Off-Ramp

Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

Peter Stenshoel reviews Swing Street: Anthology of New York's 52nd Street Scene

51322 full
51322 full

A music historian's dream! This four record set takes a single New York street and presents a dizzying array of America's finest jazz musicians between Dec. 5th, 1933, to July 5th, 1962.

The street in question is arguably the most important in the history of jazz. 52nd street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues was already home to a row of speakeasies, that is, places where alcoholic drinks were illegally served during Prohibition. When that troubled era came to a close 79 years ago Dec. 5th, 1933, these dens were converted to legal night clubs.

The Onyx Club, 3 Deuces, The Famous Door, and others were home to both black and white bands. The copious accompanying booklet, a seminar all its own, makes it clear that segregation of the races was still the rule in the 30s, (though there were notable exceptions). So many a black patron would be unable to hear black bands on 52nd Street (though black Harlem also had a hopping club scene).

Swing Street is a labor of love. Producer Frank Driggs contracted the legendary John Hammond to write the preface. Hammond, a talent scout and civil rights activist, not only discovered Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, but also Charlie Christian, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, and many other big names in blues and jazz. The body of the liner book was written by one Charles Edward Smith. You can see an example of his jazz scholarship here. There are 32 eye-popping photographs of the artists and bands, from Wingy Manone to Dizzy Gillespie and, of course, the street itself. Four dedicated record collectors donated the rare 78s needed for the effort.

And the music is wonderful. You can hear Art Tatum, Billie Holiday, Louis Prima, Stuff Smith, Coleman Hawkins, Mildrid Bailey, Bunny Berigan, Eddie Condon, Claude Thornhill, Fats Waller, and the list goes on and on; nearly all legends in the history of jazz.

It's been 50 years since the last music club closed on this stretch of pavement. But in honor of its memory, take a listen to our sample cut. Joining Billie Holiday are Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Don Redman, Jimmy Hamilton, Georgie Auld and Don Byas, reeds; Teddy Wilson, piano; John Collins, guitar; Al Hall, bass; and my man Kenny Clarke on drums, with "I Hear Music."

Thank you, 52nd street!

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