From Jeffrey S. McMillan, “A Musical Education: Lee Morgan and the Philadelphia Jazz Scene of the 1950s”:
Early in 1954, a Camden, New Jersey, DJ named Tommy Roberts began holding jazz sessions at the Heritage House, a north Philadelphia community center located on the second floor of what is now the Freedom Theater at 1346 N. Broad Street. These sessions became an important part of the Philadelphia jazz scene, especially for young musicians, and gave birth to a series of events known as the “Jazz Workshop.” Beginning in April 1954, the Workshop met every Friday afternoon from 4:00 to 6:00 and featured prominent jazz artists who were in town playing evening engagements in the clubs in Center City. The first hour of each session entailed a performance by the featured artists and was followed by an intermission where members of the audience were free to socialize with the musicians. The second hour was devoted to young musicians and composers who were encouraged to sit in with the artists or submit their work to be performed by the band. This unique, hands-on opportunity for youngsters to learn about jazz was augmented by the quality of artists that appeared at the Workshop.
In 1954 alone the artists included the Chet Baker Quintet (featuring James Moody), Johnny Hodges’s band (which, at the time, included John Coltrane), Buddy DeFranco, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Bud Powell, Ella Fitzgerald, George Shearing, Roy Eldridge, the Erroll Garner Trio, and Billy Taylor. Besides a 75¢ admission fee, there was only one restriction to being admitted to the Workshop: every attendee was required to be twenty years old or younger. Those of legal drinking age, twenty-one or older, had to take their business to the clubs to hear the artists.
In an interview with All About Jazz, bassist Jymie Merritt talked about the “Forerunners” jazz workshops:
JM: So I started a workshop at the Tuskegee Clubhouse, and I got Kenny Lowe, the late, gifted pianist, the drummer Donald Bailey (we called him Duck), singer September Wrice and the saxophonist Odean Pope. And we kept it going for five years until I went with Max Roach.
AAJ: So the “Forerunners” was an ongoing workshop.
JM: Yes, and then we got to play on Sundays at Father Paul Washington’s church [Church of the Advocate], and I used that opportunity to go beyond the kind of bass playing I’d been exposed to, in order to develop new forms and build from that.
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.