Growing up in Philadelphia, I heard stories from older relatives about what it was like to live in the city when music was at its high point. They’d tell me about opening the door and playing the record player loudly so that the sound could travel into the street. It was one of their favorite memories.
Many of my relatives also reflect on the impact that jazz had on the young black teenagers who would spend their paychecks on records.
Philadelphia has a long and rich history, but there are aspects of this history that are lost walking down the sidewalks of the Avenue of the Arts. As a student at the Philadelphia High School for Creative & Performing Arts, I walked along Broad Street every day to get to 15th and noticed the many bronze plaques of musicians lined up the streets near the Academy of Music. Some names are recognizable like Philadelphia’s more famous DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Roots, but others I didn’t recognize like Clifford Brown or Stan Getz.
I knew of New Orleans as the birthplace of jazz music and of the popular Cotton Club in Harlem, but the presence of jazz in Philadelphia was nonexistent to me. But like many urban cities, Philadelphia was and remains one of the cornerstones for jazz music. I was even ignorant that one of my favorite singers, Billie Holiday, was born and raised here until her teenage years.
I was shocked. I thought many of the jazz musicians that I listened to were from the South and made their way to cities like Chicago and Los Angeles for their claim to fame.
Many artists like John Coltrane, who moved from North Carolina to North Philadelphia in 1943, laid their zoot suits and voices in venues all over the city. Coltrane, a saxophonist whose career spanned from 1955 to his death at 40 in 1967, was one of the most controversial figures not only during his time, but in the genre as a whole. Coltrane, a heroin addict and alcoholic, overcame his addictions through converting from Christianity to explorations of Hinduism, Zen Buddhism and Islam. With his songs titled after spiritual practices within these religions, he became canonized as a Saint in the African Orthodox Church. His home on 1511 N. 33rd St. is now a National Historic Landmark known as the John Coltrane House.
Dizzy Gillespie, another migrant to the city from South Carolina, became one of the most prolific trumpeters in the genre with his bent trumpet. The 45-degree trumpet horn came from a time when he performed at a party for his wife and dancers fell onto it. Known for his inflamed cheeks when he performed, he pioneered many techniques in trumpet playing.
I didn’t know the importance of North Philadelphia in the jazz movement. Columbia Avenue, which is now Cecil B. Moore Avenue was one such place to hear musicians and their horns. My aunt told me jazz made North Philadelphia a lively place with weekly spriging of clubs and bars along the strip.
Another popular area for the jazz scene was South Philly. The Standard Theater, which from 1915 to 1930 stood on the 1100 block of South Street, highlighted black performers and jazz musicians.
While it was primarily an African American genre of music during this time, there was a wave of Italian South Philadelphians producing and creating jazz music, too.
I found out that the members of Union Local No. 274 of the American Federation of Musicians were responsible for the creation of one of the few jazz clubs that remain in operation. According to the Pennsylvania Historical Society, “The Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and the Performing Arts was established in 1966 as the social arm of Local No. 274, the Philadelphia Black musicians union, which was in existence from 1935 to 1971.” The club, which is located on 738 S. Broad St., boasts members like the Heath Brothers and Benny Golson who continue to produce music.
What I found especially interesting was Philadelphia Music Historian Jack McCarthy’s description of teenagers involved in the Philadelphia Jazz scene going to Music City:
“On Tuesday evenings in the mid-1950s, young jazz enthusiasts from all over the city would gather inside the popular music store. … Some came to jam, while others sat back and listened to intimate performances by major players of the era.”
Jazz became prevalent in Philadelphia through the large amounts of African Americans traveling from the South up to the North during the early to mid-20th century. Hearing stories about how my grandmother’s friends would make singing quartets and play the trombone in West Philadelphia made me curious about the “Philadelphia Sound.”
“If you weren’t down, you were square,” I learned. These discussions of jazz inspired me to explore what some consider a lost form. Through the jazz radio station sponsored by Temple, WRTI (90.1 FM) to the annual Center City Jazz Festival, Philadelphia has kept the history and culture of jazz alive.
For me, listening to jazz is an experience that is not created by one person. There is the singer, the instrumentalists and the people around me enjoying the music that makes jazz a community and a group of artists.
Jaya Montague can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org