Jeff Gold – Sittin’ In – Jazz Clubs of the 1940s and 1950s
includes interviews with Quincy Jones, Sonny Rollins, Robin Givhan, Jason Moran and Dan Morgenstern
(Harper Design. 256 pages. Book Review by Leonard Weinreich)
Take, for example, one shameless obsessive Jeff Gold, eager to expose a personal fetish in his new publication, Sittin’ In, effectively a time capsule posing as a handsome book. Profusely illustrated with gems from Gold’s extensive collection of memorabilia, it stirs memories of the legendary jazz clubs that flourished in the U.S.A. between the 1930s and ’50s. The very first image, from the late ’40s, raises a wry smile: an autographed snap of Charlie Parker, roguish in sharp striped suit, sharing Norm and Marge’s table at the Royal Roost. Norm and Marge’s pale features register distinct cultural unease in the presence of a musical deity.
In all probability, jazz clubs owe their existence to Prohibition, the U.S. government’s monumental act of self-harm in 1920, totally banning the manufacture and sale of all alcoholic liquor, effectively handing the entire industry to organised crime. The mobsters opted for quick profit over product quality and started decanting hundreds of thousands of gallons of illicit rotgut down drinkers’ throats in illegal speakeasies. In order to divert punters’ concern about the rawness of the hooch on sale, they introduced a couple of innovations. The first was the cocktail, designed to disguise the taste of immature fire water. And the second, energetic musicians distracting attention by playing loud, peppy music. Unsurprisingly, the mob connections persisted for decades.
Murky origins, ill-tuned pianos, toxic kitchens and unspeakable loos aside, clubs still remain the best places to hear jazz performed in the flesh. More intimate than a concert hall, less athletic than a ballroom and not as alienating as headphones, jazz clubs are about directly shared experience under subdued lighting, almost always with a drink in reach.
Jeff Gold, your sure-footed club guide, starts his coast-to-coast crawl in uptown New York City. During the ’20s and ’30s, most white Manhattanites regarded Harlem, a famously African American district, as a foreign country. But Harlem clubs dangled the tantalising promises of hot music, risqué cabaret, bootleg booze and, for some, narcotic nirvana. Visits uptown were regarded as ‘slumming’, sexy, thrilling adventures. To extend the temptation of exoticism, a handful of wily club owners emphasised the African-ness of their shows, influencing Ellington’s growling ‘jungle’ style at the Cotton Club and the existence of the Ubangi club (“The Hottest Show Ever Presented in Harlem”). But popularity failed to breed respect: regardless of the fact that both Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway established their musical reputations at the Cotton Club, Owney Madden, the psychopathic hoodlum in the back office, enforced a strictly whites only admittance policy at the front door.
A few blocks away, the incomparable pianist and entertainer Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller, billed as “Harlem’s Harmful Little Armful”, regularly rocked the room at Connie’s Inn. Waller, who’d neck three fingers of rye whiskey on climbing out of bed, describing his regular breakfast as “my liquid ham and eggs”, might have been surprised that the extensive Prohibition Era menu (reproduced on page 20: “Filet Mignon: $2.00”) evaded any reference to alcoholic tipples. A curious, though understandable omission for Connie’s Inn where cocktails, rather than Waller, were the foremost attraction. Close by were Small’s Paradise, the Savoy Ballroom (“Home of Happy Feet”), the Apollo (launchpad of Ella Fitzgerald’s stellar career) and many more. Sadly, there’s only a minimal mention of Minton’s Playhouse or Monroe’s Uptown House, clubs closely associated with the genesis of bebop, but probably due to an absence of memorabilia. Time to take a yellow cab midtown.
When the crass experiment of Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, midtown New York, crucially West 52nd Street (a.k.a. ‘Swing Street’) between Fifth and Seventh Avenues, morphed into the swing and bebop hub of the universe. Over subsequent decades, courtesy of remote broadcasts, pirate pressings and musicians’ folklore, certain club names acquired mythic resonance: Birdland (modestly promoted by its mobster owners as “The Jazz Corner of The World”), the Onyx, Royal Roost, Bop City, Hickory House, Famous Door and the Three Deuces (Bird and Miles and Max Roach). All affectionately recalled in Sittin’ In’ complete with contemporary handbills and cards, evocative images of jazz masters and club snapshots of sozzled clientele, pickled for all time in industrial quantities of Chesterfield fumes, dry Martinis and Old Spice aftershave.
Further downtown in Greenwich Village, among the lofts of abstract expressionists, novelists, poets and hippies, club atmospheres grew even more alternative and louche with distant traces of reefer. Max Gordon’s spartan, though immortal, Village Vanguard (still surviving), Barney Josephson’s controversially radical Café Society (promoted as “The Right Place for the Wrong People” where Billie Holiday premiered “Strange Fruit”), the Village Gate (this reviewer’s blissful intro to NYC clubland to hear James Moody with Dizzy in 1969), the Five Spot (capacity audiences when Coltrane joined Monk), the Open Door, Café Bohemia and Eddie Condon’s (scrupulous maintenance of Chicago’s hard-boiled jazz and drinking traditions).
At this point, our heritage tour has only reached page 109. Yet there are a further 140-odd more pages of treasure trail to travel, packed with rare mementoes and photos of clubbers shedding inhibitions in Boston, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles with numerous stops in between. As a bonus, Jeff Gold interviews insiders Quincy Jones, Sonny Rollins, Robin Givhan, Jason Moran and the revered Dan Morgenstern (happy 91st birthday), ransacking their precious recollections for intriguing opinions and revelations.
Sittin’ In is the result of Gold’s magnificent obsession: an entertaining social document, an essential guide to fabled spaces and a resonant tribute to long lost joys.
Categories: Book review