Sittin’ In: The Jazz Clubs of the 1940s and 1950s is a treasure trove. Literally. Author Jeff Gold, a former Grammy Award-winning Creative Director, a historian and music memorabilia collector has assembled an astonishing and revelatory book. And, like all treasures, the discovery is half the story. Gold found himself in a closet-size room in a bank with boxes and boxes of photographs and ephemera to sort through. Finding them uniquely evocative of perhaps the greatest era in jazz, he bought them all.
What Gold saw in that bank vault is what you’ll see in this book — and it shows way more than just pictures. Most of the photos “turn the camera around,” Gold writes in his introduction. They show the audience — black, white, men, women — all mingling in some of the coolest clubs ever dreamed up, with some of the greatest musicians in history taking their stages. Billie Holiday onstage at the Famous Door on W. 52nd Street in 1941. Charlie Parker and Miles Davis at the Three Deuces, which shut its doors in 1954. Servicemen and their wives or girlfriends having a drink and enjoying the music and each other’s company. And groups of all colors out on the town, dressed to the nines.
The book documents the clubs, divided by The East Coast, The Midwest, and The West Coast, with short and fascinating vignettes about each, and accompanying photos and swag. And it’s the swag that makes the story. Most clubs had a house photographer who would circulate and take pictures of patrons. The film would be developed and prints made for $1 souvenirs. That’s amazing in and of itself, but the photos would come in photo folders printed with logos, illustrated characters and scenes, or the name of the club in its unique typography. It’s is one of the greatest branding studies I’ve ever seen — and easily the most fun. And while racial acceptance was more the norm, several clubs would feature stereotypical race caricatures of that time period. In fact, The Cotton Club was one such club and was straight-up racist in both its graphics and its policies; it did not admit people of color as patrons, only as musicians or, presumably, “staff.”
Gold interviews several legends in the book. Quincy Jones is quite emphatic on the absence of race issues. In fact, he says “Racism would have been over in the 1950s if they listened to the jazz guys!” Sonny Rollins — who grew up in the Harlem scene — concurs, offering kind words to Blue Note’s Alfred Lions, as well as legendary Chicago mobster and club owner Al Capone!
Seeing these photos and tripping back in time some 75 years ago(!), I can’t help but think the jazz guys were onto something. What they offered was beyond just music, although that was the central element. Jeff Gold has created a book every bit as beautiful, memorable and important as your favorite club or greatest live show memory. It hits all the right notes. And that’s saying something.
You can get a preview of what's in the book at www.sittinin.com.
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