Fulbright riffs, 1991 — day 25, Sunday June 23rd

After three days without music, today’s jazz immersion is inevitable. The 200 yard sprint to catch the 9:19 into Hoboken will cost me dearly later, but worth it if I am to make urban historian Val Ginter’s jazz walk, meeting up at 10.30 on legendary 52nd Street. The infrequency of the Sunday PATH service forces me to take a cab to get there on time.

The walk lasts two and a half hours, beginning at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, next to where the Maple Leaf Ballroom used to be [that’s what I wrote down, but can’t find any reference to this establishment outside Toronto!]. We proceed westwards along 52nd Street where jazz clubs flourished from the 1930s until the late 1940s, but by the end of 1949 they were all strip joints. Bebop came to the Street first at the Onyx (at various addresses along the 52nd over time), with Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Pettiford and Don Byas. On the corner of West 48th and Broadway is Healey’s Balconate. In the basement were the Palais Royale (venue for Paul Whiteman and various Harlem acts of the 1930s) and the Royal Roost, the first modern-style jazz club and where Gil Evans and Miles Davis evolved a cooler brand of jazz. Nothing remains of these places. At the site of the Cinderella Ballroom, a plaque marks the New York debut of Bix Beiderbecke. It is possible that the famous Kentucky Club is now occupied by the Brill Building (aka Tin Pan Alley under one roof).

Next door to Brill was Bop City, dubbed the “jazz center of the world”. The Roseland Ballroom’s first location at Broadway and West 51st is now [i.e. in 1991] City Squires, a car park above ground, but it was also the location for Basin Street East where Dave Brubeck did some of his most celebrated gigs. Monte Kay’s Birdland is now Flash Dancers (with hot oil wresting) pending closure.

Site of Birdland jazz club, complete with grosseur’s apostrophe

Opposite Birdland, Lester Young’s last hotel room or apartment. Black musicians had their Clef Club fraternity nearby.

Alwyn Court

Across from Carnegie Hall on 7th Avenue is the wonderful Alwyn Court, its French-inspired terracotta ornamentation the most elaborate in the city. Down 9th Avenue is the Windermere Apartments block, the oldest in Manhattan, which receives many complaints from tenants. Next we come to the second location of the DeWitt Clinton High School (now in the Bronx) where Fats Waller attended, and finally one of the Phipps tenement blocks (of the few remaining) where Thelonious Monk lived as a virtual recluse.

I talked with several people on the walk, notably Louise who was attracted by my spoken accent. She is also going to the free jazz festival in Damrosch Park and we go there together. Louise is a Manhattan resident and works in the garment district as a colour co-ordinator. We arrive at the venue early and get seats near the front, about 1o0 feet from the stage.

The Microscopic Septet leads off, then the Donald Harrison Quintet (Bruce Cox, Phil Bower, Rodney Jones and Cirrus Chestnut). Harrison wears a sharp, yellow suit and plays a great Body and Soul.

Donald Harrison plays Body and Soul

Steve Lacy’s Sextet includes Irene Aebi on violin and vocals, which the large group of black audience members in front of us find laughable, calling out that they should come uptown to hear some real music. Steve Potts played particularly well and the whole performance, though short, was the best I’ve heard yet from this ensemble.

Steve Lacy Sextet

David Murray’s Quartet virtually stole the show, with Bud Williams on piano, Fred Hopkins and Andrew Cyrille, playing mostly the same numbers I’d heard them play at Condon’s. Murray’s solo break on the penultimate number brings the audience to its feet.

Arthur Blythe (blue shirt and sax), Kirk Lightsey on piano, Reggie Workman on bass

Murray was a hard act for Arthur Blythe to follow but he plays like an angel, accompanied by Kirk Lightsey, Cecil McBee and Reggie Workman. Their set includes familiar numbers from Blythe’s and The Leaders’ 1980s albums. Lightsey gets my vote for best piano solo of the afternoon.

I meet Barry McRae from Jazz Journal International in the audience and he persuades me to accept a free ticket that same evening to Bobby Short’s New York, New York at Carnegie Hall. It sounds to me like it will be middle-class Manhattan wallowing in nostalgia, but Louise encourages me to accept, describing Short as a society darling, a pianist/entertainer in the Noel Coward mould. He had an affair with Gloria Vanderbilt and also championed and promoted Afro-American composers such as Andy Razaf and Eubie Blake.

It’s great to be inside Carnegie Hall for what turns out to be a kind of variety performance. Two pianists, Dick Hyman and British-born Derek Smith (fixed grins throughout) tinkled their way through sugary arrangements of old songs (“This one’s for the late Lady Day”) while Harry Sweets Edison proved that the best things come in small sizes where jazz solos are concerned. Urbie Green adds fine slide. Ruth Brown bounces on with a risqué number about second-hand furniture. Margaret Whiting seems to have trouble with her underwear. The Amherst Saxophone Quartet from Buffalo are nice and precise while Bobby Short, smartly ambassadorial, comperes the show: “I love this town”, he exclaims, clasping his hands together. Cutting edge jazz it is not, but it demonstrates the diversity of jazz music in New York and the deep respect for its legacy and heritage. Did I mention that the house was nearly full?

Back to Maplewood on the 11:47, very tired, with a song or two in my head and very sore feet. And smug in the knowledge that the whole outing cost me just $8!