Tag Archives: Ridge Avenue Entertainment District

Congo Café

The Congo Café was located on Ridge Avenue in an old bank building (Northwestern Trust Company?). In a December 6, 1959 conversation with celebrated jazz journalist Ralph J. Gleason, Philly Joe Jones shared memories of the Congo Cafe:

In 1945 I came home, I was just out of the service and I wanted to play and I knew about the drums, I actually knew about the drums in 1939, an old fellow in Philadelphia who’s still there playin’, he’s playin’ every night, named Coatsville [James “Coatsville” Harris], and he used to help me, he used to teach me how to play the drums. I used to sit underneath the bandstand in the club because I was too young to be there. I wasn’t supposed to be there but he’d sneak me in and I’d be underneath the bandstand. It was an ex-bank and they made a nightclub out of it and they had a floor show and I used to watch the dancers and the chorus and three, four girls in the line and this drummer. I just idolized him and he’s still one of the swingingest older cats I’ve met, and I wanted to play so that he used to help me.

In the 1950s, Coatsville led an orchestra that featured a tenor saxophonist thought to be John Coltrane.

Conversations in Jazz: The Ralph J. Gleason Interviews is available on Amazon.com.

Preservation Month 2017

May is Preservation Month, a time to celebrate places that matter to you. On May 6, I led a Jane’s Walk, “Ridge Avenue Stroll through Philly’s Jazz History.” The first stop was the legendary Blue Note. The Ray Bryant Trio was the Blue Note’s house band. Interestingly, Bryant co-wrote the smash hit, “Madison Time,” which was released in 1959.

The highlight of the stroll was 2125 Ridge Avenue, the former location of the Checker Café, a “black and tan” (read: racially integrated) jazz club. The nightclub’s motto was “Good Food. Good Cooks. Good Service.” One of the servers was a teenage singing waitress named Pearl Bailey.

Checker Cafe - This Place Matters Collage

Since October 2016, I’ve been locked in battle with the Philadelphia Housing Authority which wants to demolish the building that has been a visual anchor for more than 100 years. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission agreed with me the building is of historical significance. Last week, PHA signed a programmatic agreement that saves the building for now. Under the agreement, PHA must stabilize the building.

I say for now because PHA has made it clear it wants to demolish the building. I guess it doesn’t fit their “vision” for a revitalized Ridge Avenue. In an area full of vacant lots, PHA wants to replace a building that is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places with yet another vacant lot.

I encouraged the 40+ people who participated in my Jane’s Walk to make some noise and tell decision-makers that this place matters. If you care about preserving Philadelphia’s cultural heritage, DM me on Twitter or send message to phillyjazzapp[@]gmail.com.

Ridge Avenue Stroll through Philly’s Jazz History

On Saturday, May 6, from 11am to 12pm, All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson will lead a Jane’s Walk, “Ridge Avenue Stroll through Philly’s Jazz History.”

Ridge Avenue Stroll Cover

In the wake of the Great Migration, the demographics of North Philadelphia’s Sharswood neighborhood changed. The new residents fueled the growth of commercial establishments along Ridge Avenue that catered to African Americans. From the Blue Note (15th Street) to the Crossroads Bar (23rd Street), Ridge Avenue was a jazz corridor and entertainment district.

Ridge Avenue Entertainment District - Satellite

Ridge Avenue was also a safe haven from the indignities of racial discrimination. African American entertainers performed in Center City at places such as the Earle Theater and Ciro’s, but they were not allowed to stay in downtown hotels. The Negro Motorist Green Book helped black travelers navigate Jim Crow or de jure (legalized) segregation in the South and de facto (in practice) segregation in the North. Published from 1936 to 1967, the “Green Book” listed hotels, restaurants, night clubs, beauty parlors and other services that enabled African Americans to “vacation without aggravation.”

Green Book - NMAAHC

Our stroll will begin at the legendary Blue Note. We’ll walk around the corner and stop at the Nite Cap.

Blue Note - Nite Cap Collage - 5.5.17

We’ll then head north up Ridge Avenue, stopping at the Bird Cage Lounge and Don-El Records.

Don-El Records - 2020 Ridge Avenue

Moving along, we’ll check out the Hotel LaSalle which was listed in the “Green Book” and advertised in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine.

Hotel LasSalle Collage - 4.30.17

We’ll then stop by V-Tone Records, the LaSalle Beauty Parlor and Butler’s Paradise Café (listed in the “Green Book”).

Next stops: Ridge Cotton Club (listed in the “Green Book”) and the Pearl Theatre.

Ridge Cotton Club - Overlay

The highlight of the walk will be the Checker Café, the last vestige of the Ridge Avenue entertainment district.

2125 Ridge Avenue - 2007

We’ll end our stroll at Mr. Chip’s Bar and Irene’s Café (listed in the “Green Book”).

Mr. Chip's Bar - Irene's Cafe Collage

Rain or shine, we will walk the streets where future jazz legends such as Pearl Bailey, Clifford Brown, Cab Calloway, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Philly Joe Jones, Charlie Parker and Nancy Wilson once roamed. For more information, visit Jane’s Walk.

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 Ads

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 who wrote:

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.

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Irene’s Cafe

Listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book, Irene’s was one of several “cafés” along Ridge Avenue. In his book, Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation, Drexel University professor Alphonso McClendon notes:

The influence of Harlem and the legendary Cotton Club with its extravagant floor shows of light-skinned chorus girls are noted in the previous descriptions, as well as the naming of the Ridge Cotton Club along the Ridge Avenue entertainment district. In addition, the ubiquitous title of café such as Art’s Café, Pocahontas Café, Hy De Ho Café and The Roseland Café implied inspiration from Europe and the desire to accentuate superior social mingling.

In a 1996 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer jazzman Jimmy Oliver recounted that he used to play at Irene’s Café whose regulars included Pearl Bailey.

Jimmy Oliver is one of Philly’s many unsung jazz greats. From Wikipedia:

James Henry Oliver was a tenor saxophonist and bandleader based in Philadelphia. Active from the mid-1940s, his bands, including the house band at local venues, featured, among other musicians, Philly Joe Jones, Steve Davis, Red Garland, Johnny Coles, Charlie Rice, Sam Reed and Mickey Roker. He has been cited as one of several sax players who influenced John Coltrane.

Turning down the temptation to work in New York, he preferred to play locally in Philadelphia, alongside local jazz stars such as Bootsie Barnes, the Heath Brothers and Philly Joe Jones as well as visiting stars Charlie Parker, Pearl Bailey and Max Roach, and, especially around 1946-47, while in residence at the Zanzibar Café, he was noted for playing “against” visitors Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, George Auld and Charlie Ventura.

On one of his very few known recordings, on September 16, 1950, Oliver sat in for John Coltrane, who was ill, and recorded with the Dizzy Gillespie sextet for Prestige. The album, Prestige 1st Sessions, Vol. 3, released in 1994, features a solo by Oliver on the track “She’s Gone Again.”

Butler’s Paradise Café

Incorporated in 1937, Butler’s Paradise Café was listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book, It was one of several “cafés” along Ridge Avenue. In his book, Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation, Drexel University professor Alphonso McClendon notes:

The influence of Harlem and the legendary Cotton Club with its extravagant floor shows of light-skinned chorus girls are noted in the previous descriptions, as well as the naming of the Ridge Cotton Club along the Ridge Avenue entertainment district. In addition, the ubiquitous title of café such as Art’s Café, Pocahontas Café, Hy De Ho Café and The Roseland Café implied inspiration from Europe and the desire to accentuate superior social mingling.

Saxophonist Jimmy Woods  was a regular at this nightspot.

At some point Butler’s Paradise Café closed. After refurbishing, in December 1952 it reopened as Butler’s Café. Billboard reported that the headliner was “Bill Doggett and his organ and trio.” Doggett co-wrote the smash R&B hit, “Honky Tonk,” which sold four million copies.

The Ridge Point

The Ridge Point, aka the Crossroads Bar, was located at the crossroads of Ridge Avenue, 23rd Street and Columbia Avenue. In Whisper Not: The Autobiography of Benny Golson, the NEA Jazz Master shared a story about John Coltrane’s gig at this North Philly club:

Philadelphia boasted many jazz clubs at that time, and John and I continued to gig often. John, however, soon got a very strange gig. Word came to me that John was working at a club called The Ridge Point. We called it The Point because of the street configuration there, where instead of bisecting each other, three streets crossed—Columbia Avenue, 23rd Street, and Ridge Avenue—such that the shape of the building at that intersection resembled a large slice of pie—much like the famous Flatiron Building in Manhattan. The bar’s shape mimicked the building. The bandstand was at the wide end of the pie. The tip, or the point, was the main entrance. All that was interesting, but The Point was not a bona fide jazz club. Eddie Woodland, a tenor player, usually held forth. Woodland was a “boot ‘em up” tenor player with a circus aura, who held audiences in the palm of his hand by walking the bar, with bravado. Crowds loved him, but for some reason, he took a leave of absence. Maybe he was sick. Then word went around that my pal John was playing at The Point, and I knew John wasn’t that kind of saxophone player. The Point was definitely not a hip jazz club, and regulars expected every artist to walk the bar.

Woodland’s “boot ’em up” saxophone can be heard on “Stranger in Town.”

More from Golson:

I could not believe what I saw. This wasn’t Eddie at all, but John! John Coltrane was up on the bar at the small end, at the tip of the mud pie, honking, grooving, preparing to go down to the far end and back to the bandstand again. He was cranked up, playing low B-flats, nimbly stepping over drinks like a mountain goat on slippery terrain. He didn’t see me right away. But when he came up from one of his low horn-swooping movements, he looked in my direction. His eyes got wide and he stopped right in the middle of a group of low B-flats. He took the horn out of his mouth, stood straight up, and said, “Oh, no!” I fell against the wall, dying with laughter. I’d busted him. He was humiliated, but he finished his slumming bar performance.

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