The Rise & Fall of the Original Swing Street

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133rd St. between 7th Ave. and Lennox Ave. is a quiet block of brownstones and tenement-style housing these days. Flashback 70 or 80 yeas ago, though, and “things were swinging to beat all hell,” as Willie “The Lion” Smith put it.

Nights and early mornings were filled with the impatient honking of humpbacked taxis jockeying
for position within the clamor of the street’s western section, close to 7th Ave. Faces of many hues
would emerge to slip under awnings imprinted with names like Covan’s and Pod’s. Society figures
and celebrities—Tallulah Bankhead, Langston Hughes, Mae West—crept into the street’s
basement-level speakeasies, drawn by the bawdy blues belting of the stout, unapologetically
lesbian Gladys Bentley, or ribald vocalist Mary Dixon urging her lover to “Take your time with what
you do/Make me cry for more of you.” Others were content to sit quietly and marvel at the rolling stride
piano playing of Willie “The Lion” Smith, who could make a single, beat-up tuneless upright sound
like an orchestra.

The liquor and (in some places) marijuana was plentiful. And in those days
of Prohibition, patrons could get giddy on Harlem’s famous “top and bottom” cocktail (gin plus
wine), secure in knowing the police rarely came around—except for a drink, of course. Downtown
whites called the block “Jungle Alley,” but few Harlemites during this age of the Renaissance stooped
to that kind of language. To them, 133rd St. was simply a place where they could relax, socialize
and escape the segregation of white-oriented clubs like Connie’s Inn and the Cotton Club that grew
like kudzu in other parts of Harlem.

“133rd St. was the real swing street,” claimed Billie Holiday, “like
52nd St. later tried to be.” Holiday was referring to the midtown block that became a tourist haven,
the Disneyland of jazz; but for the scores of musicians who played there, 133rd St. would always
be the genuine article, even after it seemed everyone else had forgotten it ever existed.

As soon as it was dark, the cellar joints started to open up for a long
night which sometimes extended to noon of the following day.

—Willie “The Lion” Smith, 1964

Harlem as we know it sprang up in the years before World War I, when the
area around the West 130s began filling with African Americans driven out of the city’s previous
black neighborhood, the Tenderloin (today’s Hell’s Kitchen). It wasn’t long before dance halls,
gambling dens and barrooms joined the migration. By 1915, young Harlem was jumping to the hot sounds
of ragtime, early jazz and the blues.

Then in November of 1920, nightlife in Harlem received a deadly blow—or
so it seemed. In truth, the passage of the 18th Amendment only made the “sporting scene” that much
stronger. It forced liquor consumption underground, into brownstone basements and speakeasies
and out of the public eye. Prohibition only added grist to Harlem’s gin mill, planting the seed for
the rise of 133rd St. and much of what we have since come to celebrate as New York’s jazz culture.

It all started with the Nest. In 1923, two local young men, Mal Frazier
and John Carey, leased an elegant, new two-story building with white brickwork and a heraldic emblem
near the top at 169 West 133rd. Frazier and Carey were pillars of the black community—with
tastes for liquor and women. The new building’s main floor was given over to the swanky Barbecue
Club (“A Park Avenue Place in Harlem”), but underneath, in the basement, was where the party really
got going.

The Nest opened on October 18, 1923, with a bird-themed floorshow staged
by Leonard Harper, famous in Harlem for inventive musical revues and live sex shows. With Sam Wooding’s
Creole Syncopators urging tipsy feet to the dance floor—wedged tightly between the bandstand
and a narrow row of tables—the Nest was an immediate hit. Two shootings within six months
only enhanced the club’s furtive appeal, adding what jazz historian Frank Driggs has described
as “a Chicago gangland atmosphere.” By the late ’20s the Nest was so famous that, according to Harlem’s
free-spirited newspaper The Inter-State Tattler, “one hears of it on the Riviera as well
as at Palm Beach.”

Frazier and Carey showed remarkable ingenuity from the beginning.
Their first stroke of genius was to incorporate the Nest as a private club, with paying members.
This was, of course, a way to dodge Prohibition laws. While the Nest was indeed open for membership,
this being an age in which Harlem society was led by clubs of every type and description, most regulars
were culled from the general public. The two men also went to great lengths to insure that local police
were treated well. As bandleader Luis Russell recalled, “There wasn’t a night in the week when you
didn’t see one of the officers from the 135th St. station there, eating dinner, having a few drinks
and picking up some cash if he needed it.”

It all worked perfectly until January 1927, when, in response to mounting
pressure from neighborhood residents throughout New York, the city imposed a 3 a.m. curfew on all
nightclubs. Ever crafty, Frazier and Carey quickly arranged to buy the entire building, having
discovered a loophole that allowed clubs owning their own premises to ignore the curfew. The happy
times at the Nest were now guaranteed to continue, drawing a stream of loyal customers that only
grew thicker once Tillie came to town.

By dint of her own perseverance, acumen and aggressiveness, she has
literally trod the path from obscurity to fame—for her dinners are recommended throughout
the country.

The New York Age

For much of the ’20s, the Nest was 133rd St.’s main draw, and the block
itself was not especially notable as a destination. That all changed upon Tillie Fripp’s
arrival. Like the heroine in a Fannie Hurst soap opera, Fripp left her cook’s job in a Philadelphia
roadhouse in 1926, came to Harlem for two weeks vacation and decided to stay. With just $1.98 in her
pocket, she got a job working at a 133rd St. speakeasy and, within no time, word of her remarkable
ham and eggs (what the Age called the “porker-cackleberry combination”) had spread like
wildfire. Downtown columnists like Louis Sobol laundered her with praise, and before long, Fripp
had enough capital to open her own restaurant in the bottom of a four-story brick rowhouse at 148
West 133rd. Tillie’s chicken and waffles became musts for every in-the-know tourist, and her menu
was augmented with a jazz lineup that came close to matching the Nest’s in quality and variety.

The success of Tillie’s and the Nest led to more clubs on what had formerly
been a genteel residential street. Edith’s Clam House, at number 146, opened on October 19, 1928.
It quickly gained fame through the larger-than-life person of Gladys Bentley, who dressed in top
hat and tails and delighted patrons with her X-rated version of “Alice Blue Gown.” (Sample lyric:
“And he said, ‘Dearie, please turn around’/And he shoved that big thing up my brown.”)

Mexico’s, a popular musicians’ hangout, was originally located four
blocks south but later moved to the basement of number 154. It was Duke Ellington’s personal favorite—”the
hottest gin mill on 133rd St.”—he later claimed, and dozens of jazz musicians flocked there
for nightly jam sessions and cutting contests. With Basement Brownie’s at 152 and Covan’s at 148
(taking over Tillie’s digs once she moved to larger quarters on Lenox Ave.), the street was on fire
by the early ’30s, just in time for a new phase of its life.

One night near the end of 1932, a robust young woman with eyes like almonds
walked through the odd-looking doorway at 168 West 133rd—it was designed to resemble a log
cabin—and asked for a job. She had been making the rounds of the street’s clubs, singing at
Covan’s and Mexico’s before getting fired from the latter after a dispute with the owner. She was
now out of work, and therefore much relieved when Jerry Preston, owner of this new place, agreed
to take her on for two dollars a night, plus tips. It was not an easy transition: The new vocalist was
awkward and had a hard time adjusting to the rollicking style of house pianist Willie “The Lion”
Smith, but when she sang, her notes were lush, mellow tones that filled the room with moonbeams.
One club regular later recalled, “I never heard her in better voice in all the years I knew her.” Perhaps
it was here more than anywhere else that Billie Holiday—and with her modern jazz singing—was
born.

Everybody that cares
for night life always visits Jerry Preston, at the Log Cabin Grill, in the wee hours of the morning.

The New York Age

A famed gambler and veteran club owner, Jerry Preston opened his new
spot around 1928 in the basement of one of the street’s most handsome brownstones. His business
partner was Charles Hollingsworth, a fun-loving “regular fellow” who would slap patrons on the
back with a “Howdy, pod-ner!” Soon everyone was calling the club Pod’s and Jerry’s or, after Preston
added his rustic-looking front entrance a few years later, the Log Cabin.

Here, 133rd St. reached its greatest flowering. Perhaps the city’s
most egalitarian spot, everything at Pod’s cost a dollar, and white patrons were always seated
next to black at one of the 25 checkerboard-cloth-covered tables. Any “ofay” who objected was taken
to the door and sent straight to Connie’s Inn two blocks away. Those who stayed were lulled by the
sweet, acrid scent of marijuana intermingled with savory fried chicken, hog maw and bacon. Celebrities
were treated like everyone else: it was Joan Crawford next to numbers dealers, fighter Jack Dempsey
aside Gladys Bentley and her raunchy sidekick, Jackie (later famous as “Moms”) Mabley; flamboyant
men serving, as one paper put it, “death warrants on lady’s lovers” side by side with the likes of
Mayor Walker. Early morning at Pod’s was a dizzying tableau of smoke, dim lights, laughter and,
permeating through it all, music.

Willie Smith was the club’s heart and soul, pulsing night after night
through the raucous goings on, filling the tiny basement with the barrelhouse pounding of his ragged
instrument. Artie Shaw, who apprenticed with Smith at Pod’s, recalled how “the top-front of the
piano was missing. All you could see was hammers.”

The Lion’s arrogance could be as prodigious as his talent: He’d speak
of himself in the third person, and when he took off his coat, he lay it so that you’d see the silk lining.
But his influence was vast, and the era’s greatest musicians came to Pod’s to hear him: Bix Beiderbecke,
Tiny Bradshaw, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Ellington. From there they carried forth sounds
and styles felt to this day. Pod’s and Jerry’s was 133rd St. at its fever pitch.

I thought it wouldn’t last long….For how could a large and enthusiastic
number of people be crazy about Negroes forever? But some Harlemites thought the millennium had
come. They thought the race problem had at last been solved through Art plus Gladys Bentley.

—Langston Hughes, 1940

The first sign of trouble was at the place where it had all begun. On New
Year’s Day 1932, for reasons long forgotten, the Nest’s John Carey decided to steal $600 from the
box office of the popular Renaissance Ballroom. Once the theft was discovered, the incensed owner
stormed into 169 West 133rd, armed and out for blood. Tensions abated with the help of a local police
captain, but the sordid incident made the Harlem gossip columns and cast a blemish upon a reputation
that had been, at least as far as the public was concerned, nearly spotless.

A few months later, The New York Times announced that proceedings
were underway to revoke the Nest’s private-club charter. It seems the attorney general had finally
caught up with what was going on. After a decade’s run, Frazier and Carey were out of luck. By the end
of the year, the pair sold the Nest to nightclub impresario Dickie Wells. He managed to keep the party
going with headliner “Gloria Swanson,” a witty female impersonator who, along with the drag “Mae
West” and “Clara Bow,” quickly became one of Harlem’s most popular entertainers.

And then the big boom fell. On December 3, 1933, Prohibition was finally
repealed. What should have been good news for nightclubs proved to be the death knell for 133rd St.
In one swift action, the clandestine speakeasies were unmasked for what they always had been: cramped
subterranean boîtes where American attitudes toward elbow room—not to
mention race—had been overturned in a renegade assault on propriety. Nightlife denizens
could now go to larger, more comfortable clubs around the corner on 7th Ave.—Small’s Paradise,
the Ubangi—and drink to their hearts’ content in front of God and everybody. A race riot in
1935 killed off the white public’s ever-fickle interest in the “exotic” pleasures of Harlem, and
places like the Cotton Club and the Ubangi either moved downtown or opened Times Square branches.
Eventually, the Harlem music world scaled down to what it remains today: an active local scene patronized
by uptown residents, European and Japanese tourists and the few downtown New Yorkers who aren’t
afraid to venture above Central Park North.

As for 133rd St., Dickie Wells kept the former Nest running until about
1942, by which time Mal Frazier had turned his attention to local politics. Pod’s Log Cabin, the
club that had epitomized the street in all its fever and glory, became the last survivor, hanging
on as a low-key neighborhood joint until 1948 or 1949.

By that time, 52nd St. between 5th and 6th Aves. turned into New York’s
new jazz home, until it also died, replaced by office towers, moccachinos and Au Bon Pain.
Nostalgia for 52nd St. runs high among jazz aficionados, and today it’s the downtown copy that is
remembered and mythologized, not the Harlem original.

Here’s to the original.

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