Marc H. Miller, Ph.d., is an author and curator who is the project director of the Queens Jazz Trial Map. The Map is one part of a multi-faceted program of exhibits, concerts and tours under the direction of Jo-Ann Jones, the Creative and Executive Director of the Flushing Council on Culture and the arts and historic Flushing Town Hall. For information on all of the programs and events associated with the Queens Jazz Trail Map Call Flushing Town Hall at (718) 463-7700.
The history of jazz is associated with many cities, districts and streets. There is New Orleans, Storyville, Basin Street, Memphis, Beale Street, the Southside of Chicago, Kansas City, Harlem, 52nd Street, Greenwich Village and many others. One place though conspicuously absent in most accounts of jazz history, despite its many links to the music, is New York Citys Borough of Queens. It will come as a surprise to most that since the 1920s, Queens has been the "home of jazz," the residence of choice for hundreds of jazz musicians, including such all-time notables as Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie. The Queens Jazz Trail, a project of Flushing Town Hall, aims to shed light on this neglected history.
Consisting of a map that includes the addresses of the jazz musicians who lived in Queens, and escorted tours that visit the Boroughs major jazz sites, the Queens Jazz Trail documents, for all to see, the undeniable importance of Queens in the history of jazz.
The role of Queens as a jazz center began in 1923 when the music publisher and entrepreneur, Clarence Williams, and his wife, singer Eva Taylor, purchased a home and eight adjoining lots along 108 Ave. in rural Jamaica. Born and raised in the Louisiana delta, Williams preferred living in the country to the city. Similar views were held by other African American musicians, many of whom were also from the South. Soon the open spaces of Jamaica, St. Albans, Hollis, and neighboring towns were home for other musicians like piano player James P. Johnson, composer Perry Bradford and bandleader Fess Williams. As jazz continued to grow in popularity, more and more musicians could afford to purchase homes in Queens. In the 1940s and 1950s, the small community of Addisleigh Park in St. Albans must have seemed like a living music hall of fame. Its long list of famous residents included Count Basie, Lena Horne, Mercer Ellington, Bill Kenny of the Ink Spots, and the soul singer James Brown.
Jazz would play a role in almost every community of Queens. In 1931 Sunnyside was the site of the death of Bix Beiderbecke, the talented, white cornet player whose short and tragic life inspired the book and movie, "Young Man With a Horn."
The music of the 1930s and early 1940s was dominated by the big swing bands. Many key players, including Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Woody Herman, lived in the new apartment buildings of Jackson Heights. Red Nichols and Red Norvo had houses in Forest Hills. Encouraged by his new wife Lucille, who had spent her teenage years in Queens, Louis Armstrong purchased a home in Corona in 1943. Billie Holiday moved to Queens at the end of the 1940s, living first in a house in Addisleigh Park, and later, in a modest second floor apartment in the new housing project of Parsons Gardens in Flushing. Dizzy Gillespie also lived in Parsons Gardens, before saving enough money to buy a large brick building in Corona less than three blocks from Armstrong. Although the press often made much of the rivalry between Satchmo and Diz, the two trumpet players were in fact neighbors and friends. Even in death, the two jazz greats would remain connected in Queens. Both are buried in Flushing Cemetery.
Now as a new generation of musicians move into Queens, they join a living legacy personified by the boroughs senior jazzmen: 76-year-old Illinois Jacquet, 88-year-old Milt Hinton, and 96-year-old Benny Waters.
In the year 2000, the Louis Armstrong House, administered by Queens College, will open as a museum. The Armstrong Archives, the richest collection of Armstrong material anywhere, can already be visited at the Colleges nearby Flushing campus. Many Queens institutions now strive to keep the Boroughs jazz tradition alive. York College houses The Black American Heritage Foundation Music History Archive with material given by Buck Clayton and other local jazz greats. Flushing Town Hall sponsors exhibitions about jazz and jazz concerts. Jazz can be heard at other venues as well.
While there has never been a tune called Take The F train, the Queens Jazz Trail shows that many musicians did ride that subway line. For them and for the musicians who took the J train, the Long Island Railroad, or drove across the Queensborough Bridge, Queens really was the home of jazz.