'Sittin' In: Jazz Clubs of the 1940s and 1950s' Opens a Portal to the Past, and a Dialogue
“It really was a paradisical place to be, the jazz club.”
That relatably wistful sentiment is uttered by saxophonist Sonny Rollins at one point in a handsome new book devoted to the subject. Sittin’ In: Jazz Clubs of the 1940s and 1950s, recently published by Harper Design, is a testament to the bygone American nightlife culture that thrived at midcentury — years before the full realization of a Civil Rights Movement, but well into a more casual arc of racial integration.
The book, a featured item in the WBGO December fund drive, amasses hundreds of souvenir photos, handbills and other memorabilia from clubs across the continental United States: iconic rooms like The Three Deuces on 52nd Street in Manhattan as well as lesser-known spots like Gilmore’s Chez Paree in Kansas City. Through the images and ephemera — and several in-depth interviews, with Rollins and others — the book presents a complicated portrait of America in the two decades bracketing the second World War.
Stitching it all together was Jeff Gold, a music historian, archivist and former record executive whose previous books include Total Chaos: The Story of The Stooges/As Told by Iggy Pop. We recently spoke by phone about the initial motivation and dawning purpose behind Sittin’ In, revelations he encountered during its three-and-a-half year gestation, and the strange circumstances that make this book more hauntingly timely than he could have anticipated.
Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
This is a difficult book to classify. In a way, it’s a coffee table book, because of all of these incredible images. But it’s also a really keen work of jazz history and scholarship. So I wondered how you perceive it: where along that sliding scale would you place it?
That’s a really interesting question. Typically, coffee table books are just illustrated, and we had one person push back and say, “Well, we don’t review coffee table books.” And it’s got 60,000 words of texts. So that kind of precludes the normal coffee table book in my mind. And it’s also not as big as most coffee table books. It is kind of a hybrid, in that it’s obviously very heavily illustrated, but there’s a lot of text.
And a lot of illuminating text, at that.
To me, the soul of it is the interviews and the photographs. All the research I did about the clubs is interesting, but to have three firsthand eyewitness accounts of what these clubs were like — from Quincy Jones to Sonny Rollins to Dan Morgenstern — I think is really important. Doing the math, I realized that Quincy came to New York in the early ‘50s, but Sonny and Dan started going to these clubs at the tail end of the ‘40s, and they’re 90 years old. They both were sneaking in underage — Sonny drawing on a mustache with an eyebrow pencil, so he could get into clubs on 52nd Street. And it dawned on me that this is maybe the last chance we have to get this history down from people who were there, because to have gone to these clubs in the late ‘40s, you’ve got to be 90 years old.
So the process of doing this book was long and interesting. I kind of engaged in a staring contest with these photos. I had sworn off doing other books, but when I found them, I thought, “God, I've never seen anything like this.” And I spent my whole life collecting and dealing in this kind of thing. I mean, I’ve seen these sorts of photographs from nightclubs and cruise ships, but never from jazz clubs. And I kind of engaged in a battle of wills with this pile of inanimate objects, and I would research them, and I couldn’t find any collections of them anywhere online or published. Then I started looking into jazz clubs, and there really hasn’t ever been a book on jazz clubs. So eventually I thought, “You know, these things have to get out. They need to be seen by people like me and people like you.” Because though we've seen lots of photos of these clubs, it’s always the marquee outside, the people waiting on line or the people onstage. You never see the people in the clubs.
Was it the souvenir photos and club portraits that initially spoke to you? Or was it the handbills and flyers and other ephemera?
It was absolutely the souvenir photos.
All of these faces peering back at us. Some of whom we can identify, but most of which are just anonymous club patrons.
It kind of haunted me. We don’t know anything about them, almost entirely. Bu I was staring at these things going, you know, “These are African American people, and they look so happy, and they’re dressed so beautifully.” Most of the people look really happy. And then some people are wearing uniforms or some of the clubs – there’s a club in Chicago, the Club DeLisa, and you they have, “Buy War Bonds” on the folios, so you can tell they’re from World War II. And I discuss this a little bit with Jason Moran, but it’s a time of great trouble in America. It’s the Jim Crow era, and we have a world war on, and these people look just happy as can be. It really kind of confused me, and I wanted to know more and understand what was going on. And then you start looking deeper and you see, well, some of these groups are integrated, and sometimes you’ve got a table of African American people next to a table of white people, and that’s pretty exceptional. So that was something that struck me, too.
This is a thread that you weave throughout the interviews. You ask Quincy about any racial trouble or prejudice in the clubs, and he basically says, “No, not at all. It was an oasis.” And somewhat surprisingly, Sonny Rollins more or less endorses that idea. It’s not as if they’re saying they were no problems — but just the idea that that these clubs really were kind of beacons of integration, it’s really powerful.
I ended up reading about 40 books during my research. I don’t set myself up as an expert on jazz clubs as I was walking into this. So I thought, “Well, I’ve got to ask people who were there.” And when Quincy said that, it kind of caught me off guard. So then Sonny was my next interview, and I asked him about that. It was almost like I was unlocking something that he had wanted to talk about for a long time. And, you know, he says, “We never get credit for what an integrated scene jazz was,” and this really was where races started breaking down, and he went on, kind of like a tear on this. And at the end of it, he said, “I hope you’ll put this in the book.”
And of course, you did.
You know, Sonny grew up in Harlem and lived in Harlem at the time, and he would go into these clubs and white people would tell him how great he was and want his autograph and want him to pose for a photograph with them. He just didn’t have a frame of reference for that kind of thing. He hadn’t really interacted that much with white people. These clubs, as he said, were paradise, and for a few hours people could escape and leave their troubles behind, and have this incredible experience. So when I talked to Dan Morgenstern, he gave me the audience point of view, and basically said the same thing. It really surprised me.
There’s a word that Jason Moran uses in the book. And Jason is — probably more than any other musician in his generation — someone who has thought carefully about what these spaces represent. Anyway, the word he uses is “aspirational.” He’s referring specifically to the Black community’s relationship with these clubs.
Yes, that’s right.
How do you read that word with respect to all of these souvenir photos and keepsakes?
As a white guy I feel particularly ill equipped to talk about what the African American experience is, obviously. I figured, “What do you do when you don’t know?” You ask the experts. So that’s what I did. Jason and I have a mutual friend, and he knew about this project. He kept saying, “I have the perfect younger musician for you to talk to.” And Jason saw this largely in the way that Sonny and Quincy and Dan did — but he had another interesting angle.
I was very interested in the phenomenon of The Cotton Club, which is, you know, a racist, segregated place that also paid the musicians well, in general, and had this all-important radio wire just as radio was becoming a dominant entertainment form. People like Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington became national figures because of these live broadcasts every week from The Cotton Club. So this club had had many horrible policies, but some good did come out of it. And when I was talking to Sonny, he said, “Yeah, but you don’t think they were doing that for any reason other than that they could make money?” I said, no, absolutely. But Jason said (and I’m paraphrasing): “African American musicians had been so beaten down for so many years that any place where you had an opportunity to express yourself and play your music, and where people were interested, it was good.” Dan Morgenstern, who talked to many musicians who played there, he said that to a person, everybody he talked to was very happy to have played there, because they got paid well, and it was what the times were. It did afford these musicians, especially the bandleaders, an incredible opportunity.
Now, as we get into this parade of clubs, I’m curious to know what the surprises were for you? A place that you didn’t know existed, or a place that you had only heard about in passing, and then all of a sudden, here’s a glimpse into it.
Well, the first thing was trying to find that information on these clubs. For some of them, there’s an extraordinary amount of stuff. You know, there’s a book about Birdland, and there’s untold amounts of information on it. But you start looking at, like, these Cleveland clubs, and there’s almost nothing. They might have existed for two or three years. Obviously they weren’t getting written about a lot in the mainstream press, but they might have been advertising in the African American newspapers. A friend of mine had sent me one from a place called Club 77 that inside had a picture of Louis Jordan playing live onstage, and I couldn’t find any information on that. I asked my friend, and it turns out he lived literally next door to this guy, Joe Mosbrook, who wrote the definitive book on Cleveland jazz. So he reached out to Joe Mosbrook, who gave me a list of some of the artists who had played in this club. And one of them was “The Three Sounds with Jerry Lovano.” I put that in the book.
Coincidentally, somebody I know is friendly with Joe Lovano. When I sent him a copy of the book, he flipped out that I had this Cleveland section. He said “I used to hear about all these clubs — and you actually mentioned my dad but used the wrong name. He was Tony Lovano, not Jerry Lovano.” So I checked, and in fact, the list that I had gotten came from an ad in an African American newspaper in Cleveland. So sometimes you’re grasping at straws to the level of finding somebody who has a reproduction of an ad from the ‘40s or ‘50s in a local Black newspaper.
Right – the ins and outs of book research.
But I guess the thing the thing that really blew me away throughout was the racial harmony aspect. You see these photos — like my favorite photo in the book, which shows Charlie Parker at The Royal Roost in the late ‘40s with a white couple. And he’s got this totally sly grin on, he looks happy as can be, and he looks together very together. And this couple looks really happy to be posing with Charlie Parker, who at the time is famous in the jazz world, to some extent, but not the icon that he later becomes. I started thinking, “These are kind of the primordial version of a celebrity selfie that somebody would snap walking down the street if they saw a movie star.” I don’t know when getting your picture taken with a celebrity became a thing, but I can’t think of any example earlier than this. Then you start thinking, “When would white people be posing with Black celebrities, and looking just thrilled?” You know, Benny Goodman integrates his band in 1936 — that’s 11 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, and Jackie Robinson is one of the kind of iconic things we think about in desegregation. That kind of loops back into what Sonny Rollins was talking about, that jazz musicians never get the credit for being such an important place that racism started breaking down.
I think that’s really important, because if there is a core preoccupation in this book, it’s a kind of social history of the United States during this time period.
It’s one of those interesting lenses that you can look at America through.
Even some of the iconography that today gives us pause — like the imagery on the flyer of the Ubangi Club, or The Cotton Club — no one would bat an eye at that, at that time. Even though I think African American musicians clearly understood that this was a bit of a hustle, like Sonny said. They were selling tickets with that imagery.
In Saint Louis, the big club is called The Plantation Club, and it’s completely racist. They advertise: “Strictly White Patronage Only.” And I actually had some stuff with that on it, but I didn’t want to put it in the book. In fact, the other big club opens as a reaction to that, where they are inclusive and let everybody in. But in L.A., there’s a club in Watts on Central Avenue called Joe Morris’s Plantation Club, that’s owned by an African American. So, whereas through the lens of 2020 that would be reprehensible and a scourge, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, it was just another word, right?
It makes me think about something like Louis Armstrong singing “Up the Lazy River.” Where do you locate the line of commentary there?
Exactly. We’ve seen this year that it moves.
There are some inclusions here where it’s clear that an artifact put it on the map. So for instance, the North Adams Armory — I’ve been in North Adams to go to Mass MoCA and Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival. But it’s a shocker to think there was any kind of jazz scene in North Adams. So that was one of the small passing discoveries for me. But it also makes me wonder, as you go to a city like Cleveland or Detroit, you’re not getting any kind of comprehensive portrait, right?
It was driven by what I could find. So there there’s one real glaring omission, which is Philadelphia. The reason for that was, I could find no memorabilia from Philadelphia — and I tried. I contacted jazz critics and libraries and collectors, and I just couldn't find anything.
And conversely, there are some clubs in there that are pretty short-lived or weren’t that important or didn’t have major artists playing. But I thought that the artwork or the photographs was evocative, so I wanted to include them. Especially once you get out of New York, these things are so poorly documented. There are books on the jazz scene in San Francisco and Cleveland and Chicago and D.C., but they’re on the jazz scene, not on the clubs, per se.
I’m still hung up on Philadelphia, which is the first real scene I formed a relationship to. It’s crazy that you ran up against such a blank there.
The collection that made up the bulk of this I bought from a guy who had been collecting it for more than 30 years, and I filled it in with other things that I had or found or borrowed. But it’s generally a poorly studied phenomenon, these souvenir photos. Being a collector of this stuff myself, and a collective rock and other genres, I’m a guy with a big accumulation of stuff. These things are very difficult to track down. I ended up selling about half of this stuff. I kept about half of it, and I sold half of it to the New York Public Library — the Schomburg Center, which is the biggest collection of African American artifacts and memorabilia in the world. The fact that they were interested in buying the stuff attests to how unusual and rare it is.
It’s wonderful that so much of that has entered that collection, which also now houses the Sonny Rollins archive.
I wanted it to go somewhere like that. And funny enough, I held back about half of it, figuring, “Well, when the book comes out, we'll do some exhibitions and things like that.” Obviously, that’s not happening. But eventually, I'll place a lot of the rest at some institution.
Now, when you when you acquired the collection, was it organized in some way?
It couldn’t have been less organized. I talked about this in the intro, but because I’m in the business, buying and selling and collecting this stuff, I get a lot of calls. I got a call from a guy who I had met one time before. In fact, I met him in 2005. There was a jazz auction at Lincoln Center, and I met him there, and he was ready to start selling some of his stuff. So I went to see him, he lived a couple hours away from me, and I picked him up and he said, “Okay, we’re going to my bank. It's in a safe deposit box.” So we go to his bank and sit in one of those rooms that’s about 5 by 5 feet, where you can take your safe deposit box. And he disappears. He comes back about five minutes later pushing a rolling cart with five or six huge safe deposit boxes. He’d been buying this stuff for maybe 30 years, and there’s an accounting term: FIFO, “first in, first out.” It was organized in the order of when he had bought stuff. So I’d open one of these boxes and there would be a picture, followed by handbill, followed by a poster, followed by a contract, followed by an autograph, followed by one of these pictures.
And I was putting stuff aside that I wanted to buy, and like, “Wow, a photo from Birdland? Wow, look at that. I want that.” I went down there two or three times to his bank, and I just pulled these photos out. As I got to maybe number 30, an hour in, I went “This is a book. I mean, I’ve never seen these things. They’re so interesting and so evocative. And the artwork from the clubs — I’ve got to own these.” It was this voyage of discovery. I didn’t know what was going to come next as my hand reached into one of these boxes, but I was excited when I’d find more of these photos. And after I decided to do a book, I kind of thought, “Alright. How do I organize these things?” Geographically seemed to make sense, and then chronologically within the geography, and you start looking for books on the subject or interviews or online things, and it really was a detective story.
One final question. You alluded to this, but it is a very particular and haunting sensation looking through this book that’s a huge testament to the feeling of camaraderie, and the aliveness of the clubgoing experience. And I haven’t been inside a jazz club since early March, and probably won’t be inside one for another five months or six or more. What your thoughts are about the book coming out at this bizarre historical moment?
It’s really an odd time, given that there are no clubs open. But it’s also an odd time because we had this summer of racial strife and the Black Lives Matter movement and this exploration of racism in America. And yet, did you know that these places were really oases from racism? I certainly didn’t.
The only thing like that I’ve ever heard came in working with George Wein on his book, with what he would say about 52nd Street. Like Dan Morgenstern, he was going to those clubs underage. He always described it as a really harmonious experience. I had to take his word for it, understanding that that he was not a Black musician. But “harmonious” would be the word that comes to mind.
It shocked me, literally shocked me. And then you start looking at these photos. There’s one of this club in Detroit, Club Three 666, and there’s a white group in the foreground. But then you look in the in the background and there’s an African American group, and you look over to the left and there’s another African American woman at another table. And that photograph is one of the rare ones that was dated, and it was in the mid ‘40s. And you think, “Wow, you’re in Detroit and here’s a fancy club at a time when you’re not reading about integration. You’re seeing integration. To me, it’s extremely powerful to see it rather than to read about it or hear about it.
Well, this book is an object lesson in that seeing. And I appreciate the care you took to organize it and really trace that line.
Well, I can’t tell you how much that means coming from somebody like yourself. I feel like this book happened to me, in the sense that I found these things, and they kind of wrestled me to the ground and set me off on this journey. Once I had done those interviews, I really felt like I got some history down that is going be impossible to get down in 10 years or 15 years. I feel very grateful that it happened to me, and that I was able to do that because obviously there aren’t a lot of people who are still alive, and I think it's really important to memorialize their stories.