Writings & Whatnot by Rob Hill
Strolling down 52nd Street between Fifth and Seventh Avenues, one notices the plate glass windows and steel frames of banks and hotels, the numerous revolving doors and loading docks. Though the signpost on the corner designates this as “Swing Street,” even the casual observer must note that there is nothing remotely swinging about this particular stretch of concrete and steel. Aside from the banks there are a few clothing shops, a FedEx store, a Sheraton Executive Conference Center, The Paley Center for Media, and a certain well-known coffeeshop whose origin can be traced to the northwest coast. The only thing within sight that seems even mildly historic is the 21 Club, a former speakeasy, with its balcony of cast iron lawn jockeys.
From the nineteen thirties to the fifties it was a different story. The streets were lined with Victorian brownstones ablaze with ghostly neon, thriving nightclubs with names like The Onyx, The Three Deuces, The Famous Door, the Downbeat, the Yacht Club, Jimmy Ryan’s, and, later, Birdland. On any given night one could drift from venue to venue, falling under the spell of such jazz legends as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, Lennie Tristano, Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young, a pantheon of the greats. Bird’s tortured flights of freedom. Monk staggering over broken keys. Tristano’s tempered trapezoids. Dizzy’s musical puns. Every night up and down the block it all came pouring from the entrances.
As bebop gradually infiltrated mass consciousness, 52nd Street was its headquarters. This was serious music to be listened to, to be studied and understood. Never mind that corny dance jive of yesterday, the syncopated high hat seemed to proclaim, the real questions were being asked right here. Glenn Miller had been lost during the war and this was his replacement. And it spoke in a language better equipped to deal with postwar existential terror, a jagged dialogue of flatted fifths, not known for nothing as the Devil’s Interval. Blackclad femmes with cocaine eyes watching from the front tables. An audience of hornrims and goatees, nodding in rhythmic conspiracy. A few undercover narcotics agents towards the back attempting a low profile. Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and the room is smouldering. A tousle-haired trumpet player comes tottering off the bandstand in a heroin haze, beats a fast exit up the fire escape as a cigarette girl creates a diversion. But everyone listens.
By the mid-fifties the street was in decline. Many of the clubs had adapted into strip joints where the music decidedly took a backseat to the action. Rock ‘n’ roll was the new kid in town. Jazz was doomed to be usurped by rock, as youth discovered it didn’t want to analyze from its chair, it wanted to shake, rattle, and if possible, roll. And youth has in its possession the disposable income, so naturally it will be targeted by those whose business it is to dispose of it. Ma and pa still remember the Depression. They’re going to be much harder to separate from their savings. But their affluent offspring are ripe for the taking. So if it’s a simple beat and a curled lip the kids want, a simple beat and a curled lip is what they’ll get.
In 1959, Miles Davis made headlines after getting roughed up by a cop in front of Birdland for refusing to be pushed around. Miles’ name happened to be on the marquee but the cop was more concerned with the white woman at Miles’ side. A photo circulated showing the musician bleeding from a head wound as the police took him into custody. A decade later he was to corner rock music on his own turf and have his way with it on the infamous Bitches Brew album.
But by then the last jazz club had boarded its doors and the whole place sentenced to the bulldozer. Swing Street in any recognizable form disappeared without a trace. Its heyday can only be glimpsed in surviving photographs of the period, and as a fondly recreated set in Clint Eastwood’s tribute to Charlie Parker, Bird. Some shots of a washed-up Swing Street can be spotted in the film Sweet Smell of Success, as Lancaster and Curtis are leaving the 21 Club. The western end of the row is now affectionately known as “W.C. Handy’s Place,” though who in midtown today even remembers who W.C. Handy was?