I’ll be the first to admit that jazz isn’t my forte, but after Fred made me watch a gazillion hours of Ken Burns’s jazz documentary, at least I have a better understanding of it. And, after a fantastic Jazz Walk led by music historian Jack McCarthy (Architecture & History Tours in Philadelphia), I have a much better idea of Philly’s important place in its history.
In the heart of Center City was the Downbeat Club – the place that Dizzy Gillespie credited with helping him develop bebop. After being fired from a gig at the more traditional Earle Theater, Dizzy began an extended engagement at the progressive Downbeat Club. It was during his residency here that he was freed from having to stick to the swing/big band jazz popular at the time and could concentrate on formulating the sounds that he and Charlie Parker would develop into bebop.
Jazz drummer Philly Joe Jones was also a frequent performer at the club, stopping his trolly out front to run in and play a few songs. According to fellow drummer Charlie Rice, “Joe often stopped the trolley in front of the club. He’d grab the controls, jump out, and sit in for a number or two. The people hung out the window of the trolley, growing more and more impatient. They wanted to get home, or wherever they were going. When Joe got back to the trolley, everybody would cheer, and off they’d go to South Philly.” Before finding fame as a drummer, Philly Joe was one of the first black trolly drivers in Philadelphia. When black drivers were to be hired by the local transportation company, white workers went on strike, shutting down much of war-time production in the city. After a week, the Roosevelt administration intervened, bringing an end to the strike and laying the foundation for hiring black workers. 23 South 11th Street
Just around the corner is the site of Music City, where Tuesday evening jam sessions were held in an auditorium above the music store. Here, well-known musicians would show up before their regular gigs to play with other musicians and for locals – especially kids who were too young to get into the regular clubs. For young Philly musicians this was a place to hang with other jazz enthusiasts and even occasionally play with their musical heroes. This was the location of the last performance given by trumpeter Clifford Brown, who was killed shortly after on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on his way to a gig in Chicago. 1033 Chestnut Street
The great saxophonist John Coltrane’s career owes much to Philadelphia. It was here, in the back row of the Academy of Music that Coltrane first heard Charlie Parker. According to friend Benny Golson “This was beyond “good.” It was completely new, innovative, and profound. We were drunk with happiness and bewilderment. I felt like crying. We didn’t know then, but our musical world changed that night.” After the show, Coltrane and Golson hung around the stage door in wait for Charlie Parker and questioned him as he walked to the Downbeat club. Being too young to get into the club, they hung around and listened through the open window.
This row home in North Philadelphia is where Coltrane would later go cold turkey to beat his heroine addiction and where he experienced the spiritual awakening that led to his landmark avant-garde album, “A Love Supreme.” The house has been designated a historic site, but lack of funding for renovation is leading to its deterioration. 1511 North 33rd Street
1409 Lombard Street was the Douglas Hotel, one of the few hotels in Center City to allow black guests. Because of this, it was where a lot of the black musicians stayed while in Philadelphia. Its basement was home to the Show Boat Club (later called the Bijou Cafe).
Although she grew up in Baltimore, Billie Holiday was born in Philadelphia. She often performed in Philly (especially after losing her NYC cabaret club card after her first arrest) and was a regular at the Douglass Hotel – although this is not where her 1947 drug arrest took place. That was at the Attucks Hotel, where her room was raided by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics after a show at the Earle Theater. Holiday was targeted by the Bureau’s racist commissioner Harry Anslinger for a variety of reasons, including her refusal to stop performing the anti-lynching song, “Strange Fruit,” her bi-sexuality, and her drug addiction. For this first arrest, she spent a year in prison on charges of narcotics possession. 15th & Catherine Streets
The jazz scene is still alive in Philly at places such as The Cleft Club and Chris’s Jazz Cafe.