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The Lion & The Brute

A chance meeting in Newark 100 years ago left an

indelible mark on the world of jazz

By Mark Stewart

Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress/Gillespie Collection

Jazz immortals James P. Johnson and Willie Smith were destined to cross paths. That they did so as young men in Newark says much about the city’s role in the story of American music. The year was 1914 and the place was Randolph’s Café, a music hall in a former church located in the city’s “tenderloin” district, which was nicknamed the Barbary Coast, or Coast for short. Smith was Randolph’s cocky, flamboyant devil-may-care house piano player, all of 20 years old. Johnson, also a piano man (and also 20), was married to Lillie-Mae Wright, who had just been hired to sing at the café. James P. was quiet and timid, an intellectual by dance hall standards, but a monster on the keyboard.

Lillie-Mae was determined to unseat Smith so her husband could work in the same house. Her first night, she switched keys several times on Willie to make him look bad, and complained to the owner. That was an old trick, of course, and no one was buying it. However, by then end of the evening James and Willie—different as they were—recognized kindred spirits and began what would become a lifelong friendship.

Newark was home to roughly a third of a million people in the years prior to the First World War. The city’s African-American population had begun to swell in the latter part of the 19th century, and would soon experience explosive growth—first with the availability of wartime factory work and then, in the 1920s, as an urban landing spot during the great “northern migration.” People of color, by the tens of thousands, made the city their new home in the two decades prior to the Great Depression. Concentrated (some prefer segregated) into self-sufficient neighborhoods, Newark’s African Americans incorporated music into the social fabric of their community. Not surprisingly, the city became a hotbed of creativity and innovation.

 

THE STRIDE REVOLUTION

Johnson (from New Brunswick) and Smith (who grew up in Newark) had come of age as pianists during the waning years of ragtime, a form of dance music featuring syncopated rhythm, which developed in the Deep South around the turn of the century. By the time they met however, both were experimenting with stride p iano, a complex style where the left hand alternates beats between a bass note and chord—often jumping great distances on the left side of the keyboard—and the right hand playing syncopated melodies. As these two young jazz pioneers were discovering, stride piano enabled the player to embellish and improvise all forms of popular music with more of a driving bass beat. It also allowed the tempo of a piece to be sped up or slowed down, and translated easily into different keys.

Photo courtesy of Upper Case Editorial Services

Ragtime had opened up new possibilities for popular marches in the 1890s; stride would create a foundation for sophisticated swing and jazz music in the 1920s. After their meeting in Newark, Johnson and Smith continued influencing each other’s music and pushing the genre ever closer to the mainstream. They toured together after Smith got out of the army, co-starring in a popular music revue. It was during World War I that Smith acquired his nickname “The Lion”—supposedly for his bravery. Smith gave his mild-mannered pal the nickname “The Brute” as an inside joke. Smith often jumped into fights to protect Johnson, who wasn’t much of a puncher.

Where Smith and Johnson really moved jazz forward was during the rent parties in Newark and across the Hudson, where they would engage in cutting sessions—high-spirited can-you-top-this piano duels—staged for the tenant’s friends, who chipped in a dollar or two to cover the rent. Most of their cutting sessions ended in a friendly draw. When other pianists went against The Lion or The Brute, they invariably got smoked. The one exception was Donald Lambert, out of Princeton, who was said to have the fastest left hand in the business.

Not even young Fats Waller—a protégé of Johnson’s and a drinking buddy of Smith’s—could keep pace with The Lion and The Brute. During the 1920s and 1930s, they would become known as The Big Three. By then, Johnson (whose song Charleston ignited a famous dance craze) was focused on composing musical scores and classical jazz pieces, while Waller was toying around with the boogie-woogie style for which he would become best known. Smith, with his trademark bowler and cigar, kept going strong into the 1970s.

 

NEWARK’S CLUB SCENE

Photo courtesy of Upper Case Editorial Services

By the late 1920s, dozens of jazz clubs had popped up in Newark. They were especially busy during the winter months, when top musicians would return from summertime gigs in shore resort hotels. The Great Depression closed many of the old resorts, but Newark’s music scene persevered. Newark in the 1930s suffered like most American cities, but its club scene remained surprisingly vibrant. For a couple of drinks or perhaps a reasonably priced dinner, people could forget their troubles for a couple of hours and enjoy first-rate entertainment.

Some of America’s top dance bands played in Newark, occasionally doing live radio broadcasts. Bands would play anywhere there was a stage, even between films at movie theaters, including the Adams, a block off Market Street. Jazz artists could live in Newark and make a decent living playing locally every night. Among the products of this era in Newark were the high-energy Savoy Sultans, the unforgettable house band at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem.

Newark continued to serve as a jazz incubator in the 1940s with the advent of bebop, an asymmetrical style considered to be the forerunner of modern jazz. Bebop was developed by young musicians whose names are familiar to us today, musical giants such as Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. They regarded jazz as an art form that should be listened to, not danced to. Many had actually cut their teeth working for dance bandleaders in the late 1930s and early 1940s, including Earl Hines, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Cab Calloway. They developed this new approach in intimate after-hours jam sessions. They were inspired by veteran soloists like Art Tatum, who in turn had been influenced by Johnson.

It has often been said that, in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, there was a jazz club on every corner in Newark. Obviously that is an exaggeration. It is also a stretch to characterize Newark as the epicenter of jazz; on any given night, Manhattan probably featured more big names on stage. However, on any given night, there might have been more musicians playing per square mile in Newark than across the river. And there was always a paying audience.

 

FOR THE RECORD

Photo courtesy of Gale Agency Inc.

Incredibly important to the development of modern jazz was that there was a record label in Newark that brought this new music out of the smoky club rooms and exposed it to a wider audience. Savoy records, founded by Herman Lubinsky in 1942, mined the city’s jazz venues for emerging talent and committed it to wax. The musicians had something of a love-hate relationship with Lubinsky, as he shared with them a miniscule fraction of the profits he made. However, without Savoy and prescient musical directors such as Buck Ram (who played with Duke Ellington, among others), one wonders how the course of modern jazz might have changed. Savoy also recorded some of the most imaginative gospel, blues and R&B artists in the decade following World War II.

The jazz culture remained strong in Newark into the early 1960s. It saw native sons and daughters rise to prominence, including Sarah Vaughan (left) and Wayne Shorter. During the 1960s and 1970s, however, the city fell on hard times and jazz became less important to the fabric of everyday life. Stalwarts such as the Key Club, Sparky J’s and Len & Len’s fought the good fight into the 1970s, but with an aging audience and shifts in musical tastes, the jazz tradition was in peril.

In 1979, a group of activists determined to save the soul of the city decided to build off Newark’s jazz heritage. They formed the public radio station WBGO, becoming the only station in the NY-Metro region to embrace an all-jazz format. Syndicated productions and live performances followed, and beginning in 1996, WBGO started streaming programming over the Internet to an audience that is estimated today estimated at half a million listeners.

At the same time, hundreds of musicians based in New York City began moving across the Hudson to the Garden State. Lower housing costs and proximity to the five boroughs lured jazz artists young and old to New Jersey, with many settling in and around Newark. With constant promotion and prodding from WBGO, NJPAC, clubs like The Priory—and even the Bethany Baptist Church with its monthly Jazz Vespers—the revitalized jazz scene has become a cornerstone of the city’s long-awaited renaissance.

PIANO PLAYERS & PLAYER PIANOS

In the ’teens and ’twenties, playing in bars, theaters and dance halls provided a somewhat steady income for musicians. However, in many cases, this was not enough to support a creative lifestyle. A crucial revenue stream came from writing, publishing, producing player-piano rolls, and making recordings for early record companies. More so than records, it was actually the piano rolls that brought “black” music into the homes of wealthy whites during the ’teens and nudged it into the mainstream during the ’twenties. With Smith and other talented players spending so much time in Newark, it is no surprise that several piano-roll manufacturers set up shop nearby. Among the most successful were Newark-based Artempo, and Aeolian in South Orange.

Besides bringing music to the masses in the pre-radio days, player piano roll companies preserved the performances of important musicians like James P. Johnson, and served as a place where artists could share ideas. At Aeolian, for example, Johnson met a teenage employee named George Gershwin, who went on to bigger and better things.

Photo courtesy of The Aeolian Company

HOT SPOTS

Photo courtesy of RCA Corporation

The bulk of Newark’s top jazz venues—such as the he Caravan and Key Club—were west and south of the current-day Prudential Center. Some, like the Kinney Club and The Orpheum Theater, were located on the city’s notorious Coast. For many years, the Orpheum was the stop right before or after an appearance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem; the Coast was also where Boogie-Woogie king Fats Waller honed his craft. Others, including tiny Fisher’s Tavern and Boston Plaza, were located in what is now Newark’s University Heights section.

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