[JPL] NYTimes.com: Cradle for Serious Grooving
info at jazzinn.com
Fri Feb 1 10:53:35 EST 2008
February 1, 2008
Cradle for Serious Grooving
By JOHN STRAUSBAUGH
IT'S 7:30 on a weekday evening, and the Josie Robertson Plaza at the
heart of Lincoln Center
is crowded. Slender teenagers from Juilliard's ballet program, hair
still up in tight "bunhead" knots, dart like gazelles toward the New
York State Theater, where City Ballet is about to perform. They cut
through the older operagoers flowing toward the Metropolitan Opera
House. Film fans stroll diagonally across the plaza, heading to the
Walter Reade Theater.
The mood is cooler at Jazz at Lincoln Center
nearby in the Time Warner Center. In Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, musicians
play against the backdrop of the club's wall of windows, offering
patrons at the bar and small tables a spectacular view of Columbus
Circle at night.
This kind of activity has characterized the neighborhood since the
1960s. But long before President Dwight D. Eisenhower
broke ground for the Lincoln Center performing arts complex in 1959, the
area from Columbus Circle through the neighborhoods called Lincoln
Square and San Juan Hill was already something of an arts center. Jazz
and opera and rock 'n' roll, Shakespeare
and Ibsen and musical theater, the visual arts and the invention of the
Charleston all happened there.
Lincoln Square, the area from Columbus Circle and West 59th Street up to
West 72nd Street, between Central Park and the Hudson River, is now
thick, and becoming thicker, with giant middle-class residential
complexes and soaring commercial towers. Lincoln Center is undergoing a
rebuilding, including extensive renovations to Alice Tully Hall and the
Juilliard. The goal is completion in 2009.
In the early 20th century, however, Lincoln Square's streetscapes hugged
the ground with rows of tenements and brownstones, punctuated by
warehouses and industrial lofts. Its residents were mostly working class
and poor, with a notable contingent of artists and bohemians. On its
eastern fringe stood a variety of theaters and music halls.
Squeezed into the middle, roughly from 59th to 65th Streets between
Amsterdam Avenue and the 11th Avenue railroad tracks, was San Juan Hill,
one of the largest black neighborhoods in Manhattan before the rise of
On an icy, blustery December morning, I toured San Juan Hill with the
historian Marcy Sacks, author of "Before Harlem: The Black Experience in
New York City Before World War I" (University of Pennsylvania Press,
2006). We stood outside two of the neighborhood's last old houses,
242-244 West 61st Street, with new construction looming beside them.
In the early 1900s the reformer Mary White Ovington observed that San
Juan Hill's "tall, monotonous tenements" were "the worst type which the
city affords." Up to 5,000 people lived jammed into a single block; beds
were often used in shifts, shared by boarders.
Ms. Sacks explained that the neighborhood might have been named to honor
the United States Army's black 10th Cavalry, which fought at the battle
of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
But, she said, "the more accepted story is that it really reflected the
violence and the tension that were going on constantly in this
neighborhood between black residents of San Juan Hill and the Italians
to the north and the Irish to the south in Hell's Kitchen."
A century ago that fighting was constant, from small territorial
skirmishes along the black-white dividing lines to full-scale street
warfare. "Race Rioters At It Again," read a headline in The New York
Times in 1905; "Bullets and Bricks Fly in Race Riot," read another, in
At the same time, "there was a great and thriving night scene going on
in San Juan Hill," Ms. Sacks said. "In the basements of a lot of
tenements were clubs that ranged from really cheap dives to
higher-level, higher-scale clubs." They included poolrooms, saloons,
dance halls and bordellos. "On any given Friday or Saturday night there
could be some major partying happening," she said.
In 1913 the pianist James P. Johnson was playing at a West 62nd Street
club called the Jungles Casino. Black sailors and dock workers from the
nearby waterfront, many of them from the Carolinas and other Southern
coastal states, frequented the club and did what Johnson later recalled
as "wild and comical" dances. One particular style inspired him to write
an accompanying song.
In 1923 Johnson's musical revue "Runnin' Wild" had its premiere at the
Colonial Theater on Broadway between West 62nd and 63rd Streets, site of
the Harmony Atrium since 1979. It featured the song and dance from the
Jungles Casino that became synonymous with the Roaring Twenties: the
The New Colonial also brought Fred and Adele Astaire to its stage and,
in 1910, Charlie Chaplin
performing in a British farce, "The Wow-Wows."
Phil Schaap, the jazz historian and curator of Jazz at Lincoln Center,
said jazz took a big leap in popularity in January 1917, when the
Original Dixieland Jazz Band (also spelled "Jass" at the time) came from
Chicago to play at Reisenweber's Cafe, one of the large, popular lobster
palaces of the era, which stood at the southwest corner of West 58th
Street and Eighth Avenue.
"Within two weeks the lines went all the way down to 50th Street," Mr.
Schaap said. The band recorded songs for the Victor Talking Machine
Company (precursor to RCA Victor) on Feb. 26. A week later the record
was released, he said. "And before the month of March 1917 was over, it
sold a million copies."
Later, beginning in the mid-1940s, the neighborhood was a crucible of
bebop. On the north side of West 66th Street between Central Park West
and Columbus Avenue, a block now dominated by the offices of the ABC
network, stood the Lincoln Square Center, where Dizzy Gillespie
and others played. On the same block was the St. Nicholas Arena. It was
mostly for boxing matches but, Mr. Schaap noted, "Charlie Parker played
dances there, and he made the legendary record 'Bird at St. Nick's'
there on Saturday, Feb. 18, 1950."
A few years later the disc jockey Alan Freed, who had brought his radio
show from Cleveland to WINS, played host to his first New York City
"Rock 'n' Roll Jubilee Ball" at the St. Nick on Jan. 14 and 15, 1955.
Fats Domino, the Moonglows, the Harptones and others performed for 6,000
teenagers each night.
San Juan Hill was home to a few jazz giants. The Phipps Houses, still
standing at 233-247 West 63rd and 234-248 West 64th Street between
Amsterdam and West End Avenues, were completed in 1912. The buildings,
model tenements, were financed by the philanthropist Henry Phipps,
friend and partner to Andrew Carnegie
to help alleviate the neighborhood's slum conditions.
born in North Carolina in 1917, was a child when his family moved into
the Phipps Houses. He stayed there most of his life and was often seen
roaming local streets, a quiet and distant man lost in thought.
I strolled those streets recently with Ademola Olugebefola and his
brother, Harold Thomas, now in their 60s, who grew up in the nearby
Amsterdam Houses in the 1950s and 60s, and whose mother still lives
there. "As young children we would laugh," Mr. Olugebefola said.
"Thelonious was eccentric to some degree. I can recall looking out my
window in the winter and wondering why this guy would be walking around
in a daze, or I guess singing to himself. Little did we know he was
creating these masterpieces."
"Grooving," Mr. Thomas said. "Serious grooving."
Another jazzman who lived in the neighborhood, Roger Ramirez, wrote
"Lover Man" with Jimmy Davis and James Sherman. It became a Billie
signature. When she died in 1959, her funeral was held at Church of St.
Paul the Apostle at West 60th Street and Columbus Avenue. Mr. Schaap,
then 8, stood across the street with his mother to pay their respects,
Thomas Mellins, an architectural historian and co-author of "New York
1960" (The Monacelli Press, 1995), took me for a walk around a few sites
important in the area's rich history of theater and the visual arts
before Lincoln Center. We stood on the corner of West 62nd Street and
Central Park West and gazed up at the Art Deco towers of the Century
condominium building, completed in 1931 and named for the Century
Theater that stood there previously. Called the New Theater when it
opened in 1909, it was the brainchild of very wealthy New Yorkers,
including J. P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt, who,
Mr. Mellins said, "had a notion of using theater not only to entertain
but to educate people." Their hope was to draw wealthy arts patrons from
the East Side along with less-well-off neighbors to light operas and
plays by Shakespeare and Ibsen.
The experiment failed. Reopened as the Century Theater, it became better
known for popular musicals like Irving Berlin
"Yip, Yip, Yaphank" and "Sinbad" with Al Jolson
(featuring the hit songs "Swanee" and "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie
Around the corner at 22 West 63rd Street stood the 63rd Street Music
Hall, later Daly's 63rd Street Theater. "Shuffle Along," the revue by
Eubie Blake, Noble Sissle, Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles, played
there in 1921 (introducing the song "I'm Just Wild About Harry"); Eugene
"Desire Under the Elms" in 1925; Mae West
"Sex" in 1926; and "Keep Shufflin,' " which included music by James P.
Johnson and Fats Waller, in 1928.
O'Neill, who was born in a Broadway hotel room in what later became
known as Times Square, lived a brief part of his peripatetic life at the
Lincoln Square Arcade, a barnlike theater-studio-loft space at Broadway
and West 65th Street. "It was in many ways an incubator of talent," Mr.
Mellins said; many artists lived, worked, taught and caroused there.
The artist George Bellows, who in 1907 made the evocative drawing "Tin
Can Battle, San Juan Hill, New York," was one of O'Neill's roommates.
The muralist Thomas Hart Benton later remembered being stabbed by an
enraged girlfriend in the Arcade. It was torn down in 1958 to make way
for the Juilliard School
another incubator of talent. Students have included Kevin Kline
Leontyne Price, Robin Williams
and Wynton Marsalis
the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center.
A big change came to San Juan Hill after World War II when several
square blocks of tenements, from West 61st to West 64th Street between
Amsterdam and West End Avenues, just behind where Lincoln Center now
stands, were demolished to make way for the Amsterdam Houses. It's an
unusually handsome public housing complex on a parklike campus with
broad, tree-lined paths.
"Central Park was our playground, two blocks over," Harold Thomas said
of growing up at the Amsterdam Houses. "Seven, eight blocks up was
Riverside Park. That was our backyard. We would go down to the Hudson
River and fish with our little poles. We also would catch crabs. They
must have been three inches. Mother said, 'You ain't cooking this up in
my house.' "
Even bigger change began in the mid-1950s, when the Mayor's Committee on
Slum Clearance, headed by Robert Moses
declared Lincoln Square and San Juan Hill a blighted slum ripe for urban
renewal. Although Moses is often accused of having favored suburbs and
highways at the city's expense, Mr. Mellins argued that he "had a vision
of maintaining the core of the city." He added, "One of the strategies
for that was to make sure that cultural institutions, educational
institutions and even political institutions such as the United Nations
stayed in Manhattan."
Neighborhood residents, artists and small businesses resisted
relocation, eventually taking their case, unsuccessfully, to the Supreme
In 1958 almost 17,000 residents were forced to leave, and acres of
tenements and brownstones began to come down to clear space for Lincoln
Center and surrounding high rises.
Mr. Thomas and his brother Mr. Olugebefola watched it happen. Asked if
he thought the neighborhood had been a blighted slum, Mr. Olugebefola
replied: "It depends on your interpretation of what a blighted slum is.
The buildings were kind of run down."
"Lincoln Center was a treat," Mr. Thomas said. "We had cultural
activities where we were involved. There was never a lack of something.
But we lost a whole set of our classmates when they decided to build
Back in Josie Robertson Plaza, I watched orchestra musicians rolling
their instrument cases toward the subway. Over at Jazz at Lincoln
Center, Mr. Schaap was teaching a class in his Swing University, evening
courses in jazz history and appreciation. If Lincoln Center uprooted
part of the neighborhood, it has also kept good watch over its traditions.
More information about the jazzproglist