Let’s continue our #BlackMusicSunday tour of famed jazz clubs: We’ve been to the Cotton Club, the Village Vanguard, and Birdland so far. I’m not ready to exit the New York City jazz scene yet, so on this stop, we’re headed back uptown to Harlem, to Smalls’ Paradise.
Smalls’ had the distinction of being the only Harlem nightspot owned by a Black businessman, Edwin Smalls. And also unlike many other Harlem venues, which catered to almost exclusively white audiences, Smalls’ was integrated.
Smalls opened the club in a basement at Seventh Avenue and 135th Street in 1925, and one of its features was the sight of rollerskating and singing waiters, some of whom even danced the Charleston as they delivered patrons’ orders.
Let’s pay it a visit.
Details about Smalls’ early life are murky; it is not clear exactly where in South Carolina he was born, or the exact date; several references also claim that he was a grandson of Robert Smalls, who escaped slavery and went on to become a congressman during Reconstruction. The South Carolina Encyclopedia of Jazz places his birth around 1882-1884. In the 1910 U.S. Census, Smalls was listed as an elevator operator, but by 1925, he had already owned a nightclub, and was clearly an enterprising gentleman.
His 1974 New York Times obituary sets the Paradise stage for us.
Smalls' Paradise, at Seventh Avenue and 135th Street, was from the mid Nineteen‐twenties through the early fifties the center of authentic Harlem nightlife. The community's two other famous nightspots were Connie's Inn and the Cotton Club. The Cotton Club barred black patrons, moved down town to Broadway and folded.
But Smalls' attracted whites and blacks alike as the community grew world famous for its poets, writers, artists, entertainers and athletes. And many of them were familiar figures at Smalls'.
Smalls' Paradise was superbly situated, close to the Harlem Young Men's Christian Association, the Schomburg Collection of Negro Life and History, two blocks south of the community's most famous residential blocks, Strivers Row, and a few blocks away from where black Harlem began.
Look at that marquee!
South Carolina writer and historian Mark R. Jones vividly describes the scene at Smalls’.
Nearly 1,500 guests jammed themselves into the brand-new basement club and danced to the tunes of Charlie Johnson’s Paradise Orchestra, which would serve as the house band for the next ten years. Johnson's Orchestra through the years featured several South Carolina musicians, including Gus Aiken and Jabbo Smith from the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston.
In 1929, the entertainment magazine Variety listed eleven major nightclubs in Harlem that catered to a predominantly white crowd. The four most popular were Small’s Paradise, the Cotton Club, Barron Wilkins’s Exclusive Club, and Connie’s Inn. Many wealthy white curiosity seekers actually preferred some of the other big-name clubs—especially the Cotton Club and Connie’s Inn—to Small’s Paradise, because these other clubs were owned by whites and admitted only white patrons. While the entertainers and the waiters at these establishments were almost exclusively black, African American customers were firmly turned away unless they were true celebrities, such as the dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Small’s Paradise, in contrast, appealed to whites who wanted to attend a club where African Americans made up a sizable portion of the audience. But despite the racially integrated nature of Small’s Paradise, all its patrons were financially well-off; the high prices for both food and liquor were enough to force most working-class Harlemites to seek out a more affordable speakeasy. Although Small’s was not as expensive as Connie’s Inn, for example, an average tab at Small’s was about $4 per person in 1929, when the average domestic laborer in Harlem earned between $6 and $12 a week.
Here’s what it sounded like at Smalls’ in those early days.
As YouTuber Mark Jones notes:
Charlie Johnson's Paradise Orchestra was the house band for the popular Harlem club, SMALL'S PARADISE, during the 1920s.
This track features Jabbo Smith on lead trumpet, just after he had played a session with Duke Ellington ('Black and Tan Fantasy) and before he recorded his classic Brunswick sides in 1929. Jabbo was raised in the Jenkins Orphanage in Charleston before becoming one of the hottest trumpet players in NYC during the 20s.
Sadly there is no film footage of the early shows at Smalls’, except for this 1932 short film, Smash Your Baggage, featuring Smalls’ entertainers playing a group of porters who start performing in Grand Central Station, determined to raise money for an ill colleague.
In the 1940s, Smalls hired a young waiter who would go on to play a very important (non-musical) role in American history. Malcolm Little had relocated from Boston to Harlem—history, of course, remembers him as Malcolm X. Read about it at the Civil Rights Heritage Museum Online.
Malcolm X worked there as a day waiter between 1942 and 1943. At Smalls, Malcolm makes a good impression on the customers and on his employers, and learns various hustling techniques, the etiquette of the Harlem underworld, and the history of the neighborhood. With his tips, Malcolm begins to invest a lot of money in the numbers racket, the popular unofficial lottery in Harlem. He learns the names and faces of the young numbers runners as well as those of the “old heads,” black gangsters left over from the 1920s and 1930s. Malcolm also meets an assortment of pimps, including one known as Sammy the Pimp, who soon becomes his best friend and sole Harlem confidant.
Civil rights activist Doctor W. E. B. Du Bois celebrated his 83rd birthday at Smalls Paradise on February 23, 1951. The banquet, sponsored by Albert Einstein, Mary McLeod Bethune, Paul Robeson and others, was originally to be held at New York’s Essex House. This was during the era of McCarthyism; a pro-McCarthy group circulated a newsletter labeling Du Bois, Einstein and others connected with the dinner as being pro-Communist. When the Essex House canceled the banquet, it was held at Smalls Paradise.
In 1955, the club was sold to Tommy Smalls (no relation to Edwin), a Harlem DJ who was known as “The Mayor of Harlem.”
Though very few live recordings were made at Smalls, Jimmy Smith’s Groovin at Smalls’ Paradise is a gem that should be in your collection.
Ronnie D. Lankford Jr wrote Smith’s bio for Musician Guide.
More than any other musician, Jimmy Smith was responsible for the rise in prominence of the Hammond B-3 organ in jazz. "He revolutionized the instrument," wrote Ron Wynn and Bob Porter in All Music Guide, "showing it could be creatively used in a jazz context and popularized in the process." With classic pieces like "The Sermon!" in 1957 and "Back at the Chicken Shack" in 1960, and a series of hit albums on Blue Note and Verve during the 1950s and 1960s, Smith set the standard for other jazz organists. His style and approach would also bridge the gap between jazz styles during these same years. "There were organists in jazz before Jimmy Smith," noted Richard Cook in the New Statesman, "but he turned the electric Hammond B-3 from an ice-rink novelty into a legitimate vehicle for keyboard players who wanted something beefier and louder than the piano."
In 1951 Smith joined Don Gardner's Sonotones, an R&B band, and soon started to experiment with the Hammond organ. His interest in the organ was spurred on when he attended shows by Wild Bill Davis, the leading organ player of the time, at Club Harlem in New Jersey. "Bill had everything goin'," Smith told Pete Fallico at Jazz Ateria. In 1954 Smith bought his first organ and began to explore its possibilities in a Philadelphia warehouse, emulating the styles of saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, and Arnette Cobb. "I copped my solos from horn players," he told Fallico. "I don't listen to keyboard players. I can't get what I want from keyboard players." Two years later he brought his new organ sound to New York City and debuted at Small's Paradise in Harlem. He soon signed with Blue Note Records and appeared at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival.
Between Smith's Blue Note recording debut in 1956 and his last album for the label in 1963, the Hammond B-3 organ powerfully inserted itself into the sound of contemporary jazz. Even the audacious title of his first album, A New Sound, a New Star: Jimmy Smith at the Organ, lived up to its billing. "The emergence of Jimmy Smith in 1956 was quite noteworthy," wrote Scott Yanow in All Music Guide. "Here was an organist who could play his instrument with the facility of a Charlie Parker and yet could also dig into a lowdown blues." Smith recorded quickly and prolifically for Blue Note, first in the trio format and later in larger ensembles. Many of the recordings between 1957 and 1960 were loose jam sessions, allowing the musicians ample room (as much as 15 and 20 minutes per composition) to develop soulful solos. Smith's adventurous work in the late 1950s was instrumental in developing both hard bop, an extension of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie's bop style, and soul jazz, a style that incorporated R&B, gospel, and the blues.
Get your groove on with Jimmy Smith.
One of the other few albums recorded live at Smalls’ was recorded by a singer who was also a stand-up comic and poet, and who has always fascinated me: Babs Gonzales.
David Johnson tells Gonzales’ story for Indiana Public Media.
[H]e was born as Lee Brown on October 27, 1919 in Newark, New Jersey. Early in life he found lucrative pastimes on the street and in the world of the big bands, working as a band boy for Jimmy Lunceford, and later as a singer for Lionel Hampton and Charlie Barnet. He moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s and undertook the first of a number of racially subversive acts, wearing a turban and calling himself "Ram Singh" in order to make himself more employable, later changing his last name to Gonzales in order to pass as a Latino American. He landed a gig as chauffeur for the movie star Errol Flynn. These were the World War II years, and eventually Gonzales went home to Newark to report for military duty; in his memoir I PAID MY DUES: GOOD TIMES… NO BREAD, he details the cross-dressing antics he engaged in in order to be classified as unfit for service. He also fell in with the newly-emerged bebop scene, and collaborated with one of its brightest young talents, arranger, composer, and pianist Tadd Dameron, in a group known as Three Bips and a Bop.
He put out his own records and published his own books, adept at self-promotion long before the emergence of social media. His story-telling and observations were bebop's prototype for rap. He fulfilled his creed of "expubidence," his term for originality and soul, and rode the ups and downs of a hustler's life with pizzazz, making records along the way that constitute a subgenre of mid-20th century bop. Near the end of his 1967 memoir I PAID MY DUES: GOOD TIMES… NO BREAD he proclaimed himself to be "rich in the art of living." Gonzales would continue practicing that art for another 13 years, passing away in 1980 at the age of 60, leaving behind an only-sporadically celebrated legacy as one of the most colorful characters of the 20th-century jazz scene. Decades later, when editor Geoffrey O'Brien included an excerpt of Gonzales' writing in the Library of America COOL SCHOOL anthology, he called Babs" "one of the outsider voices ignored or suppressed by the mainstream [that] would merge and recombine in unpredictable ways, and change American culture forever." I'll close with Babs Gonzales live at Small's Paradise in Harlem doing "Them Jive New Yorkers" and his own lyrics-added version of Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight" on Night Lights:
Here’s the full 1963 recording of Live at Smalls’ Paradise.
Smalls’ again changed hands in 1961; one of the new owners was basketball star Wilt Chamberlain. Gary M. Pomerantz wrote about the subsequent transformation of the club for The New York Times in 2005.
...so valuable was Chamberlain's name now, so incandescent his persona, that a historic Harlem nightclub, Smalls Paradise, let him buy in as part-owner and put his name first on the marquee in exchange for his presence. He loved Harlem, the neon, the ladies, James Brown, Etta James, Redd Foxx, a lush life with jazz the soundtrack. And when Wilton Norman Chamberlain moved through Big Wilt's Smalls Paradise, there attached to him an aura suggesting he owned not only this place, but all of Harlem, perhaps all of New York. His presence in the club was signaled by the white Cadillac parked out front by one of the nightclub boys on the corner of 135th Street, while Chamberlain strode around the club's dark interior greeting his guests, draping an arm around Tom "Satch" Sanders of the Boston Celtics, squeezing a shoulder, "Good to see you, Satch. Sit down, relax, and enjoy yourself." Reminiscing years later, the Dipper would recall this as the greatest time in his life.
At Big Wilt's Smalls Paradise, the bandleader King Curtis worked deep into the night, and the denizens turned up wearing sharkskin suits and memorable monikers: Big Pete, Little Pete, an intellectual straight shooter known as Knowledge, and of course, Charlie Polk, Wilt's right-hand man, always at his side, Robin to his Batman. His name, called out so often, rolled off the Dipper's tongue: Chollypolk. Small and thin as straw, Polk was, as one Harlem nightclub regular would say, "one of those types of guys who if he latched on to you, he didn't let go." Whatever the Dipper wanted-his shirts picked up at the cleaners, his friend's wife picked up at the bus stop and taken shopping-Chollypolk got it done. When a beautiful woman at Smalls caught the Dipper's eye, Chollypolk became his emissary, quietly letting the woman know of his boss's interest and gauging her availability. He loved being on stage at the club, and though he couldn't sing or dance and he stuttered slightly, he was a riotous emcee. If you put a microphone in his hand, Chollypolk might never let go of it, and Redd Foxx would sit beside the stage, waiting, waiting to begin his gig.
Smalls Paradise was a legend that dated back to the Harlem Renaissance of the Twenties when its waiters danced or roller-skated across the room with service trays held high; the club was known then as the Hottest Spot in Harlem. Chamberlain had long wanted his own nightclub, an environment that had always drawn him as a stage for his fabulousness-why, even when he was just sixteen, his rival at West Philadelphia High, Ray Scott, had spotted him at a dance at the O.V. Catto Elks Lodge in Philadelphia and noticed how the Dipper flourished in such a setting, managing what all of the other boys couldn't, a laid-back, Miles Davis, be-bop cool. Chamberlain well knew the precedents of black athletes owning such places in New York. Back in the Twenties, Club Deluxe in Harlem briefly was owned by the prizefighter Jack Johnson, a controversial figure excoriated by the white press in the early part of the century for having twice married white women and later imprisoned for transporting a woman across state lines in violation of the Mann Act. Now Joe Louis and Ray Robinson lent their names and money to The Brown Bomber and Sugar Ray's. It wasn't so much the fast life that attracted the Dipper to buy a piece of Smalls in the spring of 1961. He rarely drank or smoked and he exercised every day, pushing his own physical limits. (Before one weekend trip to Atlantic City, his friend Cal Ramsey tried to pick up Chamberlain's suitcase but found it too heavy. Ramsey looked inside and discovered why-the Dipper's barbells.) What attracted Chamberlain to Smalls Paradise was the chance to explore new avenues of his own celebrity.
I’ll close out our visit to Smalls’ Paradise with the R&B sound of of the aforementioned saxophonist King Curtis—who I got to hear, live at Smalls’! His life was sadly cut short when he was stabbed on the front steps of his brownstone in August 1971. He was only 37 years old.
Ed Decker wrote this bio:
Although he was relatively unknown by the listening public during his career, King Curtis--whose real name was Curtis Ousley--played saxophone both in the studio and on stage for hundreds of well-known musical performers ranging from Bobby Darin and Andy Williams to the Coasters. He also achieved stardom on his own in a series of acclaimed soul recordings during the last decade of his tragically shortened life. "His [Curtis's] staccato style on the tenor sax, known as `a yackity sax' was instantly recognizable to experts even on the many records he made with others in years before his name appeared on the records," wrote Murray Schumach in his obituary for Curtis in the New York Times in 1971. "Famous artists valued his knowledge as an arranger and his sense of musical showmanship," added Schumach.
Curtis was especially known for blasting sound out of his instrument in a rough-cutting style that perfectly complemented rousing rock and roll numbers as well as soul music. As was noted in the New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, "Owing to his syncopated, almost percussive style, Curtis became one of the best-known and most sought-after studio saxophone players of the 1950s and 1960s; his tone was deep and fruity, with a characteristic burr." Curtis was perfectly willing to submerge his musical presence into songs, rather than drawing attention to himself. According to Jazz: The Essential Companion, "Curtis earned his reputation for the superb appropriateness of brief solos on r & b and pop records...."
Encompassing jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, pop and even country music, Curtis's recordings demonstrated his great versatility. Many of them were instrumental versions of vocal hits, but they were far from muzak. "His style was so lyrical and so elegant that he was able to get away with playing instrumental versions of vocal hits, which is usually a sure path to dentist chair music," wrote Colin Escott in the Razor & Tie liner notes for Instant Soul: The Legendary King Curtis. Among the instrumental covers he recorded on sax were "Spanish Harlem," "On Broadway," You've Lost That Loving Feeling, "Ode to Billie Joe," "Whiter Shade of Pale," and "Let It Be."
Here he is in 1966—doesn’t it feel like you are right up in the club with him?
Smalls’ doors would close for good in 1986, but the memories, the good times, and the music still linger.
Join me in the comments for even more music and memories.