In Plain Sight

Part One: Jazz Roots in the Outer Boroughs

In Plain Sight brings together some of the collections, communities, and repositories that have been overlooked or absent from the jazz legacies of New York and New Jersey. The institutions and collections featured in this exhibit are in plain sight — unobscured and unhidden — thanks to archivists, librarians, curators, musicians, jazz historians, and community members who work tirelessly to preserve our jazz cultural past for future generations.

Part One: Jazz Roots in the Outer Boroughs explores the rich jazz cultural heritage of Queens, Brooklyn, and the New York Jewish-American community. The exhibit highlights collections housed at Queens Public Library, Weeksville Heritage Center, and the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Several of the featured collections attempt to capture the living memory of local community members in the form of oral histories. These collaborative projects between local communities and institutions demonstrate the value of preserving legacies that otherwise might become forgotten.

Queens, New York

During the era of segregation in the 20th century, the New York City borough of Queens became haven for many prominent African American Jazz musicians. The Queens residential neighborhood of Addisleigh Park (St. Albans), known for its large colonial style single-family homes, had once prohibited African Americans from purchasing property, as it was originally intended for affluent whites only. However, in the 1920s, the African American jazz pianist and composer, Clarence Williams broke the mold by purchasing a home in the neighborhood and convinced other jazz musicians, including fellow jazz pianist James P. Johnson, to do the same. Soon other prominent African Americans such as Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie moved to Addisleigh Park so they could enjoy the community of the jazz scene that was thriving in Manhattan within the comforts of a quiet suburban neighborhood.

“The Queens jazz trail.” 1998. Illustration by Tony Millionaire. Courtesy Queens Public Library.

Of note in Queens Public Library’s digital collections is the above full-color illustrated map of this vibrant neighborhood that became home to many famed African American jazz musicians, composers, and singers. Commissioned by Flushing Town Hall and designed with an enthusiastic audience in mind, the map depicts homes of jazz legends living in Addisleigh Park and other Queens-area residential neighborhoods. It also illustrates jazz venues and other places of interest.

Queens Public Library’s Ken the Photographer Image Collection includes the photos of Ken Harris, a Jamaica, Queens-born photographer. The photographs in this collection chart important events and people in the African American community that Harris photographed over his lifetime, capturing numerous musicians, celebrities, and political figures, including the singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone.

“Nina Simone in Performance.” Ken the Photographer Image Collection. Undated. Photographer Ken Harris. Courtesy Queens Public Library.

The Queens Public Library also collects personal histories, photographs, and other records of contemporary life in Queens through its project Queens Memory. The Queens Memory oral history interview below documents local jazz figures and communities and features a local Latin jazz drummer Raleigh (Curly) Hall. As a young man, Hall formed a Latin jazz band with his neighbor and fellow drummer, Milford Graves, and later performed at various venues including the Audubon ballroom in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. In the interview, Hall discusses his musical influences and his experiences as a drummer for a local dance studio.

Brooklyn, New York

Weeksville Heritage Center is a multidisciplinary museum dedicated to preserving the history of the 19th century African American community of Weeksville, Brooklyn. Weeksville Heritage Center’s mission is to document, preserve and interpret the history of African American communities in Weeksville, Brooklyn and beyond, and to create and inspire innovative, contemporary uses of African American history through education, the arts, and civic engagement.

“Brooklyn Jazz Drive around.” 2008. The Weeksville Lost Jazz Shrines of Brooklyn Collection. Courtesy of the Weeksville Heritage Center. From left to right: Jitu Weuisi, Maxine Gordon and Randy Weston pictured standing in front of the Weeksville Houses.

The Weeksville Lost Jazz Shrines of Brooklyn (WLJSB) collection documents jazz history in Central Brooklyn. Linking Lost Jazz Shrines is a Weeksville Heritage Center and Semantic Lab at Pratt collaboration investigating the application of linked open data technologies methods to the Weeksville Lost Jazz Shrines of Brooklyn (WLJSB) oral history collection. Through this collaboration, Linking Lost Jazz Shrines will enrich and expand the Linked Jazz network with the contribution of additional jazz musicians, music groups, and venues.

Brooklyn is the birthplace of jazz musicians Max Roach and Randy Weston (pictured above). Roach (1924–2007), a jazz drummer and composer, was a pioneer of bebop music. He worked with jazz legends such as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Sonny Rollins. Weston (1926–2018) was a jazz pianist and composer whose musical style was influenced by Thelonius Monk and Duke Ellington. Throughout his career, Weston explored the link between West African Music and jazz. He traveled to many African countries, and lived for several years in Morocco.

Brooklyn is also home to prominent jazz venues such as the Blue Coronet, Kingston Lounge, Club La Marchal, and Putnam Central. These venues hosted performances by Miles Davis, Jitu Weusi, JoAnn Cheatham, Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie, Randy Weston, and other famous musicians.

“Randy Weston standing in front of The Kingston’s Lounge during the taping of the Brooklyn Jazz Drive Around.” 2008. The Weeksville Lost Jazz Shrines of Brooklyn Collection. Courtesy of the Weeksville Heritage Center.

The WLJSB comprises several oral history interviews with prominent Brooklyn musicians. In the following interviews, Randy Weston, Ed Stoute, Sam Pinn, Reggie Workman, and Jimmy Morton discuss lesser known jazz sites in Brooklyn, including the Universal Temple, Berry Brother, K& C Lounge, Moulin Rouge, Tip Top Inn, Club 243, and Black Theatres in Brooklyn.

In the following WLJSB interviews, Jitu Weusi talks about his early memories of jazz music and how he met Nina Simone and Thelonius Monk while working as a waiter at Village Gate. Weusi (1939–2013) was a prominent member of the Brooklyn community. He was an activist for social justice, an educator, jazz promoter, and co-founder of The East, a non-western ideology centered community education and arts organization for people of African descent. The East’s jazz venue hosted performances by notable jazz musicians such as Randy Weston, Leon Thomas, and Sun Ra.

Weusi also helped found the Uhuru Sasa School (Freedom Now School), a private school centered in African history and heritage. He was instrumental in the formation of the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium and the International African Art Festival.

New York Jewish American Community

Jewish Americans were also part of the jazz community in New York City. Many influential bandleaders and musicians, including Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Buddy Rich, were Jewish American.

The YIVO Institute for Jewish Research is a research institute, institution of higher learning, adult education organization, cultural organization, and world-renowned library and archive specializing in eastern European Jewish history and Yiddish culture. YIVO Institute’s Joseph and Lara Cherniavsky collection documents the musical careers of Joseph and Lara Cherniavsky, Jewish American immigrants and composers. The collection (circa 1910–1940s) includes photographs from Tsarist Russia and the United States, correspondence, music manuscripts, published sheet music, programs, reviews, and posters.

“Cherniavsky with a group of prominent Jewish writers and poets in New York City.” Circa late 1920s or early 1930s. Joseph and Lara Cherniavsky Collection. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Joseph Cherniavsky was born in 1894 in Ukraine into a family of klezmorim (Jewish folk musicians). He studied cello in the St. Petersburg Conservatory and joined the Zimro Jewish Chamber Orchestra, a Jewish-Russian sextet that blended classical chamber music and Jewish folk melodies. Cherniavsky went on tour with the Zimro Jewish Chamber Orchestra to Siberia, China, Japan, the Dutch Indies, and eventually to the United States where, in 1918, they played at Carnegie Hall. The group disbanded in 1922 and Cherniavsky settled into New York where he became a conductor and composer for the New York Yiddish theater.

“Cherniavsky and a performer at rehearsal, as photographed by the studio of noted New York glamour photographer John de Mirjian.” Undated. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

During the “Jazz Age” of the 1920s and 1930s, jazz music and dance gained nation-wide popularity. It was during this period that it became popular for African American and Jewish American musicians to blend klezmer and jazz music. Klezmer’s style and sound made it naturally adaptable to jazz. Cab Calloway’s Utt da Zay (The Tailor’s Song) is an example of this hybridization.

After settling in New York, Joseph Cherniavsky’s music became influenced by jazz, as well. In the 1920s, he became the bandleader for the Yiddish American Jazz Band, as well as founded and led the Chasidic Band, which performed Chasidic songs in a jazz style for such songs as Cherniavsky’s Oi, vai, Titina (Oh Titina).

“Cherniavsky and his ‘Boy Meets Girl’ orchestra in New York City.” Circa early 1940s. “ Joseph and Lara Cherniavsky Collection. Courtesy of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

In part two of In Plain Sight we will explore the rise in popularity of jazz and its influence on academia and the visual arts, with featured collections including the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, the Jazz Loft, Whitney Museum, and the Al Hirschfeld foundation.

Thank you to all the contributors of the digital exhibit, Natalie Millbrodt and Dacia Metes (Queens Public Library), Obden Mondesir (Weeksville Heritage Center), and Hallel Yadin (YIVO Institute for Jewish Research). Thank you to Amye McCarther, Emily Andresini, and Stephanie Neel of The Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York (ART) for your guidance and support.

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Diane Biunno

Diane Biunno

Metadata Archivist at the Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University