. I particularly enjoyed McBride’s exuberant “Rumble in the Jungle.” The choir evoked the spirit of the Freedom Singers with “I’m So Tired” and “Freedom, Struggle.”
I don’t want to predict anything, but the magnitude of the piece – why it was written, what it was about – I can’t imagine I’ll ever write something as monumental on this scale again. I do get overwhelmed playing it, and every time I do, it feels new. Sometimes, I play this piece and still go, “Wow, did I really write this?”
If the standing ovation is any indication, the audience was wowed by the piece.
McBride’s message music harkens back to earlier generations of jazz greats who were inspired by the struggle for racial justice. In 1929, Louis Armstrong asked, “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.” Composed by Fats Waller, it is considered the first American popular song of racial protest.
Billie Holiday told the world about the horrors of lynching.
Both Armstrong and Holiday are featured in an exhibition at the Library of Congress, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom.” The multimedia exhibition explores the events that shaped the Civil Rights Movement. It includes manuscripts like Dr. Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” composed in 1954 and popularized by Nina Simone in the 1960s.
In 1959, bassist Charles Mingus composed “Fables of Faubus,” a satirical protest against Arkansas governor Orval Faubus who had deployed the Arkansas National Guard to Little Rock Central High School to prevent nine African American students from entering the segregated school.
Jazz has an element of freedom. It is that freedom that allowed jazz musicians to use their platform to sound a message of defiance and resistance. From John Coltrane’s “Alabama” to Max Roach’s “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” jazz was a soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement.
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.
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.
On Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015, Beech Community Services will present the 9th Annual “Jazz on the Ave.” The free community festival will stretch along four blocks on Cecil B. Moore Avenue, between Broad and 17th Streets.
Ken Scott, president of the Beech Companies, said:
Each year, this concert continues to grow with thousands attending from the Tristate area and beyond. From local celebrities, like Bernard Hopkins, to longtime community members, this concert continues to be one of the must attend summer concerts of the year.
During Philly’s jazz heyday, the “Ave” was known as Columbia Avenue. The four blocks were part of “The Golden Strip,” which stretched from 8th Street to 23rd Street. Columbia Avenue was chock-a-block with jazz joints, including such legendary spots as Cafe Society, Watts’ Zanzibar and the Web.
Last year, Pennrose Company demolished the John Coltrane mural in Strawberry Mansion. Pennrose has been feeding at the public trough of government subsidies for decades. But in an instant, the company erased a tribute to an American cultural icon.
While the nation celebrates the centennial of the birth of Billie Holiday and Mary Lou Williams, the Philadelphia Housing Authority plans to demolish the Women of Jazz mural.
Now, you might be wondering what is the connection between murals and affordable housing? Kelvin Jeremiah, President and CEO of PHA, said it best in his remarks before the City Council Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and The Homeless on April 27:
It is my view that the affordable housing crisis that confronts this great city is also an issue of deep-seated structural poverty. … Solving the poverty problem will go a long way to solve the affordable housing crisis.
Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the nation. A whopping 40 percent of school-aged children live in poverty. There is a correlation between education and poverty. If the educational achievement of poor children is increased, fewer will end up on PHA’s 10-year waiting list for public housing.
A growing body of evidence shows that students with access to arts education perform better on standardized tests. In addition to improved student achievement, arts education contributes to the development of cognitive and social skills, nurtures a motivation to learn, increases student attendance and fosters a positive school environment. At-risk students cite their participation in the arts as a reason for staying in school.
Students involved in arts instruction report less boredom in school. Ask students why they dropped out of school, they will say they were bored.
The School District of Philadelphia has drastically cut arts and music programs; 25 percent of schools offer no music instruction. In the absence of arts education, murals may be poor students’ only exposure to the arts.
At the opening of the new Whitney Museum, First Lady Michelle Obama said the arts “could inspire a young person to rise above the circumstances of their life and reach for something better.”
To be clear, it’s not about preserving brick-and-mortar. Instead, it’s about the transformative power of the arts to engage, motivate and keep students in schools.
It’s also not about money. Through digital and mobile technology, a mural can be recreated at a fraction of its original cost. Indeed, the cost of preserving this great city’s cultural heritage would be far less than, say, Pennrose’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions.