Public Domain image from the Library of Congress's William P. Gottlieb Collection
Me at the same spot on 52nd Street and 6th. Ave. camera facing east
It's 1943 and you just arrived at Penn Station by train. You walk underneath the vaulted glass ceiling of the main concourse, jump into a cab and ask him to take you to "The Street." In 2014, that request would certainly earn you a weird look, but in 1943 the cabby knows exactly where you mean. After being dropped off at your destination, you proceed to a club called The Famous Door to hear Buck Clayton play with Count Basie's band. Then it's off to the Onyx to hear Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Pettiford's new group. After that, you hit two or three more clubs until you finally stumble back out into the street during the early morning hours. You have probably heard more jazz masters in one evening than most people get to hear in a lifetime today. But, in 1943, this was just a typical night out on 52nd Street.
Beginning in the mid-1930's, 52nd Street was THE destination for live jazz. This two-block strip of brownstones between Fifth and Seventh Avenues featured famous musicians in clubs with snappy names like The Spotlite and The 3 Deuces. So why did this street become the center of the jazz world during this time? The origins of nightlife on 52nd Street dates back to the 1920's when the street harbored several known speakeasies, but things really took off in the late 20's when the city eased its residential restrictions on drinking establishments in that area. By 1930, it was the hub of a vibrant midtown entertainment district. On top of that, some of the white jazz patrons who had frequented the Harlem clubs uptown began to avoid the area after the 1935 Harlem Race Riots, which made this small strip of midtown bars an ideal location for new jazz clubs.
52nd Street was unique from a musical standpoint in that it served to dissolve many of the stylistic and racial demarcations that had been so prevalent in jazz throughout the 1920's and early 1930's. Until that time, jazz in New York was primarily seen as a music performed by blacks for predominantly white audiences in uptown venues such as the Cotton Club. But in the late 1930's, things began to change. The popular revival of early New Orleans jazz rekindled an appreciation for early jazz during a time when swing was enjoying its popular heyday. All the while, the first elements of bebop were also beginning to percolate in the music. On 52nd Street, all of these styles existed together. 'Dixieland' musicians played alongside swing musicians, who played alongside bebop musicians. On any given night, you could hear the entire history of the music. Clubs were also given more freedom to allow both integrated bands and audiences, which furthered to tear down the racial boundaries of jazz.
Just as importantly, the close proximity of the clubs fostered a strong sense of musical community. Musicians would play a set at one club and walk to another to either listen to or sit in with another band, and this steady musical exchange of ideas created a sense of solidarity. Through a natural process of musical exchange, jazz performers collectively decided the direction the music would take. Young musicians had to earn the respect of their peers by playing with established masters in order to move up within the ranks of the scene.
Sadly, this master/apprentice relationship has all but dissolved away. The heyday of 52nd Street represents a time when there was an important sense of musical democracy. That's not to say there wasn't infighting within the ranks of jazz, but there was always a sense in jazz of a collective evolution. Jazz always relied on its elder statesmen to reinforce certain musical priorities in the new generation of players; things like swinging, playing the blues and telling a musical story that speaks to people. It is these elements that have always tied the different periods of jazz together. In contrast, the every-man-for-himself mentality that exists today has created a kind of stylistic anarchy. I feel strongly that without an internal system of checks and balances, we are slowly losing the underlying musical DNA of jazz that dates all the way back to Africa. But I digress.
Alas, the 52nd Street of days past only exists now in recordings and in our collective memory. As you can see from the photo at the top of this post, not even the brownstones that housed these legendary clubs still stand. All have been replaced by modern skyscrapers; that is, except for The 21 Club, which now operates as a restaurant. Fortunately, the music was captured on a few live recordings and radio broadcasts from various clubs here. So let's pretend we're back on "The Street" during its heyday, and let's peek our head into a few clubs to check out some of my favorite trumpeters of the time.
Our first stop is The Onyx Club to hear Miles Davis with Charlie Parker. This bootleg recording was made at The Onyx on July 6, 1948. Bear in mind that this is almost nine years before Davis recorded his Birth of the Cool album. At this time, he was still heavily influenced by Dizzy Gillespie. Unfortunately, this bootleg recording famously cuts out most everything but Bird's solos, so you only hear snippets of Davis's playing, but it gives a real sense of the atmosphere in the club.
Our next stop is The Yacht Club to hear Herman Autrey with Fat Waller's band. Autrey was an underrated composer and trumpeter who was mostly associated with Waller's band. This live radio broadcast from the club was made in 1938, and really gives the listener a sense of the vibrancy of a 52nd Street venue. Check out Autrey's tasteful playing behind Waller's vocals on "You Can't Be Mine."
Now it's off to the late set at The Famous Door to hear the Count Basie Orchestra. Recorded live from the club in 1939, this version of "Roseland Shuffle" features Lester Young on tenor sax. But check out Basie's trumpet section. Most likely, it would have included Buck Clayton, Harry "Sweets" Edison, Shad Collins and Ed Lewis. No trumpet section swings harder than this one!
Although many associate 52nd Street with the bebop movement, bebop didn't actually make it down to midtown until the mid-1940's. By the time Gillespie and company arrived on 52nd Street, the area was actually in the start of a slow decline. As various jazz clubs fell to the wayside, bars and strip joints began to fill in the gaps, and the reputation and character of 52nd Street began to change, bringing with it drugs and prostitution. Although the area was fading away as a musical center, bebop continued to flourish in a number of new clubs that were popping up nearby, clubs like the Royal Roost, Bop City, and Birdland. These new bebop-focused establishments catered to a largely teenage audience, and some even went as far as to install bleachers and soda fountains. Eventually, even these clubs gave way to seedier establishments, and by the late 1960's, the police began to shut things down. For a detailed account of the decline of 52nd Street, check out this post from one of my favorite blogs, "Jeremiah's Vanishing New York."
The last stop on our trip is to the original location of Birdland. The original building still stands at 1678 Broadway, just around the corner from 52nd Street. Although Birdland moved from this location back in the 1960's (first uptown, then to its current location on 44th St.), this is the original basement club where so many famous recordings were made such as John Coltrane's "Live at Birdland" and Count Basie's "Basie at Birdland." The club was famous for its master of ceremonies, the four-feet-tall, high-voiced Pee Wee Marquette, as well as for its live broadcasts by Symphony Sid, the famous disc jockey on WJZ.
As you can see from the photo to the left, the front of the building has been modernized and is now a "Gentlemen's Club." In an area completely overrun by skyscrapers and corporate chains, I must admit, I'm glad that the club has hung on through the years, even if the form of entertainment presented there has changed a bit. Better it survives as a strip club than a new Chipotle. After all, maybe some of the magic is still there in the walls behind all of those mirrors and neon lights. My dream is that someone will restore the location to its original glory one day. One can only hope. For now, I leave you with one of my favorite albums ever recorded at Birdland. This album is Art Blakey's "A Night at Birdland " and happens to feature my favorite jazz trumpeter of all time, Clifford Brown. So sit back, let Pee Wee introduce the band, and let's take a trip together back to the glory days of Birdland.