The clubs where modern jazz was born.

New York City, while always the main mecca of jazz, enjoyed a period of full flower during World War II that will likely never be seen again in any genre or town. Prior to the war, jazz had been an uptown thing, flourishing in small, integrated Harlem clubs, segregated cabarets and black dance palaces like the Savoy Ballroom. While America’s pop music—white Swing—flourished downtown and across the country, its African-American cousins—black Swing and genuine jazz—operated in relative anonymity well north of Central Park. Adventurous white music fans were generally welcome at Harlem night spots, and where crowds mixed freely, the clubs were known as “black and tans”. Harlem’s Cotton Club, in contrast—while employing exclusively black entertainment and help—banned African-Americans from entering the club as customers. In an earlier era, this might have been tolerated or at least met with grimacing indifference, but growing dissatisfaction among African-Americans—especially those in Harlem—soon began to hint at the changes to come.

As war raged in Europe and China, and the American economy slowly picked up as the United States began to arm for its inevitable turn as combatants, New York’s jazz scene began to move south towards midtown Manhattan. Incidents over police brutality, a couple of well-publicized “race riots” and growing intolerance by neighborhood residents over the policies of places like the Cotton Club all conspired to drive customers out of Harlem as the 1940’s dawned. Whites, who had previously had little hesitation about clubbing in Harlem, began to fear the consequences of going into what was now seen as hostile territory. Blacks, who owned many of the smaller venues, couldn’t survive without the white trade, so it became a lose-lose situation for all involved in the Harlem music scene. Even the Savoy, which had been packed all through the worst years of the Depression, saw business dwindle as even the African-American customers began staying home.

After December 7, 1941, with America at war, New York became the crossroads of the world as soldiers, sailors and civilian travelers of all kinds flooded the city’s ports and train stations on their way to and from overseas duties and various stateside opportunities. This influx of people threw the city into a 24 hour-a-day hum, with hotels and bars packed seven days a week. Suddenly, there was work enough for everyone—even jazz musicians—and the little pocket of clubs that had always seemed to exist on 52nd Street near Broadway suddenly ballooned to several dozen, all playing jazz. The fact that jazz flourished commercially during this brief moment says almost nothing about the marketability of the music, however. Unfortunately, it speaks more to the thirst of weary tourists and servicemen for any sort of entertainment, and the crowds showed up at least as much for the booze and the broads as for the bands. It was all over by about 1950, as strip joints and heroin disemboweled the neighborhood, but while it lasted, the midtown New York jazz scene was like nothing else in the history of creative music.

The clubs on 52nd Street included Jimmy Ryan’s and Kelly’s Stable, both of which specialized in more traditional jazz, and the Onyx, where John Kirby’s band held sway for many years, but which also hosted piano players like Art Tatum. The Famous Door, one of the older clubs on what became known simply as “The Street”, was notable for being the venue where Count Basie’s band first revealed its talents to New Yorkers in 1938. The Three Deuces famously hosted early boppers like Charlie Parker, and all manner of jazz and early rhythm & blues acts. A block down was the Hickory House, which survived as a piano jazz venue into the 1950’s. Nearby, on Broadway, were the larger modern jazz havens that opened after the war, such as Birdland and the Royal Roost. There were literally dozens of other, smaller venues in this immediate neighborhood, all of which booked jazz acts.

One thing did survive in Harlem during the earliest years of the war: the after-hours venues frequented by the edgiest young black musicians and their most adventurous admirers. Two in particular, Minton’s Playhouse and Clark Monroe’s Uptown House, are particularly noteworthy in that they hosted the jam sessions that directly and unequivocally created post-war modern jazz. Players from famous dance bands would show up after their paying jobs to jam all night, and an utterly new jazz vocabulary was invented in this free, competitive environment of absolute creativity. Guitarist Charlie Christian, pianist-composer Thelonious Monk, drummer Kenny Clarke and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie were the most frequent and most influential participants, but others, such as Don Byas, Joe Guy, Ken Kersey and Clyde Hart all made significant contributions to what must have seemed like an innocently casual jam environment to most listeners. By the end of 1943, the uptown experiment was over, and this new music had moved to 52nd Street, where the world would soon hear it. We’ve gathered some images of these venues for your perusal and enjoyment, with descriptions below the photos.


Minton’s Playhouse (at left) just after its glory years as the breeding ground of modern jazz. Back for an apparent visit are, from left, Thelonious Monk, trumpeters Howard McGhee and Roy Eldridge, and an unidentified friend. The shot of 52nd Street at right shows the entrance to The Famous Door at its second location, and the original Onyx. Note that John Kirby’s Sextet and singer Lee Wiley are at the Onyx, and Teddy Wilson is at The Famous Door. This is most likely from 1943 or 1944.


Two shots of the Three Deuces. At left, we see it in 1948, during a Charlie Parker stint there. If you read the sandwich board on the sidewalk, you’ll note that they even posted his band’s personnel for passers-by. In this case, it’s the very young Miles Davis, drummer Max Roach, pianist Duke Jordan and bass player Tommy Potter. As was customary, an intermission act was usually booked to keep patrons from wandering off to other bars. In this case, it’s vibraphonist Margie (or, as she preferred, “Marjie”) Hyams and her band, which most likely included either Billy Bauer or Mundell Lowe on guitar. The photo at right, which is probably from right around the same time, shows a less avant-garde bill of saxophonist Georgie Auld and blues shouter Wynonie Harris.


At left, we see Birdland, many years after its heyday, probably around 1960. Named in honor of Charlie Parker, Birdland ultimately banned him from even entering the club after too many incidents of extremely bad behavior involving heroin and alcohol. At right, we see an interior shot of Jimmy Ryan’s. From left to right, the band is trombonist Wilbur DeParis, pianist Sammy Price, Wilbur’s great and underrated brother Sidney DeParis on trumpet, Edmund Hall on clarinet and an unknown bassist. This photo is most probably from the early war years.


Charlie Parker at the Royal Roost. Date is unknown to us, but judging by Parker’s weight (or lack of it), which ballooned after his first attempt at kicking his heroin habit, it’s probably no later than 1948. New York disc jockey Symphony Sid Torin did frequent remote radio broadcasts from here, and Bird was a frequent featured artist. Barely visible on the back wall of the club is the sign indicating the Roost’s nickname: “The Metropolitan Bopera House”.


William Gottlieb’s great chrome photo of 52nd Street, in 1947. In addition to getting a feel for just how many clubs were in a single city block, we can see that Art Tatum is in town, and that Erroll Garner has his first, great trio at The Three Deuces, featuring Detroit drummer J. C. Heard and the great Oscar Pettiford on bass. Jimmy Ryan’s and The Famous Door are visible, as is the first strip club on the street, Club Samoa, which catered to gullible servicemen during the war. Although they were light on jazz, the classiest spot—and the one where celebrities drank—was Leon and Eddie’s, seen on the left side of the street, farthest from the camera. Also visible on the left is The Onyx, in the last of several locations it occupied.

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