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The Melodious Sounds Which Emanated from 108 Waverly Place

I manage GVSHP’s historic plaque program, through which we place two markers on buildings in our neighborhoods each year, highlighting their cultural or social significance. So I am always interested to see when a building has a similar such commemoration on it.  One such plaque on Waverly Place has always caught my eye: “Prior Home of The Institute of The Jazz Studies founded by Marshall W. Stearns 1952.” Who, I have often wondered, was Marshall Stearns, and how did his Jazz Institute end up in this unusual stone clad building at 108 Waverly Place?

The institute and the building each have an interesting history.  When it was a  boarding house in the 1890’s, the most well-known resident of 108 Waverly Place was Richard Harding Davis.  Davis was a reporter and playwright who served as a war correspondent during the Spanish American War and is credited with popularizing the clean-shaven look for men at that time, eschewing the pronounced facial hair so popular with men in the late 19th century.  His work supported American interventionism and deployed simplistic stereotypes unfortunately common at the time.

Soon after in 1906 building owner Grace Wilkes commissioned architect Charles C. Haight in 1906 to transform the old home into a carriage house and stable.  Above the street level were living quarters for Wilkes’ driver or stable staff.  Haight’s designs can be seen at General Theological Seminary among other places.

From the Greenwich Village Historic District Designation Report of 1969:

This group (108-114 Waverly Place), in its present appearance, is unique to Greenwich Village. These four houses are all that remain of a row of nine built in 1826 for Thomas R. Mercein. He was president of the New York Equitable Fire Insurance Company, and had also served as City comptroller. In No. 108, we see a love for the picturesque as this new front is a granite-faced, rough ashlar facade with crenelated cornice, simulating a small castle. It was designed in 1906 by Charles C. Haight for Miss Grace Wilkes. At that time the stable and coachman’s apartment were combined, and the roof over the attic floor was raised, and it now has a steeply sloping studio window. The present two-centered arched window at ground floor that replaces the former garage entrance is a further alteration in 1927 when the entire building was converted into a dwelling.

In 1917 artist Harriet W. Titlow had her studio in the sunny top floor.

108 to 118 Waverly Place, New York City, undated. [Photographed for?] R.H. Davies, Bayard, Taylor & R. Henry Stoddard.. New-York Historical Society, Photographs of New York City and Beyond
But the plaque affixed at ground level has to do with the next notable resident of 108 Waverly Place and his work.

Marshall W. Stearns played drums in his youth and studied medieval English at Yale University, obtaining a Ph.D. He taught English at a number of colleges, and during this time frequently wrote about jazz music for magazines.  He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1950 and used the proceeds to finish his seminal 1956 work The Story of Jazz,  a popular introduction to jazz. He taught jazz at New York University and the New School, and in 1952  he founded the Institute of Jazz Studies at 108 Waverly Place, which he directed.Front Cover

At one of the memorable gatherings at the Institute, Dizzy Gillespie arrived with half of his band.  It was before air conditioning, so the windows were open wide and the music of Gillespie’s band sounded out onto the quiet street west of Washington Square Park.  Someone called the police; but reportedly when they arrived and realized who was making the noise, they asked for autographs and had a glass of champagne, instead.

Party at 108 Waverly, with Ravi Shankar and Dizzy Gillespie performing, among others. Life Magazine Feb. 4 1967

In September 1966 the enormous collection of the Institute of Jazz was acquired by Rutgers University.  Called “the most extensive of its kind,” the archives included, according to The New York Times, “more than 90,000 recorded selections on disks, tapes, cylinders and piano rolls; every published book on jazz, except for a few obscure foreign works, as well as many unpublished manuscripts; files of jazz magazines in a variety of languages, photographs and clippings, a player piano, 25 antique phonographs (two in the shape of lamps) and such memorabilia as the saxophone played by Lester Young when he was with Count Basie’s band in 1936 and 1937.” Two months later, the 58-year old Marshall Stearns died.

On the Advisory Board were notables like Dave Brubeck, Jacob Laurence, Ralph Ellison, Louis Armstrong and many others.

No. 108 Waverly continued to serve as a center for creativity. It became home to the internationally-known photographer and tapestry artist Jan Yoors, and his family.

Current owner Nuri Akgul a retired English-as-a-second-language teacher is part of this creative and intellectual tradition; he also has a picture of the cops at 108 Waverly when Dizzy was there.

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