Stories from PA History
Jazz in Pennsylvania
Jazz in Pennsylvania
Chapter Two: Jazz in Philadelphia and Towns Across the Commonwealth

Thousands stand before the Lincoln Memorial, gathered around the reflecting pool.
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Marian Anderson (lower left) sings on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to more...
Early twentieth-century Philadelphia boasted the largest African-American population north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Educated, black elite groups of caterers, skilled craftsmen, and personal service workers supported a rich musical culture, especially in the areas of classical and religious music. Black Philadelphians' musical heritage dated back to the 1830s when trumpeter markerFrank Johnson's band thrilled audiences with syncopated marches and quadrilles of his own composition. Johnson's band proved as popular in England, where in 1838 it gave a command performance to Queen Victoria.
Ethel Waters, "America's foremost ebony comedienne," 1928.

By the late 1800s, black Philadelphians supported their own symphony orchestra and choral societies. African-American music teachers and singers who learned their craft in church choirs performed music ranging from the gospel compositions of local minister markerCharles Albert Tindley to the works of Bach. Philadelphia's markerMarian Anderson, who sang as a child in South Philadelphia's Union Baptist Church, would go on to become one of the great operatic contraltos of the twentieth century.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the church and concert-based musical culture of black Philadelphians was challenged by the popularity of a new, high-energy, up-tempo, loud, and improvisational music coming up from the South. At first, respectable church-going families looked down upon "jazz," but the music had a life of its own, and its performers and audiences had little use for what they considered antiquated notions of respectability.

Head and shoulders profile portrait.
Standard Theater owner John T. Gibson, circa 1919.
In the 1920s, jazz became the soundtrack for the revolution in manners and morals that was sweeping the nation. In New York's Harlem, South Philadelphia, the south side of Chicago, Pittsburgh's Hill District and other northern cities, urban African Americans known as the New Negroes were finding expanded opportunities and new identities. One of the first singers to give voice to this new generation was Chester, Pennsylvania's Ethel Waters, the first recording star of the African-American-owned Black Swan Record Company.

In the African-American-owned markerStandard and markerDunbar theatres on South Street, Waters, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and other jazz and blues stars performed their music for black and white audiences. The Standard and Dunbar were stops on a circuit of African-American theaters that brought the best of black touring shows marker to their cities. For African-American musicians, playing the New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. circuit became known as "going around the world."

Joe Venuti, in a suit, playing a violin in front of a microphone.
Jazz violinist Joe Venuti, circa 1945.
In the 1920s jazz and the blues attracted a mix of America's peoples. Between 1880 and 1920 more than twenty million southern and eastern Europeans immigrated to America.  Kids of every ethnic background were also drawn to the new music. Philadelphia's Italian and Jewish neighborhoods produced a number of outstanding jazz musicians. In South Philadelphia, two classically-trained, Italian youths started jazz improvisations during the 1910s. In doing so, markerJoe Venuti and markerEddie Lang created something new, the guitar/violin quartet, and a sound with relentless swing and universal appeal.

A generation later, West Philadelphia's Jan Savitt, a child prodigy on the violin, abandoned classical music for swing. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Savitt and his Top Hatters toured with South Philadelphia's George "Bon Bon" Tunnell, one of the first African-American vocalists to sing regularly with a prominent white band. Out of Philadelphia's ethnic neighborhoods also emerged legendary teachers Adolph and Dennis Sandole, pianist Jimmy Amadie, Bebop trumpeter Robert "Red Rodney" Chudnick, and saxophonist Stan Getz, a brilliant performer, now best remembered for his explorations of Brazilian music.

Four band members, all dressed in white, posing with their various instruments.
Eddie Lang, on guitar, with The Mound City Blue Blowers, 1924.
Situated less than 100 miles from the entertainment capital of the nation, Philadelphia saw many of its best African-American and white musicians move to New York. Rex Stewart, Charlie Gaines, Doc Cheatham, and Wilbur and Sidney De Paris all made their way to New York by way of Philadelphia. During the first half of the twentieth century, however, the city's hotels, restaurants, clubs, and theaters provided steady employment for musicians.

Of Philadelphia's white dance bands the most popular and longest lived was led by Howard Lanin, "The King of Society Music." Lanin's non-stop arrangements of show tunes, waltzes, and sweet jazz proved so successful that he franchised his music, setting up orchestras fronted by his brothers. After moving to New York, younger brother Sam Lanin became a major band broker for dozens of record companies, setting up players, recording dates, and radio broadcasts for hundreds of makeshift orchestras that recorded the popular tunes of the day. Lanin orchestras helped start the careers of Red Nichols, Artie Shaw, the Dorsey brothers, and other white jazz musicians.


In the 1920s and 1930s phonograph records and radio carried jazz into homes throughout the Commonwealth and the nation.  Tyrone, Pennsylvania's markerFred Waring left the engineering program at Penn State in 1922 to become the leader of one of the most popular white jazz bands of the 1920s, In Shenandoah, a small town in Pennsylvania's northeast coal country, markerJimmy and Tommy Dorsey learned the clarinet and trombone from their father. But it was radio broadcasts from New York and Philadelphia that allowed them, and a young markerLes Brown in Reinerton, a small town north of Harrisburg, to hear the big band sounds to which they would later become major contributors. When record sales collapsed at the beginning of the Great Depression, Americans turned to radio for their music. Radio broadcasts gave rise to new musical celebrities, created the audiences for live music and set the musical agenda for the nation.

Billie Holiday is silhouetted on stage in a white dress against a black background.
Billie Holiday
Jazz has always been an improvisational and constantly evolving music. A new wave of African-American migration to Philadelphia during the Second World War helped set the stage for a jazz renaissance in the City of Brotherly Love. Jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, markerJohn Coltrane, and the Heath Brothers all came to Philadelphia from the Carolinas. The legendary markerBillie Holiday was born in the city. The musical ferment of the 1940s and 1950s in Philadelphia was similar to the explosion of jazz and pop music in the 1920s, especially within the black community, as bassist Reggie Workman, whose parents owned a restaurant at 54th and Haverford, in West Philadelphia, audio remembered.

"During those days, you could walk right down the street and there's music coming out all day Saturday afternoon, and every night that you pass from the corner tavern. The jukeboxes were doing music. The kind of music you heard on the radio was quite significant and different from what you hear today. Relatives practicing music at your house. The whole social fiber related to more music than it does today.... It was serious. It was popular. It was honorable because it was a part of our culture. It was what everybody loved at that time. . . People who would come to the restaurant and eat, could sing every lyric and every song on the jukebox."

Dizzy Gillespie and his orchestra.
Dizzy Gillespie and his orchestra, ca. 1950.
By the 1940s a vibrant club and bar scene had emerged in South Philly, in clubs like Pep's and the markerClef Club, and in North Philly, where a string of bars and clubs sprang up along a strip of Columbia Avenue. Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Oliver, John Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Percy Heath, Cal Massey, Benny Golson, Philly Joe Jones, Clifford Brown, Wilbur Ware, Hassan ibn Ali, Jimmy Smith, Bill Barron, Hank Mobley and Jimmy Bailey all found steady work playing music in Philadelphia. And all of them became major players in the Bebop revolution of those years.

It was during the Second World War when a new kind of playing, called Bebop, emerged in New York and revolutionized jazz. Moving away from the big, tightly orchestrated bands of the swing era, musicians playing in small ensembles were developing a music that was cool, edgy and highly improvisational. New York may have been the center of Bebop, but Philadelphia played a vital role, as saxophonist Odean Pope recalled.

"I think the first time I heard Trane was around 1954. There was a place on 12th Street called the Woodbine Club. During that period people like Jimmy Oliver, Jimmy Heath, Red Garland, Shuggie Rose, Philly Joe Jones, those were the pioneer musicians during that period. And it was a place, an after hours place where they had entertainment, say from say twelve o'clock until around five in the morning. That was like Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It was a sort of collaboration place where all of the musicians would come and exchange ideas and jobs. So this particular night it was Hassan Ibn Ali, Donald Bailey – some very fine percussion. They had sort of invited me along to go with them. And Trane, Jimmy Oliver, Jimmy Heath, Wilbur Cameron, Bill Barron, all of the musicians came there after they got off work and that was the most enlightened experience in my whole life, I think, of seeing so many wonderful musicians come together collectively and exchange ideas as well as perform."

Odean Pope would go on to become one of the musicians who made up the next generation of Philly's jazz legacy, as were pianists McCoy Tyner, Kenny Barron, and Dave Burrell, trumpeters Lee Morgan and Ted Curson, bassists Jimmy Garrison, Reggie Workman, and Charles Fambrough, saxophonists Archie Shepp, Grover Washington, Jr., and Byard Lancaster, and drummers Rashied Ali, Albert 'Tootie' Heath and Sunny Murray.

A young Dick Clark is seated in the front row of an audience of young people, next to a smiling Bobby Rydell.
American Bandstand host Dick Clark speaking with singer Bobby Rydell in front...
In the 1940s and 1950s, Bebop was a popular music with broad appeal. By the 1960s, jazz innovators were moving into new, more esoteric directions and losing their audiences to new forms of popular music. Pop music in the 1960s drew strongly on the gospel music of the black churches. Philadelphia, since the days of Reverend Charles Albert Tindley, had been a creative center of that music. The Clara Ward Singers had been based in Philadelphia since the 1930s. In the early 1940s, the Dixie Hummingbirds, a nationally renowned male gospel quartet, came to live in Philly. In the 1950s black teenagers standing on corners, in parks and under streetlights were giving birth to a new African-American musical invention, a smooth style of vocal harmonizing, often performed a cappella, known to its practitioners as Do-wop.

Do-wop soon shared the stage with Rhythm & Blues, Soul, and Rock & Roll. Philadelphia played a major role in the emergence of these musical movements as well. In October 1952, the televised music and dance show markerAmerican Bandstand brought the sounds of Philadelphia performers, combined with the dances of its teenagers, to the nation. Bandstand remained in Philadelphia until 1964, when the show moved to Los Angeles. Solomon Burke, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Howard Tate, Bobby Rydell, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells, Teddy Pendergrass with Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, Chubby Checker and Lorraine Ellison all hailed from Philly. Soul producer Jerry Ragovoy came from the city, as did Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble, who would later go on to define the "Philadelphia Sound" of the 1970s with their Philadelphia International Records.
Grover Washington Jr. and Kenny Burrell Playing their horns.
A historic concert reviving the blue Note label brought  guitarist Kenny...

In the mid-1960s Philadelphia also became home to one of the most unusual composer/arrangers in the history of jazz: the great Sun Ra. Born in Alabama in 1914, Herman Blount worked as an arranger for the great Fletcher Henderson band. In the early 1950s, Blount changed his name to Sun Ra and organized an avant-garde big band, the Solar Myth Arkestra, which he would lead for close to forty years. In the mid-1960s Sun Ra and his band moved into a row house in Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood. In the following decades he attracted dozens of virtuoso players who were thrilled to play his celestial compositions and live in a musicians' commune, unique in American history. As the great saxophonist John Gilmore once remarked, "Where else can you be around a cat who is writing not one, not two, but three or four arrangements a DAY – and one is badder than the next?"

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, jazz is once again entering a new period of musical synthesis and experimentation. Philadelphia continues to boast more than its share of innovators and virtuosos, including Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Bobby Zankel, Uri Caine, Ahmir Thompson and many others. With its rich musical cultures and vibrant jazz scene, Philadelphia promises to build upon its rich history as a center of jazz innovation.

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