Remembering the Jazz Scene in Philadelphia

If you loved jazz and were lucky enough to grow up in the Philadelphia area in 1950s and 1960s, you must have thought you were in heaven. Who could forget Pep’s, at Broad & South Streets, the Showboat around the corner on Lombard and the Blue Note on Ridge Avenue near 22nd Street. They weren’t the only clubs where you could hear great music, but they were among the best.

What made those clubs special was the proximity between musicians and patrons. If you were sitting at the bar in the Blue Note you were about about six feet from the greatest musicians in the country, who were set up inside the bar area. And you almost as close at Pep’s and the Showboat, where the stage was close to the tables.

Nina Simone played piano at a bar at 21st or 22nd & Walnut Street for a long time, it seems, before she hit it big with her recording of ‘Porgy.’ And I’ll never forget listening to Sidney Bechet, on a rare visit from Paris, playing the soprano sax in a side room at the Academy of Music at Broad & Walnut Streets. I remember saying to a friend that if Gabriel ever heard Bechet he would throw away his horn.

Philadelphia was known for being the home of great musicians and traveling bands would often pick up sidemen when they traveled through town. If you got the chance to talk to the musicians who played at weddings or other social events in Philly, you’d often hear that he had traveled with and played in the some of the great bands of that era.

I was 16 when I went to hear Louis Armstrong and his All Stars at a matinee on Saturday at the Click between 15th and 16th on Market Street, reputed to be the longest bar in America. I was in heaven — first of all because they served me and then let me sit there for two sets. If I remember correctly, Jack Teagarden was on trombone, a young Arvell Shaw on bass, Cozy Cole on drums, Barney Bigard on clarinet, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines on piano and the singer was Velma Middleton. It doesn’t get much better than that!

What made me think about all this was an email from a friend who recommended the book ‘But Beautiful.’ I wrote back and suggested he read some (or all) of the books written by Bill Moody, a jazz drummer and author. His main character, pianist Evan Horne, will introduce you to some of the great jazz instrumentalists and throw in a little mystery at the same time. What a way to spend an evening.

Beau Weisman, Editor