Big Band Jazz in Philadelphia

Broad Street’s former Pearl Theater was the site of a historic moment in 1932.

Bennie Moten and the Kansas City Stompers, key parts of the Big Band Jazz movement in the first half of the century, played so well that, according to The One O’Clock Jump by Douglas Henry Daniels, the crowd demanded encore after encore, until the theater owners opened the doors of the theater to the public. Here’s the sound that had everyone talking.

One member of the band that night was the legendary Count Basie, who just before the historic show, was recording with Moten’s band for Victor just across the river in Camden. Basie, pictured here, would leave Moten’s band in 1929, taking with him members that would form the core of the Count Basie Orchestra. Then Basie would take over Moten’s whole operation after his untimely death in 1935.

Big Band Jazz and swing music took hold so firmly that it dominated music for a decade, from 1935 to 1946. Philadelphia played a key role in that era, with many of the most notable bands coming through Philadelphia and some even rising up from the city.

The Pearl Theater played host to all the big names in big band jazz, including Duke Ellington. Jimmy Heath, one of the surviving musicians of Philadelphia’s jazz heyday, remembers seeing him at the Pearl in 1932, when he was six years old. He writes about it in his autobiography, I Walked With Giants (Temple U. Press, 2010).

Duke Ellington’s orchestra played a benefit show at the Municipal Stadium, September 7, 1962.

Duke Ellington and his orchestra played a show to 95,000 people in at the Municipal Stadium. The show was to benefit the children of policemen and firemen killed or injured in the line of duty. To get a sense of scale, see this photo from the preparations at the stadium. Ellington played Philadelphia repeatedly over the course of the height of his career. In Duke’s Diary: The Life of Duke Ellington by Ken Vail, it records his orchestra playing the Earle Theater for a week in 1952. The Earle was the most expensive theater ever built in Philadelphia at the time, with an ornate interior and exterior and seating for 2700. It had been located at 1046 Market St and was demolished in July 1953.

The Calvin Todd Orchestra, 1944

Jimmy Heath playing with the Calvin Todd Orchestra, 1944. From I WALKED WITH GIANTS by Jimmy Heath [Used by permission].

Jimmy Heath became a road musician out of Philadelphia at 18 years old, traveling with Omaha’s Nat Towles Orchestra. He writes in his book that he came back to Philadelphia in 1945. Heath saw Dizzy Gillespie as the swing era began to wane at the Academy of Music. Then he started his own band in 1946 and, for a time, John Coltrane himself was one of its members, first gigging with Heath’s band in 1947.

Also in the 40s, Philadelphia’s Pearl Bailey had begun to take off. She had relocated to New York City by then. After becoming a headliner at The Village Vanguard, she became a part of Cab Calloway’s big band orchestra; however, born and raised in Philadelphia, she has its Pearl Theater to thank for kicking off her career. She won an amateur dance contest there and got booked for her first professional job. Two weeks, at $35 per week. She was 15 years old, in the early 1930s.

Jimmy Heath Orchestra, Club Elate, 1947, from I WALKED WITH GIANTS

Jimmy Heath playing alto sax, leading the Jimmy Heath Orchestra, 1947, at Club Elate at Broad and Fitzwater [From I WALKED WITH GIANTS, Used by permission].

Accounts of Philadelphia during the 40s describe jazz clubs all over the city. All along South Broad and up in North Philadelphia, musicians would stay up late into the night and jam together. New York jazz musicians were coming to Philadelphia with the Bebop sound. The Bebop style of jazz was taking over from big band as musicians collaborated and shared ideas. Get a sample with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker’s “A Night in Tunisia.”

Philadelphia’s Odean Pope, a saxophonist, said that Philadelphia was an important place for spreading and sharing those ideas, which would lead to the next era in jazz.

 

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