I got one of my Christmas presents early this year. Chris' Jazz Cafe, at 1421 Sansom Street, one of the mainstay jazz clubs in town and a dead ringer for the great New York clubs on fabled Swing Street of the 1940's, gave out its second annual Hall of Fame Awards
last Saturday night. They went to such esteemed jazz musicians as guitarist Pat Martino, sax man Eric Alexander and pianist Sid Simmons. One award went to me as a jazz writer. Glenn Gerber, one of the owners, made a touching tribute presentation. A plaque with recipient names will go up on the club walls. The music that night was as almost always, exciting. It could not be anything else with people like John Swana, trumpet; Alexander, sax; Rodney Green, drums and Lee Smith on bass. This compact little club features the best in Philly jazz.
I could not help feeling somewhat awkward about the award. I can't dance and I can't sing and Lord knows, I can't play a thing. I got an award for writing about the music I love, played by the people I love for many of the people I love. That almost seems like stealing. I accepted it anyway. It was the third time I have been so blessed in Philadelphia for my jazz writing. Earlier I had received the Liberty Bell Award and from Musicians in the Community for keeping jazz alive in Philadelphia. The group was formed by Tony Williams, a marvelous sax man who used to make jam sessions a joy out at the Blue Note on Limekiln Pike, but these days is holding forth at the posh Ritz Hotel on Broad Street.
My love affair with jazz started in my childhood years watching a 1938 film with Louis Armstrong in which he sang "Jeepers Creepers." I later saw him in his famed 1947 Town Hall concert that brought him back into widespread recognition. It was one of the great concerts of all time as was the Jazz at the Philharmonic session at Carnegie Hall with the historic battle of the saxophones between Flip Philips and Illinois Jacquet. I was just 18 at the time. I explored all the famed jazz joints of those halcyon days when Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnett were holding forth.
These clubs are now part of jazz history, Eddie Condons and Nicks in Greenwich Village; The Royal Roost, Birdland and Bop City in Times Square area and the Apollo Theater and Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. That was back when you could sit at the bar all night at Jimmy Ryan's and the Three Deuces on 52nd Street listening to newly arrived players such as George Shearing. The price of admission? Just 75 cents for a beer and a quarter for the bartender as tip.
My love of jazz eventually resulted in my becoming a disc jockey for the Armed Forces Radio Service when going through radio operator school. It was better than pulling K.P..which I got out of by playing records. My spiel was a Fred Robbins variationlisten my friends, wherever you be to this hopped up ride by a PFC. The station manager liked it so much he said he would make sure I never got promoted to corporal. I got to New Orleans via Biloxi where they moved the radio school and heard some of the finest New Orleans jazz men such as Papa Celestin who was still playing on appropriately named Bourbon Street. Eventually, I got to Korea as a radio operator in time for the forgotten war. When I left newspaper work to go in PR, I kept my jazz interest, even getting the house organ editor to run a piece on Eddie Condon's where I interviewed the famed guitarist and his cohorts Wild Bill Davison and George Brunies.
Coming to Philadelphia opened my eyes to the fabulous jazz history here that somehow the rest of the world had ignored. Going from such early jazz pioneers as Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti to such latter day giants as the Charlie Ventura and John Coltrane and such current stars as Larry McKenna and Bootsie Barnes, I had the good fortune of being able to write about them, singing their praises in my off-key voice on a typewriter. I was able to write jazz pieces for The Philadelphia Inquirer and Welcomat, among others, before starting a jazz column in Metro and All About Jazz. I have also written about jazz in my role as contributing editor for The Weekly Press and University City Review.
If I have helped to keep jazz alive, I can only say how proud I am. As I said, I can't dance and I can't sing, but when these jazz artists play, I've got rhythm.