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Culture Clubs: A History of the U.S. Jazz Clubs, Part III: Kansas City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles & Beyond

Karl Ackermann By

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In and around the era of the jazz age, Philadelphia produced Benny Golson, Jimmy Bond, and Walter Dickerson, among others. Later arrivals included McCoy Tyner, Bobby Durham, Marilyn Crispell, Marc Copland, Joe Chambers, Uri Caine, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Charles Fambrough, Stanley Clarke and Melody Gardot. Apropos of the "City of Brotherly Love," jazz siblings sprang from the Philadelphia streets. An affinity for Charlie Parker, earned Jimmy Heath the nickname "Little Bird" and in the mid to late 1940s, his band—which included John Coltrane—was a mainstay on the Philadelphia jazz scene. Heath and his brother, the drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath were natives of the city and shuttled between local venues and New York. Bassist Percy Heath spent his childhood in Philadelphia, later recording more than three-dozen albums with the Modern Jazz Quartet. Brother Albert "Tootie" Heath, was part of that group and the three brothers worked and recorded as the Heath Brothers from the 1970s into the 1990s. Not the only Philadelphia brothers in jazz, the city gave us Kenny Barron and tenor saxophonist Bill Barron as well as Michael Brecker and Randy Brecker.

As was the case in New Orleans, Chicago and New York, the early venues for jazz were dancehalls and theaters. In Philadelphia, the Academy of Music opened in 1857 as an opera house, hosting Maria Callas, Enrico Caruso, Gustav Mahler, as well as Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky. But the South Broad Street academy also welcomed many of the great names in jazz such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Coltrane, who called the city home from 1952 until 1958, and then on-and-off until his death in 1967. The Earle Theatre opened in 1924 at 11th and Market Streets. Its enormous stage and a seating capacity of more than twenty-five hundred made the opulent theater a draw for the top names in Big Band music. Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glen Miller and Ellington played the Earle, often premiering upcoming or recent recordings. The proliferation of television negatively impacted live shows and led to the closing and demolition of the Earle in 1953.

Billy Krechmer (read his story), a South Jersey reed player with a penchant for Dixieland jazz, opened a modest space called The Jam Session on Ranstead Street in 1938. His business partner, saxophonist Nat Segall, sold out to Krechmer within a year and opened the Downbeat Club which was not related to New York's club of the same name. The Downbeat was—by all accounts—a successful club drawing recognized artists such as Dizzy Gillespie. But Segall was subjected to frequent raids by the Philadelphia police on the grounds of serving alcohol to minors. The local press strongly speculated that the rationale for the raids was actually the police department's disdain for Segall's permitting integrated audiences. Overwhelmed by the barrage of manufactured infractions, Segall closed the Downbeat in 1948. Krechmer, meanwhile, had renamed The Jam Session as Billy Krechmer's Music Room and he enjoyed a very long run, closing in 1966.

Two Broad Street intersections, South and Lombard Streets—were the locations of Pep's Musical Bar and the Showboat respectively. The Showboat was housed in what was once the Douglas Hotel, the location now marked with a plaque designating it as the one time residence of Billie Holiday. Gillespie, Miles Davis, Coltrane, Art Blakey, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, Philly Joe Jones, Thelonius Monk and other notable names played the venue that was later renamed as the Bijou Café, with a more cross-genre calendar. Pep's Musical Bar had hosted Nina Simone, Yusef Lateef (who recorded a live album at the club), Nat "King" Cole, Count Basie, Ellington, Lester Young, Billie Holiday and Monk. At 15th Street and Ridge Avenue The Blue Note featured the Ray Bryant Trio as their house band with occasional appearances from Lester Young, Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Davis, whose quintet with Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones appeared at the club in 1956. Watts' Zanzibar (a precursor of the Zanzibar Blue) was a premier jazz site in the 1940s, attracting the top names in the genre. The Columbia Avenue location (now renamed as Cecil B. Moore Avenue) was a centerpiece of the neighborhood known as the "Golden Strip" where there were no fewer than one-dozen thriving jazz clubs. In 1964, three days of rioting, driven by claims of police brutality, destroyed more than two-hundred businesses on and nearby the largely black Columbia Avenue stretch and the jazz scene came to an abrupt, and almost complete end. With top venues such as Crystal Ball, 820 Club, Spider Kelly's, and North West Club now gone, it would be a slow—and somewhat diluted—rebuilding effort to bring a robust jazz scene back to Philadelphia.

Ortlieb's Jazzhaus (also referred to as Ortlieb's Jazzhaus/Brewery) was a converted bowling alley on North Third Street, giving the club a distinctly long footprint. A brewery in its second life, it opened as a jazz venue in 1987. In addition to their "haus band," Ortlieb's was frequented by trumpeter Terell Stafford, pianist Orrin Evans, Farid Barron, Cecil Payne and one-time Gillespie drummer, Mickey Roker. On occasion, a marquee name such as Sonny Rollins or Frank Morgan would drop in for a one-off gig. Closed and demolished in 2010, it reopened at a different Philadelphia location under the name Ortlieb's Lounge in 2012 but jazz was relegated to Tuesday nights. Zanzibar Blue was first housed in a storefront on 11th Street, remaining at that location from 1990 to 1996 at which time it moved into the historic Bellevue Hotel on South Broad Street. In its eleven year run, Zanzibar Blue hosted notable names such as Chick Corea and Chuck Mangione, but more often featured local talent. The Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts originated in 1966 through the Musicians' Protective Union Local #274 which was chartered in 1935 and is the oldest Black Musicians' Union in the U.S. "Jazz" was not added to the name until the mid-1990s. By charter, the organization's objectives are largely educational but through workshops, jam sessions, and performances at their own Clef Club, they provide the area with a wealth of live jazz presentations.

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