The Royal Roost: Birthplace of Bop

Richard Carlin By

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The story of the development of jazz in New York is tied to the story of a few seminal clubs and promoters who helped nurture the music. Just as new musical styles were developing during World War II that would lead to the birth of bebop, so was the jazz scene changing. The clubs that thrived on Fifty Second Street during the mid to late '30s were strictly segregated; black musicians could play at them but could not patronize them. During the war, the city was flooded with service men looking for a good time; the 52nd Street clubs responded by increasingly turning to inexpensive to book girlie shows, aiming the street a new nickname, "Strip-ty Second Street." The club management also pushed guests to order drinks and many prostitutes and other "shady ladies" took to working the street. The music—if it still was being presented—became secondary to the other attractions.

Meanwhile, a new audience was developing that was more interested in hearing cutting-edge performances than being ripped off by pushy barmen, or being harassed by prostitutes and drug dealers. Among them were two promoters and fans of a new jazz phenomenon, bebop, with the colorful nicknames of Symphony Sid and Monte Kay. Both were sons of immigrant Jews who had fled Eastern Europe's miserable living conditions to seek their fortunes in New York's growing Jewish neighborhoods. By the mid-'40s, Sid (born Sidney Tarnopol, later shortened to Torin) was a well-known New York area DJ who was an avid fan of bebop. Promoter Monte Kay (born Fremont Kaplan) was a lover of black music and culture who tried to pass himself off as black thanks to his olive-toned skin and curly hair.

Since the early '40s, Kay had been producing concerts in any space he could rent, mostly fraternal halls and other small auditoriums; bebop was not yet well known, and only a small group of cognoscenti could be relied on to show up for these concerts. Finally, Kay landed a major booking in May 1945 for Dizzy Gillespie at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street. Kay began to worry that he wouldn't have a sufficient audience, so he offered Sid a 50 percent cut of the proceeds in return for publicizing the show on the radio. Its great success cemented their relationship, and they subsequently produced a few major shows, including a Gillespie-Parker concert at Town Hall a few months later.

Tired of working with the 52nd Street club owners—Kay complained they had developed "a real clip-joint attitude," forcing patrons to constantly order drinks if they wanted to continue to listen to the music—the duo began looking for appropriate spots to stage bop shows. They lucked out when they met Ralph Watkins. Described by as "the Jewish Rex Harrison" because of his love of all things English, including bespoke tailored suits, Watkins was originally a saxophonist who graduated to running jazz clubs and managing artists. From the late '30s through his induction into the Army in 1943, Watkins had successfully promoted singers like Billie Holiday, pianist Art Tatum, and swing bands at Kelly's Stable, a club he co-managed. However, his partner in the operation—whose main business was a run-down cafeteria on Broadway that was also a hang-out for drug dealers and prostitutes—had let the club go to seed while Watkins away. Looking for a fresh start, Watkins was searching for a new club to operate when he was introduced to a young street hustler named Morris Levy.

Like all the others, Levy was the son of an immigrant Jewish family, although his family originated in Turkey. His father died soon after Levy's birth, and the family scraped along as best it could. Levy began working as a shoe-shine boy when he was about 12 years old, graduating to working as a hat check boy in Greenwich Village clubs—most of which were operated by the Mob. Through his connections, Levy eventually worked his way up to managing photo concessions at a string of East Coast clubs. However, he dreamed of having his own place that he could manage.

The opportunity came when a low-cost eatery, with the unusual name of Topsy's Chicken Shack, became available. Levy heard that the original owner of Topsy—a Boston based "businessman"—was looking to "sell the joint," which had a prime location on Broadway. Levy says that he interested some of his original patrons—including the mobsters who had employed him in the hat check business—to purchase the restaurant in early 1947. For a finder's fee, Levy was given a small piece of the club, but more importantly a substantial cut of the hat check business. Levy was only 19 years old at the time.

With Levy having the space and Watkins the connections, the duo opened their new club, christened the Royal Chicken Roost, in March 1948. (The "chicken" part of the name was later dropped, although the club continued to be known for its inexpensive fried chicken platters.) However, the opening night act, Jimmie Lunceford's Orchestra, failed to draw crowds—Watkins blamed one of New York's "worst blizzards" on the failure of patrons to crowd the club. Things were looking bad for Watkins and his investors. And then along came Symphony Sid and producer Kay, who approached Watkins about staging a bop concert at the Roost on a Monday night when the club was normally closed. Neither Watkins nor Levy were fans of the new bop music; in Watkins words, "I didn't know a thing about the new jazz." However, the opening night crowds were persuasive, in Watkins' words: "Such a crowd showed up that we had to call the cops. It turned the spot into a progressive jazz joint." According to Levy: "there was a line up the block. We had Dexter Gordon or Charlie Parker or Miles Davis. They did two nights a week, and then it grew to three nights a week, then six and seven nights a week.... It was really fabulous. We became the Royal Roost, the first bebop club in the city."

By August 1948, Billboard announced that the club was a major success.

The Roost quickly became a sensation, attracting a hip, young crowd to hear the latest in jazz. The club also attracted sightseers and novelty hounds interested in gawking at the latest sensation in music and fashion. By September 1948, the uninitiated spectators were so numerous that Watkins took the unusual step of publishing a free brochure introducing them to bop's musical and hipster language:

The squares who enter the Royal Roost these nights (co-owner Ralph Watkins admits that some do) are handed a brochure illuminating the mystique of be-bop. Sample excerpt from the pamphlet, titled What Is Bop?: "If you feel something when you hear be-bop, you feel something because something is there." Dig?

And: "The dominant, tonic, and the other diatonic chords in most cases are altered by adding the 6th, 9th, 11th and 13th... However, Neapolitan, French, German and Italian sixths are used extensively in an altered form."

The bemused Billboard correspondent concluded the brief notice with: "Oo-bop-sha-bam plus oo-pa-pa-da equals ool-ya-koo. See!!!"

The Roost's layout would become widely copied. Besides the normal table seating area and bar, the club installed bleacher seating, fenced in next to the bar, to hold underage fans who were too young to be served alcohol, as well as those who simply wanted to hang out without paying the necessary minimum for drinks beyond the $.99 admission fee. Another advantage was that the waiters didn't hassle the customers in the bleachers, who could stay as long as they liked without ordering a drink. As an entertainment reporter noted at the time:

Operating on the thesis that many of the most ardent of the progressive jazz fans are youngsters unable to afford even a light table tab, the Roost operates a "bleacher" section where the kids can sit unimportuned by the waiters. A 99-cent admission is charged all customers at the door... The door charge was instituted with some trepidation, but there was no customer resistance, and now Watkins considers it one of the key factors in the room's success. Not only does it encourage youngsters to patronize the place and spread the word, but usually comes close to paying the weekly entertainment nut.

The Roost's younger, hipper audience also apparently preferred a different kind of libation to the traditional hard-drinking club crowds. Watkins answered their need by installing a soda fountain in the club, and he claimed that it often took in more each night than the bar serving hard liquor.

The Roost heavily promoted its connection with bop, taking the nicknames "The Metropolitan Bopera House" and "The House that Bop Built." Notable among the concerts held there was the 1949 appearance of the Miles Davis Nonet, with arrangements byGil Evans. This group would enter the recording studios soon after this engagement to record the famous "Birth of the Cool" session. The club was so successful that Watkins announced a new record label, Royal Roost Records, to be launched in early 1949; its motto was the grandiose "The Music of the Future," aligning the enterprise with bop's forward-looking aesthetic. Among his partners was general jazz hustler Teddy Reig, who hung out at the Roost and other clubs helping arrange recording sessions for many of the boppers. Reig originally worked as a scout/producer for Savoy Records out of Newark. The Roost label's first signing was "singer Harry Belfonte [sic], who was discovered in the nitery this week [January 22, 1949] and was immediately inked for a five-week stay in the spot." The young Belafonte was not successful on record as a jazz-pop vocalist at this time, but would go on to a great career in the folk-pop field later in the '50s when he became famous for his interpretation of "The Banana Boat Song" and other hits.

Things were going very well at the Roost through early 1949, so well that its managers apparently started to look for a larger space. According to Levy, Watkins failed to cut him into the new deal which involved opening a lavish new restaurant/night club on the second floor of The Brill Building at 48th and Broadway, to be called Bop City. Although significantly larger and more expensive to operate (rent alone was quoted as being $35,000 a year), Bop City mirrored the unusual admission policies and seating arrangements of the original club:

Physical format and price policy will be similar to the Roost's. Admission will be 99 cents, with a $2 weekday and $2.50 week-end minimum at tables. A "bullpen" or bleacher section will accommodate 300, with room for 400 at tables. (Capacity of Roost is some 400 in all). There will be a milk bar [for those too young to drink alcoholic beverages] and Chinese food, in addition to ribs, chicken and sandwiches. Musical emphasis at Bop City will be on bop, progressive jazz and Afro-Cuban music...

Watkins apparently had grand plans for the new club, including installing a formal stage and hiring such class acts as modern dancer Katherine Dunham, known for incorporating Caribbean and African influences in her dance works aimed at a middle to upper class audience. He also was already thinking of franchising the Bop City name and formula in other cities.

While Watkins was moving into the big time, Levy was left to manage the Roost. Unable to compete with the better-funded Bop City enterprise to attract acts, he soon had to close the club. Also cut out were Symphony Sid and Monte Kay. Originally announced as partners in the new club, they must have had a falling out with Watkins soon after the club opened. Kay was so depressed he told writer Leonard Feather that "as soon as the ax fell on me, I went across the street to [a] little club...and got very drunk." According to Levy, Kay approached him shortly after the Bop City debut with a proposition to open a new club. This lay the seeds for one of the most celebrated clubs in all of jazz history—Birdland—but that is another story.

Adapted from Godfather of the Music Business: Morris Levy (American Made Music Series) by Richard Carlin (U Press of Mississippi), © 2016.

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