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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.

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