Did you know:
- Jazz clubs were among the first places in Jim Crow America where racial barriers began breaking down. Several Harlem clubs welcomed Black and white customers in the mid-1920s, and Benny Goodman integrated his band in 1936, eleven years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.
- In exclusive interviews, iconic Jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins noted “jazz was really where the racial barriers were broken down heavily,” while legendary musician and producer Quincy Jones offered “Back then, it wasn’t about color in the clubs, it was about how good you can play. Racism would’ve been over in the 1950s if they’d listened to the jazz guys.”
- Many of these clubs had in-house photographers, who took quick snapshots of the patrons, developing them in a back room, and offering them to customers at the end of the evening for a dollar, a souvenir of a night out.
- Occasionally patrons would pose with the musicians who were performing that night, a very early version of today’s celebrity selfies. Sittin’ In includes rare photographs of fans posting with legendary musicians including Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and one photo showing clubgoer Marlon Brando posing with fans at New York’s Birdland.
Sittin’ In playlist on Spotify and Apple Music
From Sittin’ In:
In my work as a music executive, historian, collector, and dealer I’ve had my fair share of crazy adventures, so sorting through the contents of a jazz collector’s safe-deposit boxes in a closet-size room in a bank didn’t strike me as particularly unusual. In the four hours I was there, I discovered many treasures that I coveted and eventually bought: concert tickets and handbills, autographs, contracts, letters, and other documents. But most interesting were the souvenir photographs from jazz clubs of the 1940s and 1950s. Each was in its own custom folder; the graphics were fantastic and so evocative of that classic era of jazz.
As I went through the boxes, I kept finding more photos—twenty-five, fifty, one hundred, and, eventually, more than two hundred—all mixed in with the rest of the collection. Some were well photographed, some were amateurish. But each had something to offer. Even before I finished, the thought struck me that the photographs would make a great book. If I hadn’t seen pictures like these, I doubted many others had.
I bought all of them. Though the images were primarily of African Americans, some pictured white fans, and some showed mixed groups or white and Black people seated next to each other. There were couples on double dates, mothers and fathers with grown children, enlisted men and women in uniform, and even a picture of the Harriet Tubman Social Club. In a few, famous musicians—Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Art Blakey, Oscar Peterson, and Louis Armstrong—posed with audience members. There was plenty of alcohol, which wasn’t surprising. These quick snapshots were taken by each club’s in-house photographer, developed on-site, and ready to be taken home at the end of an evening for a dollar, a cheap souvenir of a night out. Collectively, though, they are something altogether different, something important today—a visual record of a rarely seen and poorly documented world. An accidental history.
These pictures turn the camera around. We’ve seen photographs of these clubs before, of the performers onstage, the marquees, the lines outside. But rarely, if ever, have we seen the audiences, the fans, as we do here. And they are a critical part of what jazz pianist, composer, and educator Jason Moran calls the “ecosystem” of jazz. Sonny Rollins told me that in small clubs like these, the audiences “sort of played with you. They’re like part of the band.”
If you’re looking for a comprehensive history of jazz, this isn’t it. The focus here is on something that hasn’t been properly explored: American jazz clubs of the 1940s and 1950s—what some call the golden age—as seen through the lens of these audience photographs and related memorabilia.
Moran says, “Seeing these images is powerful because we never document the jazz audience.” The Library of Congress, for example, is home to more than 1,600 images taken by legendary jazz photographer William Gottlieb, only a tiny fraction of which picture audience members. Almost all the souvenir photographs in this book date from the 1940s and 1950s. It doesn’t seem many clubs had in-house photographers before 1940, and by the end of the 1950s, most of these clubs were out of business.
As New York City was already well established as the jazz center of the world, the majority of the images here are from the city’s clubs. But there were hundreds of other clubs in cities across America, and we are fortunate to have a representative sampling from many of them. These photographs were made at a time when discrimination and segregation were the norm in the United States, and some of them document how “jazz was really where the racial barriers were broken down heavily,” according to Rollins.
I am incredibly fortunate that Quincy Jones and Sonny Rollins, who played these clubs, agreed to speak with me about the culture, the fans, and so much more. I’m grateful to Jason Moran, who looked at these photographs through the eyes of a contemporary jazz musician and historian and shared his insights. Dan Morgenstern, a jazz historian without peer, shared his experiences as a patron of some of these clubs beginning in the late 1940s. And writer and cultural critic Robin Givhan graciously shared her insights on the photographs themselves. This book would have been a much lesser work without them.
I’ve included whatever information I could find about the clubs, musicians, photographers, and mostly anonymous fans. But in some cases, we have only the photos. As I study them, they continue to reveal layers of information. It is my sincere hope they do the same for you.