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More Than Dizzy and Duke: Jazz Legends South of Union Square

“I had spent many years pursuing excellence, because that is what classical music is all about… Now [jazz] was dedicated to freedom, and that was far more important.”

– Nina Simone

On June 27th, 2023, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated three new individual landmarks, all with ties to the history of modern jazz in our city: 935 St. Nicholas Avenue in Washington Heights, the longtime residence of two jazz pioneers, Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington and Noble Lee Sissel; 105-19 37th Avenue in Corona, Queens, the home of John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie at the height of his career from 1953-65; and the Hotel Cecil and Minton’s Playhouse Building in Harlem, which is credited with “launching the pivotal jazz style of bebop,” and where “performances at the famous nightclub helped shape modern jazz.”

Village Preservation’s South of Union Square Music Tour

At Village Preservation, we are always excited to see places of cultural significance receive landmark recognition throughout the five boroughs of New York City. Yet these three designations call even more attention to the paucity of landmarks in the area South of Union Square–a neighborhood that we have been fighting to protect, and where the musical genre of jazz gained popularity and thrived. Many buildings throughout the neighborhood continue to tell this story, and they deserve both recognition and preservation.

204 East 13th Street

The great jazz musician and Grammy-nominated recording artist Randy Weston lived at 204 East 13th Street in the 1960s, during the peak of his career. Weston consistently incorporated African musical elements in his work, and played an important role in advancing the argument, now widely accepted, that the roots of jazz trace back to African music. In 2001, the National Endowment for the Arts gave Weston its Jazz Masters award, the highest accolade available to a jazz artist in the United States.

Another resident of 204 East 13th Street in the late ‘60s was Booker T. Ervin Jr., a tenor saxophonist who led a storied career in jazz, working with musical greats including Weston, as well as Charles Mingus, Sonny Stitt, Roy Haynes, and Dexter Gordon. Weston once said of Ervin: “for me, [he] was on the same level as John Coltrane. He was a completely original saxophonist… a master…”

39 East 10th Street. Photograph by Dena Tasse-Winter, 2023.

Just a few blocks away and a few years later, the iconic jazz musician and composer Charles Mingus resided at “The Lancaster” at 39 East 10th Street, an 1887 Queen Ann style French Flat building, beginning in 1972 (Mingus spent much of his life and career in the Village, and we recently honored him with a plaque at his former Great Jones Street home.). An accomplished pianist and an innovative master bass player, Mingus often collaborated with such famed musicians as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and even Joni Mitchell.

55 Fifth Avenue

Some of the most significant recordings of 20th century American music were made in the studios of two recording companies that occupied 55 Fifth Avenue in the 1920s-30s: Columbia Phonograph Company and OKeh Records, which eventually merged as Columbia Records, the oldest surviving brand name in the business.

Record-producer, civil rights activist, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-inductee John Hammond made his very first recordings in the building with jazz pianist Garland Wilson, and big band pianist, arranger, and composer Fletcher Henderson, who is considered, along with Duke Ellington, to be one of the most influential arrangers and bandleaders in jazz history, and one of the progenitors of the genre that would come to be called “swing.”

At Columbia Records in 1940, from left: John Hammond, Benny Goodman, the guitarist Charlie Christian and a Columbia A&R man. Photo credit, David Scull, New York Times

Hammond established a close relationship with a young Benny Goodman, who recorded his first top ten hits, including “Ain’t Cha Glad?,” with Hammond at 55 Fifth Avenue in 1933. While Goodman is often credited with integrating American music by working with African American musicians and vocalists, Goodman himself would credit Hammond, who made it his personal mission to advance the integration of the music industry. That same year, Hammond brought Goodman uptown to meet Billie Holiday, whom he had discovered at a speakeasy on West 133rd Street, and they persuaded her to do her very first recording at 55 Fifth Avenue.

Hammond also recorded here with legendary jazz saxophonist Benny Carter, blues singer Bessie Smith, and jazz vocalist Ethel Waters. He would go on to play a significant role in launching the careers of Count Basie, Big Joe Turner, Pete Seeger, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among many others.

70 University Place (the adjacent building was recently demolished)

Just around the corner, 70 University Place was home to the noted jazz club Bradley’s from 1969 to 1996. For three decades, this intimate space, holding only fifteen tables and 20 barstools, filled a multitude of roles for the Village and surrounding music community. It was a watering hole, a school, and an exhibition space for the most venerated jazz musicians of the time. A number of jazz greats cultivated their reputations here, among them, Roy Hargrove, Jackie Terrasson, Stephen Scott, Cyrus Chestnut, Leon Parker, and Bruce Barth.

Click here to send a letter supporting landmark designation of these and other historically significant buildings south of Union Square.

To learn more about the many spots that fostered jazz and other musical styles in the area south of Union Square, check out our online neighborhood Music Tour.

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