Back in the day, musicians used to “walk the bar.” Philly native Lee Morgan was among those “honking and stepping.”
In an interview with the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project, NEA Jazz Master and Philly native Benny Golson said: “I caught my boy John Coltrane on the bar.” In a 2009 piece, jazz critic Marc Myers also shared the story:
In 1954, Coltrane’s expanding heroin and alcohol addiction cost him playing jobs, most notably a significant one with alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. After moving back to Philadelphia, Coltrane was forced to play with local R&B bands to make ends meet. In some of these bands, he had to honk away on the tenor while walking along the bar. One night, he saw childhood friend and tenor saxophonist Benny Golson enter the club. Mortified, Coltrane climbed off the bar and walked out for good.
The Smithsonian interviewer asked Golson where the tradition was started:
I don’t know where it started. It didn’t start with the jazz artists, per se. It started with one of the entertainers. An entertainer’s plot is to do or to second-guess what the audience wants to hear. Yeah, I got involved in that. I did some crazy stuff when I was doing all that stuff. You do what you think is going to entertain them. It’s going to bring acclaim to what you’re doing. Yeah, what’s more ridiculous than getting up on the bar where the drinks are and start playing your low B-flats no matter what key you’re in, just honking. We call that honking and stepping. They’re applauding. Ain’t nothing happening. Stepping over those drinks.
Barber’s Hall dates back to Philly’s golden age of jazz.
Mel Melvin’s Orchestra was a jazz-oriented R&B band which featured some of Philly’s best musicians, including the Heath Brothers and John Coltrane. NEA Jazz Master Kenny Barron played with the orchestra when he was a teenager.
The black-owned bar has played host to such legendary musicians as John Coltrane, Robert “Bootsie” Barnes and Grover Washington, Jr. Charlotte Adams — Ms. Charlotte — granddaughter of the original owner, has been serving drinks there for more than 30 years.
New Barber’s Hall is located in the former home of the Quaker City Wheelmen bicycle club. In a piece for Hidden City Philadelphia, GroJLart wrote:
In 1953, a group of four African American barbershop owners formed the National Barber’s Sunshine Club, a trade organization for local barbers, and purchased the building for their headquarters, which was colloquially renamed Barber’s Hall. In addition to hosting the Sunshine Club, the building also became a music venue and event space. Jazz musicians staying at the Chesterfield Hotel next door would often drop by to play at the club between gigs.
The Bijou Café opened on October 4, 1972. The club was in the former location of the legendary Showboat. The Bijou hosted such jazz greats as Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Bill Evans. Grover Washington, Jr. recorded “Live at the Bijou” in May 1977.
In the 1970s and early ‘80s, the Bijou was Philadelphia’s premier showcase for up-and-coming artists, including Barry Manilow, Angela Bofill and U2.
Longtime radio personality T. Morgan recalled:
The jazz lineups were nothing short of spectacular and the comedy was even better! The National Lampoon Show with future superstars John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner and Lorraine Newman all appeared together. Another comedy troupe, Firesign Theater also appeared. Billy Crystal was an opening act four times and a headliners three times. His impersonation of Muhammad Ali was a big crowd favorite. Albert Brooks, Richard Pryor, Martin Mull and his Fabulous Furniture, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld and Dick Gregory all keep the audiences amused.
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.”
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.
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.
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was born on this day in 1929.