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Queens: Home of Jazz and Flushing Town Hall

Greg Thomas By

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Queens has the special distinction of having been home to the largest collection of famous jazz artists anywhere at any time.
When most people think of jazz in New York City, Manhattan readily comes to mind. The "East Coast" stride piano style was developed in Harlem, where venues such as the Savoy Ballroom, Small's Paradise, the Cotton Club and Minton's Playhouse presented the big bands and small groups of jazz lore. 52nd Street became known for its collection of clubs catering to jazz musicians and patrons in the 1950s. So the association of Manhattan and jazz is understandable. Few would deny that the statement "New York is the Jazz Capital" usually refers to the Big Apple, not the outer boroughs of Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island and Queens.

Nonetheless, each borough of New York City can stake a claim to its own parcel of ownership of the real estate of jazz history. The Bronx was home to the bygone Club 845 and Blue Morocco venues, where Latin and swing rhythms percolated and Dizzy Gillespie, Elmo Hope, Tina Brooks, and Thelonious Monk hung out and played. The Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant was home to Randy Weston, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter, and Max Roach; the latter three were at one point Charlie Parker's rhythm section. (In more current times, Steve Coleman's M-Base Collective began in Brooklyn.) Staten Island, the so-called "forgotten borough," had a thriving club scene, and Jimmy Knepper, Don Joseph, Caesar DiMauro, Don Hahn, Chuck Wayne, and siblings Kenny and Reggie Washington lived and performed there.

Yet Queens has the special distinction of having been home to the largest collection of famous jazz artists anywhere at any time. That's right: Queens, New York, where, since the 1920s, jazz artists have chosen as a comfortable place to live. In fact, Queens has been dubbed "the home of jazz." A sampling will suffice: Bix Beiderbecke, the Heath Brothers, Fats Waller, Slam Stewart, Illinois Jacquet, Billie Holiday, Milt Hinton, Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Bostic, Count Basie, Lester Young, Frank Wess, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, John Coltrane, Ben Webster, Charles Mingus, James P. Johnson, Glenn Miller, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Milt Jackson, Roy Haynes, Clark Terry, Chick Corea, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, and Jimmy Rushing all lived in Queens at some point in their careers. Most famously, Louis Armstrong's residence in Corona, Queens today serves as a museum open to the public. Armstrong's archives are available at Queens College, Flushing campus.

Flushing, Queens was home to Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Bill Doggett in years past, and today is home to the Flushing Council of Culture and the Arts (FCCA), which preserves, reflects, and perpetuates the cultural legacy of Queens, especially jazz, at its presenting venue Flushing Town Hall.

This writer visited Flushing Town Hall by way of a short trip from Grand Central Station on the #7 train, passing by the new Mets stadium along the way. I spoke with FCCA Executive Director Ellen Kodadek and Jazz Producer Clyde Bullard, a professional bassist who has produced jazz events at Flushing Town Hall since 1998. "Jimmy Heath has referred to this institution as the 'cultural crossroads.' That's absolutely reflected in the kind of programming we do here," said Kodadek. "It's extraordinary to have someone of his caliber, expertise and experience to refer to us and think of us in that way."

Cultural crossroads is an apt description of Queens also. According to Kodadek, "Queens is the most diverse county in the country. There are over 138 languages spoken here. We're in downtown Flushing, which is mostly Chinese and Korean. As you spread out further into Flushing and further into Queens, you get this amazing cultural mix: Chinese, Korean, Columbian, Peruvian, Puerto Rican, East Asian and East Indian communities, and African-American."

The foundation of Flushing's cultural diversity was cemented over 300 years ago. "In 1657 the inhabitants of Flushing wrote the Flushing Remonstrance, a petition declaring religious freedom," said Bullard. Dutch settlers first came to America in the 1620s as a colony of Holland. Governor Peter Stuyvesant didn't tolerate religious freedom and decreed that Quakers be banished from Flushing. Flushing residents protested that ordinance in writing; this formal protest was a precursor to the U.S. Constitution's provision on freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights. "That set the stage for everything that has happened in Flushing," Bullard declared.


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