BY TAMMY SCILEPPI
Back in the early ’60s, popular composer/bandleader William “Count” Basie and his contemporary Edward “Duke” Ellington, enjoyed hanging out and jamming together in St. Albans, the legendary home of A-list jazz icons such as Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and John Coltrane, who resided in its ritzy enclave Addisleigh Park.
In fact, Basie and his wife Catherine lived there since the mid-1940s, as did Ellington’s composer/arranger son Mercer Ellington. And Yankees slugger Babe Ruth spent so much time at the St. Albans Golf and Country Club that many area residents thought he lived there.
Pick up a copy of “St. Albans” (Arcadia Publishing) and take a trip back in time to that exciting era. Queens native Claire Serant’s new “time capsule” book — due for release on Jan. 27 — is chock full of 200 vintage photos and fun historical facts. She highlights the neighborhood’s famous and not-so-famous people and places, courtesy of current and former residents, Queens Library, the Library of Congress, and the Press of Southeast Queens.
You’ll learn about St. Albans’ evolution from a 19th century farming community to a working-class/middle-class community with European roots in the 1920s and ‘30s to a predominately African American and Caribbean American community that continues to embrace its ambitious past through strong connections to business, civic, political, and religious groups.
Serant, a former New York City journalist who teaches at Brooklyn College and Medgar Evers College, decided to pen her book because she was looking for a “fun” writing project.
“As a college professor, I’m always reading students’ work. I wanted to do what I love — research, writing, looking at historical photos and interviewing people,” she explained. “At the same time, a former student, Nicholas Hirshon, wrote ‘Forest Hills’ and ‘Nassau Coliseum’ for Arcadia. Another acquaintance, Carl Ballenas, wrote ‘Jamaica,’ ‘Jamaica Estates,’ ‘Maple Grove Cemetery,’ ‘Kew Gardens’ and ‘Richmond Hill’ for Arcadia. When I frequented Barnes and Noble stores, I saw many of the other sepia-toned Arcadia books and thought, ‘Why not write about St. Albans?’”
Serant said the neighborhood was always very special to her because she worshipped at St. Albans Congregational Church on Linden Boulevard and knew people from St. Albans from school, work or social events.
“When I covered Queens as a general assignment reporter for the New York Daily News [14 years], I wrote about St. Albans civic and business leaders, so it was nice to speak with many longtime residents and new acquaintances,” she said.
The author scored many cool pics from locals, as well as places like the Jamaica NAACP branch, which provided a photo of early members, including sociologist/journalist and former Addisleigh Park resident W.E.B. Du Bois, and American diplomat Ralph Bunche, who won a Nobel Peace Prize. Serant also took a few photos herself, but daughter Blair Garrett, was her main photographer.
One slice-of-life shot shows brothers Reuben “Ruby” and Jacob “Jinx” Kaplan, co-owners of popular jazz spot Club Ruby (located on Baisley Blvd. and 120th Ave. from early 1950s to mid-1960s), serving and serenading customers. It featured musicians, like trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson.
Serant, who hails from Springfield Gardens and now lives in Nassau County, said the timing was right for her book project.
“Right now, there are a lot of longtime St. Albans residents who have retired or relocated south. Their adult children might be trying to figure out whether to sell their family home or not. I wanted a book to remind the second generation of what their parents worked for when they came to St. Albans,” she said. “With all of the gentrification taking place in NYC, St. Albans folks – like the rest of southeast Queens – should remember the area’s value.”
“It’s a place where those hardworking families put down roots in order to give their children the ability to succeed,” she added.
Serant will appear at a book signing event from 6 to 8 p.m. on Jan. 30 at Black Spectrum Theatre Company, located at Roy Wilkins Park at 177th Street and Baisley Boulevard.