Memories of 52nd Street

Classic Arts Features   Memories of 52nd Street
With the festival A New America: The 1940s and the Arts in full swing, pianist Billy Taylor, the Kennedy Center's Artistic Advisor for Jazz, reminisces about the jazz scene during that vibrant decade.

It was an amazing experience to come as a young musician to New York City and be on 52nd Street in 1944. All of my idols‹the people I heard on records, on the radio, and in the movies‹were right there: Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter, Artie Shaw, Billy Eckstine, Billie Holiday, Stuff Smith.

My first job was with saxophonist Ben Webster. I thought I had died and gone to heaven because I was playing with one of my all-time favorites. Three days after I arrived in New York, Ben, who had played with Duke Ellington, invited me to join his quartet, which also included drummer Big Sid Catlett and bassist Charlie Drayton. We were playing at the Three Deuces and opening for my idol, pianist Art Tatum! The music we played was the popular music of the day. You could turn on the radio and hear European classical, all kinds of folk, and music from other places, but the popular music of the period was mainly jazz‹big band dance music, party music‹on the radio at all hours, in the movies, and on the stage‹everywhere.

In the mid-1940s, we had just gone to war. Many big band musicians had been drafted but well-known performers were still touring, and they were playing a new, more adventurous kind of music. On 52nd Street everyone wanted to play the new style. The musicians had a kind of slang and to communicate their ideas, they would sing musical phrases using nonsense syllables like "be-BOP," which captured the idea of leaving a note on the upbeat, a big change from '30s swing. And so this new style of jazz was dubbed "bebop."

One of the most popular singers of the period was Billy Eckstine, who wanted to try instruments like the guitar and trombone that were so expressive in the hands of some of the musicians he admired. To create and communicate his version of the new music, Billy started the first big bebop band, which included musicians from the Earl Hines band.

And the audience? One of the things people did in the 1940s was go to dance halls and nightclubs. Gas was rationed but people sidestepped that in NYC, traveling by bus and subway to clubs in Harlem, on 52nd Street, and in the Village dressed to the nines. Harlem's 125th Street was famous for its nightclubs, dancing, and parties. Down on 52nd Street, you found tourists as well as New Yorkers and suburbanites coming to hear a large collection of musicians playing in different styles. And in the Village, there was another whole scene‹open, loose, more fun, bohemian, and casually dressed‹at clubs like Café Society and the Village Vanguard.

In the rest of the country there was tremendous activity, too: New Orleans, Kansas City, Detroit, Chicago all had thriving jazz scenes. Unique elements came to the music through radio and movies, as well as the endless migration of artists to New York who brought their backgrounds and new ideas to jazz of the 1940s.

Dr. Billy Taylor is the Kennedy Center Artistic Advisor for Jazz.

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