Since early spring, beeping backhoes and rumbling drills have provided the soundtrack of Sharswood, where house by house, block by block, the Philadelphia Housing Authority is building a new neighborhood. A better, more stable one, they hope, by the time a planned half-billion-dollar transformation project is complete.
Closer to the way it was in the 1940s and ’50s, when the area was home to factory workers and the songs heard in the streets weren’t a chorus of construction crews, but live musicians — a lot of jazz and rhythm and blues.
The hub for it all in North Philadelphia was Cecil B. Moore Avenue — then Columbia Avenue — between roughly 12th and 19th streets.
The stretch was home to some independent businesses, but it was most notable for the dozen or so small clubs that dotted it.
Most of the performers were African-American. Some were stars, but a whole lot more were up-and-comers with a whole lot to prove.
Dizzy Gillespie got his start in Philadelphia in the 1930s. (John W. Mosley/Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection of Temple University Libraries)
“They were those finishing schools,” said Lovett Hines, artistic director of the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz. “You did your work at home, but you had to take your exams at those clubs.”
A few nights a week, people could hear twists on old standards, songs you could move to, then go to another spot next door or up the block and listen in on a jam session showcasing the newest evolution of jazz: bebop.
Think musicians such as saxophone giant Charlie Parker and trumpet legend Dizzy Gillespie, who both played the “Golden Strip” in their younger years.
For patrons, who were overwhelmingly African-American, Columbia Avenue was a place to be seen. They wore their best.
“Guys wouldn’t even sit down because they didn’t want to break the crease in their pants,” said piano player Cullen Knight. “Everybody was, what you say, hip.”
Cullen Knight recalls playing piano on the Avenue when he was just 17. (Aaron Moselle/WHYY)
Knight grew up on North 19th Street near Columbia. He started gigging on the Avenue when he was just 17, even though the law said you had to be 21. Having an older brother who was a musician helped. So did the fact that he was talented.
Knight also owned a piano, and he knew piano movers.
“So I had the job because when I left, the piano left with me,” said Knight, laughing.
Singer Don Gardner also started out young. He would play Columbia Avenue at night after working the breakfast shift as a short-order cook before high school.
Gardner, now the executive director of the Clef Club, said the musicians on Columbia Avenue were like one big family. They respected one another and doled out advice, even about women. Legendary vocalist Sarah Vaughan gave Gardner her thoughts from time to time.
“She would see me talking to certain girls, and she’d say, ‘that ain’t for you.’ So I would leave it alone and sure enough she was right. She wasn’t for me. She was messing around with dope or something else and that wasn’t my thing,” said Gardner.
Don Gardner, now the executive director of the Clef Club, remembers taking the advice of legendary Sarah Vaughan. (Aaron Moselle/WHYY)
Musicians on Columbia Avenue, and throughout the city, had to be a card-carrying member of the American Federation of Musicians, a national union.
There was a local for white musicians and a local for African-American musicians. Each club on Columbia paid a certain wage for a gig depending on a rating — A through D.
An A club could pay $15 a night; a D club, $9.
“You could rent a house for like $25 a month,” said Knight.
The times, they were a changing
Gardner left Philadelphia in the early 1960s. He lived and played in New York for a while and even Europe before returning to the city.
He visits Columbia Avenue now and then, but there’s not really much reason to anymore. All the old clubs are gone. One, Mickey’s Playhouse, is now a takeout Chinese restaurant.
“Life moves on and the world moves, and you can’t stand still like you want everything to stay like it is cause it doesn’t do that,” said Gardner.
On Columbia Avenue, now Cecil B. Moore, all the old clubs are gone. (Emma Lee/WHYY)
Hines, with the Clef Club, said Columbia Avenue’s fall as a music destination is multi-faceted. For one thing, tastes changed. By the late 1950s, jazz was no longer pop music. To the younger generation, it was grandpa music.
“The 21s and 22s and 23s are now going to the rhythm and blues and rock and rolls and the Motowns and Stax Records,” said Hines.
Those labels were known for artists such as The Temptations and Otis Redding, respectively.
Desegregation was another factor. It meant that African-Americans could now play at venues all over the city, not just in North or West Philadelphia, for example.
In 1964, an infamous race riot along Columbia Avenue put the nail in the coffin.
In late August that year, rumors of a white police officer beating a black pregnant woman swirled around North Philadelphia. Tensions had already been bubbling for months. With the allegations, they boiled over.
Over three days, dozens of white-owned stores along Columbia Avenue were looted and set on fire. Police arrested hundreds.
People gather outside a looted store next to the Web Bar during the 1964 Columbia Avenue riots. (George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Photographs/Temple University Library Digital Collection)
The next chapter
The area never truly recovered.
The Philadelphia Housing Authority wants to write a new chapter in that history by building a mixed-income community with a revitalized commercial corridor along Ridge Avenue.
The project is expected to take a decade. PHA is currently in Phase 1. It has demolished two public-housing high-rises once part of the Norman Blumberg Apartments, and is in the process of building 57 new units.
The rehab of the remaining Blumberg high-rise, the senior tower, is the final piece of this first step.
The agency is still in the process of gathering the entire $500 million it said is needed to complete the transformation. But if everything goes according to plan, officials say the neighborhood will sing like it hasn’t in years.