[JPL] Cradle for Serious Grooving ...readable copy, goes w/ video

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Fri Feb 1 15:19:49 EST 2008

February 1, 2008
Weekend Explorer
Cradle for Serious Grooving 
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

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 1907. 

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 “Charleston.” 

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, Charlie Parker, Max Roach 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. 

Thelonious Monk, 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

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

“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 Holiday 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, he said.

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’s “Yip, Yip, Yaphank” and “Sinbad”
with Al Jolson (featuring the hit songs “Swanee” and
“Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody”).

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 O’Neill’s “Desire Under the
Elms” in 1925; Mae West’s “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

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

“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 Court. 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 Lincoln

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.


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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