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Places, Spaces and Changing FacesNew York
New York, Jazz capital of the world Times Square New York City, 1926
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New York: America's Jazz Capitol

Primarily excerpted from Jazz: A History of America's Music, with contributions by Loren Schoenberg, Jazz Historian

Audio sample Echoes of Harlem
Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

Recorded February 28, 1936
(Courtesy Columbia/Legacy)

Times Square
Image courtesy of Archive Photos

For over a century, New York City has been the proving ground for anyone who wants to distinguish themselves in their given field. There are exceptions, to be sure, but taken in its grid-lined totality, "making it" in New York remains an international goal. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the most American art of all, jazz, has found its home among homes there since the late 1920s. The physical layout of New York's famous skyline has been offered as a metaphor for both American culture in general and for jazz specifically by the eminent cultural critic John Kouwenhoven. He saw the functional design of the skyscrapers as visual representations of the same formal principles that underlie the spontaneous creation of a jazz performance. And the overarching freedom and variety of the city's layout could easily incorporate the occasional replications of European forms, and contextualize them in a new fashion.

Nowhere was this architectural gumbo more present than in Harlem, which also became the home for New York's African-American population as jazz matured. The polymath James Weldon Johnson wrote:
If you ride northward the length of Manhattan Island, going through Central Park and coming out on Seventh Avenue or Lenox Avenue at One Hundred and Tenth Street, you cannot escape being struck by the sudden change in the character of the people you see. In the middle and lower parts of the city you have, perhaps, noted Negro faces here and there; but when you emerge from the Park, you see them everywhere ... and as you go up either of these two great arteries leading out from the north you see more and more Negroes, walking in the streets, looking from the windows, trading in the shops, eating in the restaurants, going in and coming out of the theaters, until, nearing One Hundred and Thirty-fifth Street, ninety per cent of the people you see, including the traffic officers, are Negroes ... You have been having a ... glimpse of Harlem, the Negro Metropolis ...
Jazz, as part of the popular music of the day, had a strong presence downtown. Indeed, that's where the heart of the business was — theaters, Tin Pan Alley and nightclubs. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Fletcher Henderson (featuring Louis Armstrong), Paul Whiteman and Duke Ellington all established themselves playing in and around the environs of George M. Cohan's "Old Broadway." It was a given, however, that the music's true home lie a few miles northward, where there was an equally vibrant musical scene there with its own unique flavor.


Harlem street scene
Harlem street scene
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection

By 1920, New York was home to more blacks than any other northern city, including Chicago. Most of them lived uptown, in a particularly beautiful old neighborhood called Harlem.

It was the home of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League, and Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association. Writers James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and the scholar and civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois all lived in Harlem, as did many other artists eagerly examining what it meant to be black and American, part of what would come to be called the Harlem Renaissance. "It is a mecca for the sightseer, the pleasure-seeker, the curious, the adventurous, the enterprising, the ambitious, and the talented of the entire Negro world," wrote the poet James Weldon Johnson "[F]or the lure of it has reached down to every isle of the Carib Sea and penetrated even into Africa."

Jazz musicians were drawn to Harlem, too. There were plenty of theater and nightclub and dance hall jobs — and Broadway and the record companies were only a subway ride away. "Harlem, in our minds," jazz great Duke Ellington remembered, had "the world's most glamorous atmosphere. We had to go there."

The musical heroes of Harlem were the masters of a dazzling virtuoso piano style — stride. "It was 'orchestral piano,'" one of its stars remembered, "full, round, big, widespread chords...moving against the right hand." Its practitioners called themselves "ticklers," but the nicknames they awarded one another — "The Bear," "The Beetle," "The Beast," "the Brute" — were warlike, befitting the perennial piano wars called "cutting contests" they waged among themselves.

Such wars were regularly fought at Harlem rent parties — all-night dances, held in crowded apartments, where the cost of admission helped hold off the landlord. As poet Langston Hughes recalled, "The Saturday night rent parties that I attended were often more amusing than any nightclub... the piano would often be augmented by a guitar, or an odd cornet, or somebody with a pair of drums walking in off the street... And the dancing and singing and impromptu entertaining went on until dawn came in at the windows."

Harlem was also known for its booming nightclub scene — so well known, in fact, that it began to draw the attention of wealthy whites, eager to experience Harlem's supposedly "primitive" excitement. "Harlem's night life now surpasses that of Broadway itself," wrote Variety. "From midnight until after dawn it is a seething cauldron of Nubian mirth and hilarity." Nightclub owners made an effort to lure white clientele, and arguably, no club in Harlem was more alluring than the Cotton Club.

Nostalgia for the antebellum South set the Cotton Club's bizarre theme — the big stage was designed to resemble the veranda of a plantation house, complete with tall white columns and a painted backdrop of slave cabins and live oak trees draped with moss. The main attraction was a lavish floorshow in the Florenz Ziegfeld tradition that featured songs, dances, and lots of light-skinned, lightly clad chorus girls billed as "Tall, Tan and Terrific." Black patrons were generally barred, but black entertainers were presented as good-looking and glamorous. And the music and choreography, costumes and stage rivaled the best of Broadway. The tremendous ironies inherent in Cotton Club shows provided Duke Ellington with ample opportunities to grow as a composer, as he aimed both directly at and over the heads of the club's clientele.

Savoy Ballroom at night
Savoy Ballroom at night
Image courtesy of Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

While the Cotton Club (opened in 1923 by the gangster Owney Madden) was Harlem's most glamorous nightclub, the community's biggest and most beautiful ballroom was the Savoy. It covered a whole city block on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st Streets, employed two bands at once so that the music need never stop, and was so popular with dancers that its maple-and-mahogany floor had to be replaced every three years. Just 50 cents on weeknights — 75 cents on Sundays — the Savoy billed itself as "the Home of Happy Feet." All the best bands appeared there. So did Harlem's most admired dancers. George "Shorty" Snowden was on the floor nearly every night. It was he who in 1928 had come up with the new dance filled with improvised "breakaways" — flinging his partner out and improvising solo steps before bringing her back again — which came to be called the lindy hop after the hero of the hour, Charles Lindbergh. Snowden's friendly rival, George "Twist Mouth" Ganaway, was also a constant presence; his long legs, spectacular dancing, and distinctive ensemble — blinding white from his shoes to the broad-brimmed hat he never took off — all helped distract lookers-on from the disfigurement that had prompted his nickname. Snowden and Ganaway had staked out the northeast corner of the Savoy for themselves and the handful of dancers they thought worthy of appearing alongside them. They called it the Cat's Corner — and any fumble-footed amateur who foolishly persisted in intruding into it was liable to have one of the elect dance by and casually shatter his ankle with a kick.

Savoy dancers were serious. But when it came to sheer dedication to swinging quarter notes, which after all was at the root of the Savoy's identity, no one took a backseat to drummer Chick Webb. Many have testified to the evangelical fervor with which he drove his band, and to his ear for young talent — Webb's early bands included Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges and Cootie Williams. After shunning the more overt vestiges of commercialism for years, Webb's nonpareil swing band became known to the public at large as the background for the Ella Fitzgerald, who Webb championed after she had been turned down by Fletcher Henderson. But every band, from Ellington on down, shuddered at the thought of engaging Webb in the now legendary series of Savoy band battles that survivors talk about in frankly epic terms.

By the mid-1940s, race riots and an economic decline fostered by years of de facto segregation in business opportunities left Harlem a dangerous place for both interlopers and for many of its residents. But as that transformation took place, Harlem was the home of the next major evolution in the jazz's history. It happened in a handful of clubs, of which one stood out, as Ralph Ellison recalled:
It's been a long time now, and not many remember how it was in the old days, not really. Not even those who were there to see and hear it as it happened, and who shared, night after night, the mysterious spell created by the talk, the laughter, grease paint, powder, perfume, sweat, alcohol, and food — all blended and simmering, like a stew on the restaurant range, and brought to a sustained moment of elusive meaning by the timbres and accents of musical instruments at Minton's Playhouse ... It was an exceptional moment, and the world was swinging with change.
NPR Audio Feature NPR's Weekly Edition: "West 52nd Street" (Part 1)
NPR's Noah Adams reports on what was known in the 1930s and '40s simply as "The Street." He speaks with historian Phil Schapp about what made the block between 5th and 6th Avenues so special.

The Street

Since the mid-1930s, the living heart of jazz in New York had been two blocks of old brownstones on the West Side — Fifty-second Street, between Fifth and Seventh Avenues. Never, not even in New Orleans at the turn of the century or along the brightly lit Chicago Stroll in the 1920s, had so much great jazz been concentrated in so small a space. Seven jazz clubs still flourished there in the early 1940s. The Spotlite, the Yacht Club, and the Three Deuces were on the south side of the block between Fifth and Sixth; Jimmy's Ryan's, the Onyx, and Tondelayo's were right across the street. And there were two more clubs a block further west — Kelly's Stable and the Hickory House.

The Street's unofficial queen was Billie Holiday. It had seemed like "a plantation" to her when she and Teddy Wilson were working there in the mid-1930s, she remembered, but now black musicians were everywhere, black and white customers mingled fairly freely, and the level of musicianship that surrounded her was simply astonishing. Her very first engagement at Kelly's Stables included on the same bill a quartet led by Coleman Hawkins; the hardest-swinging violinist in the history of the music, Stuff Smith and at intermission, the pianist Nat "King" Cole and his trio. And competing clubs up and down the Street featured attractions only slightly less stellar.

NPR Audio Feature NPR's Weekly Edition: "West 52nd Street" (Part 2)
NPR's Noah Adams speaks with photographer William Gottlieb, whose photograph inspired this story. He also interviews pianist Marian McPartland and bassist Ray Brown.

To a jazz fan like the future impresario George Wein, then a teenager living in Boston, it was an irresistible magnet:
I was just a kid 13 or 14 years old and my brother was three or four years older, and we would come down the West Side Highway and we'd get off at Fifty-second Street, and drive... It was like being in a candied heaven, and the candy was the jazz that you could grab onto. That night, we would take 10 or 15 dollars that my father had given us to go out, and I'd go into these bars where I couldn't drink and I would spend a dollar for a ginger ale. We'd go to five clubs. It was just the greatest feeling that one could have, particularly at three o'clock in the morning. I was half-asleep but I wasn't asleep. You were alone, maybe there were three or four couples, and you felt that the musicians were playing for you.
The musicians were playing for one another, too. "We were a brotherhood," one remembered. They moved from club to club to sit in, and crowded the bandstand at Milt Gabler's Sunday-afternoon jam sessions at Ryan's. Bobby Hackett, James P. Johnson, Hot Lips Page, Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins were all regulars.

When one club owner complained to Jack Teagarden that his nightly habit of picking up his trombone between sets and ambling up or down Fifty-second Street to play somewhere else was cutting into business, Teagarden said he was "just being neighborly," and kept right on doing it. "It was beautiful because you'd play all kinds of music," the drummer Shelly Manne said. "It was like a history of jazz on one street... It was really healthy for musicians. If you were a jazz historian, you could have gone down there and seen and heard, with your own ears, the evolution of the music, right there are the street, and it all made sense."

52nd Street, New York City
View of 52nd Street, New York City
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection
The post-war years saw the gradual decline of 52nd Street neighborhood. Where Sidney Bechet and Lennie Tristano once played was soon the home of strippers. Jazz musicians went from being featured attractions to poorly paid accompanists. The Royal Roost was one of a few clubs that established themselves a few blocks southwest of 52nd Street, but with the exception of the legendary Birdland (named after Charlie Parker), most of them vanished by the time Elvis Presley came north. Birdland opened in late 1949, with a bill that included its namesake, Lester Young, Max Kaminsky and Tristano. But jazz clubs in midtown were eventually all to go the way of the birds the management brought in for the opening week — they all suffocated in their cages from the smoke. The club survived through the early 1960s, long enough to play host to a classic live John Coltrane album.

There were a handful of clubs that fought the trend and survived through the 1950s. Most notable were The Embers, which was largely a room for pianists — Marian McPartland and Erroll Garner were favorites there, and Basin Street East, which one week had the Benny Goodman Sextet playing opposite the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet. The last holdout was a relocated Jimmy Ryan's, which became home to the bands of Kaminsky and Eldridge until it was torn down to make room for a large hotel in the mid-1980s.

The Village Vanguard
The Village Vanguard
Image courtesy of Frank Driggs Collection

Since the 1960s, jazz clubs have been centered largely downtown, around Greenwich Village. The Village Gate, The Five Spot, The Jazz Gallery became well-known internationally, though none can compare in longevity or reputation with The Village Vanguard. It opened in the early 1930s and gradually moved towards an all-jazz policy, and remains the quintessential jazz spot, by virtue of the musical ghosts that inhabit its bandstand and the young talent that is steadily showcased there.