The Effect of 52nd Street in New York on Jazz Between 1920-1950
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The term “Jazz” has become a common part of the American vernacular, both as a noun to describe a type of music and as a verb to describe something that is fancy or enhanced beyond the norm, such as a “jazzed up” car or even another piece of music. For all of the free use of the term Jazz, however, very few people have likely given much thought, or taken the time to realize, exactly where the musical genre of Jazz came from, where it blossomed, and who helped it to do so. Controversial from its inception, often reviled in the mainstream press, but loved by a huge number of people of many different races and backgrounds, Jazz has had the power to ironically entertain, inspire, and offend simultaneously. Interestingly enough, however, this musical genre is generally accepted as being a truly American musical style, and from it, many other musical styles have been born, blended, and augmented. All of this can be better appreciated by even the most casual music fan by looking closer at Jazz history and the highlights of it.
Upon taking a closer look at Jazz history, prominent sources on the topic universally agree that 52nd Street in New York, from the 1920s to the 1950s, was the place and time of the heyday of Jazz (Porter, Reed, Shaw). With this in mind, this paper will take a trip back in time to the Jazz clubs of 52nd Street during that pivotal time, discuss and identify the prominent artists of the time, and also discuss Bebop, a close musical relative of Jazz. Upon conclusion of this research, the reader will have gained a higher understanding/appreciation, for this music.
A “Visit” to 52nd Street, Circa 1920-1950
In order to fully understand, and appreciate, the circumstances of the Jazz period of 1920-1950 in New York, ultimately coming to rest on 52nd Street, it is necessary to take a trip back in time to that era and learn exactly how/why Jazz came to locate where it did.
Originally, from the New York standpoint, Jazz was largely found in the clubs, bars and bistros of Harlem, which at that time was almost exclusively populated by African Americans, but visited frequently by whites who, intrigued by this new music they had been hearing so much about, ventured into parts of New York that were previously foreign to them (Tirro). Over time, however, the music grew in popularity to the point where its fan base extended beyond African Americans to even more white audiences of Uptown Manhattan, aiding to some extent in the relaxation of racial barriers, something that was quite rare up to that time (Shaw). A noted expert on the topic of the Jazz clubs of 52nd Street, New York, summed up the location and logistics of the clubs of the era as follows:
“ (Jazz clubs were)A monochrome of five-story brownstone buildings in whose drab and cramped street level interiors – once known as English Basements – there were more clubs, bars, and bistros than crates in an overstocked warehouse. Known in its heyday as Swing Street or Swing Alley, the street actually included the block past the elevated Sixth Avenue, now the Avenue of the Americas. The clubs on the westerly block…were always like the back of the orchestra in theater.” (Shaw, p. 3).
Seemingly teeming with Jazz clubs, 52nd Street of New York, beginning in the 1920s, can fairly be considered the breeding ground for the move of Jazz from being exclusively isolated to one racial group into others, as well as a geographic move to another part of a major American city. So popular and powerful were the Jazz clubs at this time, effecting American culture and values, that noted author F. Scott Fitzgerald would eventually term this time period as “The Jazz Age”, a nickname that has remained to this day (Chevigny).
Within this swarm of Jazz clubs, at the apex of The Jazz Age, there existed some clubs that were so popular and significant that they are still written about today. A discussion of these clubs is also in order.
Clubs of the Era
The clubs that could be found in Manhattan during The Jazz Age may have changed locations, but did not completely change their somewhat wicked ways. When clubs were located predominantly in Harlem, they were hotbeds for organized crime, gambling and vice, as well as the sale of alcohol, which of course was illegal during the era of Prohibition. Although it is true that the move of the bulk of Jazz clubs from Harlem to 52nd Street during the 1920s brought the clubs to a wider and more racially diverse audience, make no mistake, the clubs did not completely reform from their seedy Harlem existence. On 52nd Street, most of these Jazz clubs had a dual purpose, also serving as “speakeasies”, or sales locations for illegal Prohibition-era alcohol (Shaw). Fueled by this contraband beverage, the Jazz clubs thrived and were usually filled to capacity.
Among the many Jazz clubs of 52nd Street, a few still stand out as sorts of historical landmarks, and some still exist in the present day. One club which rose to prominence during The Jazz Age and still functions today is “Jack and Charlie’s 21” which, at that time, featured little atmosphere, squalid conditions, and watered down drinks, as opposed to cabaret-style clubs like “The Onyx” which was somewhat more appealing to the customers. Over the period of 1920 to 1950, as many as four clubs boasted the name “The Famous Door” (Chevigny). A contemporary Jazz writer of the era made a general assessment of these clubs as follows:
“all the clubs were shaped like shoe boxes, and they had dingy canopies outside…. Inside, there did not seem to be any difference, although I am sure that the colors of the walls, if you could see them through the cigarette smoke, were different. The tables were three inches square and the chairs were hard wood. The drinks were probably watered. They were miserable places. There was nothing to them but the music. (Chevigny, p. 42)”. All of the generalizations and criticisms aside, the clubs of this time gave innovative and exciting Jazz artists a chance to interpret this music and share their talents with a wide audience.
Artists of the Era
No discussion of The Jazz Age in New York, or anywhere else for that matter, would be complete without some exploration of the musical artists that brought Jazz into the limelight and helped it to grow and evolve. Pioneers in jazz music include Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong, acclaimed to be the first highly successful solo Jazz trumpeter, “Duke” Ellington, noted as the most prominent bandleader of The Jazz Age, and Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, one of the most creative and innovative musicians of this pivotal era in Jazz history (Tirro). In addition to these pioneers, literally thousands of highly talented Jazz musicians played for little pay and even less recognition in many of the most decrepit, filthy clubs of 52nd Street, not motivated by fame or fortune, but inspired by the love of Jazz, and the adoration of the fans who always kept the party going and cried out for more.
Starting out in the Jazz genre and developing his own instinctive, and distinctive playing style, “Yardbird” Parker, along with many others, is generally credited with being the father of the direct descendant of Jazz known as Bebop. Because of Bebop’s close relationship with Jazz, a brief word about it will be presented.
A Word About Bebop
Bebop, as it came to be known, is hard to describe in words, but with that intention, let it be said that it is a faster, more rhythmic, and often improvisational offshoot of Jazz. This genre was brought to prominence and perfected by the one and only Charlie Parker, whose self destructive lifestyle of alcohol and drug abuse ironically expanded his artistic horizons and allowed him to step into unexplored musical territory in the definition of Bebop (Reed). It should also be noted that Parker’s talents inspired another aspiring musician who would in time become a master of Bebop and pick up where Parker left off upon his untimely death. This man’s name was John “Dizzy” Gillespie, whose huge, puffing cheeks became as famous as the sweet music that they created with the aid of a specially modified trumpet (Porter). The point in discussing Bebop is that Jazz, directly and indirectly, has inspired people and musical styles for generations.
This paper has shown many of the highlights of New York’s 52nd Street’s impact on Jazz for over 30 years. What mere words cannot accurately capture, however, are the cultural changes that this street, densely crowded with mostly shabby Jazz clubs and shady characters, made in the United States throughout a formative period in its history, as the nation struggled to find an identity and escape from reality in the challenging years after World War I and World War II as well. In closing, it can accurately be said that the sacrifices that the underpaid and often criticized Jazz musicians of 1920 to 1950 made a wise investment in this music, as it has brought untold joy to millions of music fans and inspires new musicians to this very day.
Chevigny, Paul. Gigs: Jazz and the Cabaret Laws in New York City. New York: Routledge, 2005.
Porter, Eric. What Is This Thing Called Jazz? African American Musicians as Artists, Critics, and Activists. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002.
Reed, Harry A. “Yardbird Suite 1: Charlie “Yardbird” Parker (1920-1955) and the Convergence of Kansas City and New York City Nightclubs in the Birth of Bebop.” The Western Journal of Black Studies 22.1 (1998): 1.
Shaw, Arnold. 52nd Street: The Street of Jazz. New York: Da Capo P, 1977.
Tirro, Frank. Jazz: A History. New York: Norton, 1993.