“War Comes to 52d St.”

May 9th, 2018

 

Clyde McCoy (seated on the right) and his band, enlisting en masse at the Norfolk, Virginia Navy Recruiting Office (date unknown)

 

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     In Arnold Shaw’s biography of New York’s 52nd Street, 52nd Street:  The Street of Jazz, he devotes an entire chapter to the impact World War II had on “The Street,” its musicians, and ultimately on American society.  

     “…World War II came to 52d St.,” Shaw writes, “bringing not only a curfew, entertainment tax, rationing and an influx of sailors and soldiers on leave, but a rash of striptease joints, tab padding and other sharp practices, fistfights and sluggings, racial conflict, and even attacks on the music.  The war made The Street jump in a kind of desperate search for fun and forgetfulness, but it also accelerated its demise.”

   The chapter, excerpted here in its entirety, is an example of the rich history Shaw so ably communicates in this fascinating book, still entertaining and essential 47 years after its 1971 publication.  

 

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     On the evening of Tuesday, August 18, 1943, 52d St.’s bands came out of the cratelike clubs and performed from platforms erected on the street.  The famous thoroughfare was blocked to traffic from Fifth to Sixth avenues.  More than 20,000 people crowded the block and enjoyed impromptu appearances by celebrities from the worlds of the theater, radio and nightclubs.  The entertainment had a serious underlying purpose:  to sell U.S. Savings or War Bonds.  More than $1,000,000 in bonds were bought.  The festivities were brought to a sudden end around 1 A.M. when the police halted a striptease performance on one of the platforms.

     “Sorry, lady,” a cop told Georgia Towne.  “The party’s over.  Don’t mean there’s anything wrong with your act.  But a baby’s just been born across the street.”

     (In ’43 War Bonds were sold regularly under the aegis of Gem Safety Razor Corp. at the northeast corner of 52d and Sixth, temporarily christened War Bond Square.  Purchasers received seats for a January 18, 1944, concert at the Metropolitan Opera House of the All-American Jazz Band, composed of winners of Esquire’s annual jazz poll, almost all of whom were 52 St. regulars.)

     And so World War II came to 52d St., bringing not only a curfew, entertainment tax, rationing and an influx of sailors and soldiers on leave, but a rash of striptease joints, tab padding and other sharp practices, fistfights and sluggings, racial conflict, and even attacks on the music.  The war made The Street jump in a kind of desperate search for fun and forgetfulness, but it also accelerated its demise.

     Rumblings of the war overseas reached The Street in pre-Pearl Harbor days.  As in April of ’41, when there was talk of the Nazi bomb that killed Snakehips Johnson as it came crashing through the Café de Paris, below street level, in London.  And later that month when one of the swing bands donated blood to Britain’s war victims.

     By October, 1942, Down Beat was running a list headed KILLED IN ACTION.  Even before the big Bond Rally of August on The Street, bands were getting B-ration gasoline cards, tires were unobtainable, and the difficulty of traveling by bus was playing havoc with bands on the road.  Hardest hit, of course, were the black bands, even though the networks, in a gesture of patriotism, began hiring blacks.  It was soon clear that NBC’s action in adding Billy Taylor to its music staff was largely a token move.

     The October Down Beat also carried a picture of Glenn Miller at the door of a recruiting office just after he had traded in his baton for the double bars of an Army captain.  As he was assigned to morale duty in Omaha, the movement of musicians into the armed forces developed momentum.   The Clyde McCoy band enlisted en masse, as did Buddy Clarke and Band.  The merchant marines got both the Phil Harris and Ted Weems bands.  In March, 1943, Jack Teagarden announced that he had lost seventeen men to the services in four months.  By June MCA was sponsoring what it described as a draft-proof band – the sons of celebrities serving the Hollywood Canteen.  Hickory House booked a female-led group called Pat Travers and Her Men about Town, in a program of Music for Dancing.

     But even before then, a Down Beat story averred, SWING STREET JUST AIN’T SWING STREET ANYMORE, and adduced evidence to suggest that 52d St. had become Sucker Street.  The wartime tightening of moral codes now became evident in a series of happenings.  A narcotics crackdown brought jail sentences to several 52d St. characters.  One of the clubs became involved in a Mann Act charge.  The doors of the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem were shuttered, throwing three bands out of the work, on the charge that servicemen had contracted venereal diseases from pickups at the dance hall.

     Westbrook Pegler, then the Senator McCarthy of American columnists, leveled an attack on jazz, swing and even torch songs.   Employing epithets like “insult to the American character” and adjectives like “vulgar,” “low,” and “dirty,” Pegler rasped that red-hot singing had originated in brothels on West Madison Street in Chicago.  High point of his smear was that the torch song began, ended and remained “a lewd expression of back-room bums.”

     Among the casualties of wartime emotionalism was a 52d St. boite known in its brief existence as the Two O’Clock Club.  Founded ostensibly by Goldy, headwaiter at the Hotel Edison, it was designed as an after-hours club for musicians.  There was talk of calling it the Performers and Musicians Guild, but it was chartered as the Two O’Clock Club.  Presumably to insure privacy, it was located on the second floor of 201 West 52d, at the corner of Seventh Avenue.  Musicians were supposed to pay a dollar-a-month membership fee, entitling them to a private locker in which they could keep possessions, including bottles of their favorite beverage.  As a private club, drinking, listening, and jamming were presumably legal at any hour past curfew.

     Art Hodes opened the club with a small trio and was soon succeeded by Clarence Profit.  At first, there was talk about The Neem (Henry Nemo) becoming MC.  Then Willie Bryant was mentioned.  Goldy attended a Harry James opening at the Hotel Lincoln, and its owner, Maria Kramer, returned the compliment by posing for publicity pictures as she accepted honorary membership in the Two O’Clock Club.  Less than two months after the opening, the club announced that it was closing.  The official reason:  collapse of an elevator in the building.  Broadway wiseacres claimed that while the Two O’Clock, as a private club, could operate legally after two o’clock under the liquor-licensing law, it could not flout the wartime curfew.

     Nevertheless, the club continued in operation for another two months with Teddy Reig, known as Mr. Five-by-Five of the Hotel Forrest, serving as impresario.  Apparently, there were evenings – rather mornings – when the jam sessions ran from two o’clock around the clock into the following afternoon.  Apparently, also, there was constant harassment from the police.  In February, ’43, a New York judge declared that the police raids were illegal.  But the club had indicated almost a month earlier that in a four-month period it had lost more than $7,000, and was ready to give up the ghost without new financing.  Illegal or not, the raids were effective in scaring off potential investors.  Whether police avarice figured in the final demise, as it figured in the life of many 52d St. clubs, the wartime atmosphere was not propitious for the launching of a new after-hours spot.  The Two O’Clock Club never celebrated a six-month birthday.

     Although marijuana was not an unnoticed facet of life on 52d St. and in  other pop music areas, narcotics became a headline matter even in music trade papers during 1943.  Suddenly, Down Beat had a front-page banner that read TEA SCANDAL STIRS MUSICDOM and an editorial, TEA AND TRUMPETS ARE BAD MIXTURE!  Perhaps the most celebrated scandal involved drummer Gene Krupa who was arrested and jailed on the West Coast and whose career, fortunately, took only a temporary nose dive.  On 52d St. wartime hysteria brought a jail sentence on a narcotics rap for Teddy Reig and an associate.

     Race relations became tense during the war and on The Street.  Yet there was a tender side that Billie Holiday recalled.  “I gave so many going-away parties at the Famous Door and other places,” she wrote, “I lost count.  It was always the same; three or four young boys would spend the whole night in the joint; we’d lock up, have a final drink, and they’d walk off.  A few weeks later I’d get a letter from some damn island where they were fighting the bugs and snakes, the heat and the dry rot.  Some of these letters would break your heart.  They came from kids I never really knew, or who knew nothing about me, but I was never able to throw them away…Oh, I carried on some torrid long-distance affairs with these kids.”

     Billie never saw most of these kids again.  “The few I did see,” she noted in her autobiography, “when they came back, tore me apart.  One night in the Blue note in Chicago, late in the war, a kid came in to see me and started talking about a party a couple years before at the Famous Door on 52d St.  I went along with the gag and the reminiscences, and then, suddenly, I recognized him.  His hair had turned completely white, and he looked forty years old, though he couldn’t have been more than twenty-five when he left.”

     But the war also created tremendous tension between the races.  Despite broadcasting-company announcements about the employment of blacks, in April, 1943, the brother of Lester Young lost a radio job because he was black.  Drummer Lee Young played one network show with a white orchestra and was unceremoniously fired.  There was no secret that color was the cause. 

     August brought the riots in Harlem that had repercussions in many areas.  The following month ballroom operators on the West Coast announced that they could no longer afford to book black bands.  They claimed that racial friction resulted in “cold bookings.”

     As the 52d St. joints filled with men in khaki and Navy whites, black musicians suddenly found themselves facing nightly hazards.  Many of the military were from the South.  They were not accustomed to the easy mixing of colors among musicians and audiences.  And they particularly resented the attention that white chicks showered on black performers.  Dizzy Gillespie, Billy Taylor, and many other musicians carried unforgettable memories of the dangers involved in going home after the clubs closed.  They felt lucky if they could make the Sixth Avenue subway station without an encounter.

     The White Rose bar on Sixth Avenue, where musicians had long congregated, was a near wartime casualty.  In the summer of ’44 the police swooped down one night and clamped on a midnight curfew.  Their allegation:  Two plainclothesmen had been picked up by girls at the bar.  It was a serious blow to the cats:  The low liquor prices and free food had made it a popular hangout.  Now musicians had no place to go during the late working hours.  A few nights after the ban, pianist Johnny Guarnieri and two black musicians were standing on The Street when a policeman approached them and ordered them to move.  “We don’t want you n—— on the streets,” he reportedly said.

     Reporting the incident in a story headlined RACISM MOUNTS ON 52ND STREET, Metronome expressed regret that the interracial harmony previously achieved among musicians and patrons was now being jeopardized.  It blamed tensions created by aggressive police action and aggravated by white soldiers and sailors who became nasty over the mingling of black musicians and white girls, especially when they were under the influence of liquor.  It suggested that the pampering by musicians of “pimps, prostitutes and tea peddlers” was not helping the situation.  And it warned that white troublemakers could produce a race riot, which did erupt at about that time – but in Harlem, not on 52d St.

     Wartime tensions, frictions and frustrations played a significant role in bringing a new sound into jazz.  And it was 52d St. that carried the sound from Harlem into the mainstream of jazz.  Known at first as bebop or rebop, it finally became known simply as bop.  It revolutionized the sound of pop and jazz music.  But it also introduced conflict, musical conflict, on The Street.

 

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Excerpted from

52nd St.: The Street of Jazz

by 

Arnold Shaw

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