I am spearheading All That Philly Jazz, a digital history project that’s mapping Philly’s rich jazz heritage. While jazz enthusiasts know about John Coltrane’s Philadelphia, the map tells the rest of the story.
From the organ joints on 52nd Street, aka “The Strip,” to Columbia Avenue’s “Miracle Mile” (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue), there was a jazz spot on nearly every block. South Philly was known as the Harlem Quarter.
There was so much jazz happening that folks in West Philly didn’t venture into North Philly and vice versa. Time after time I’ve heard, “You stayed in your neighborhood.” But there were two legendary spots that no matter where folks lived, they went – Pep’s Musical Bar at Broad and South streets and the Showboat on Broad and Lombard.
The World Communications Charter School now sits in Pep’s footprint. Given Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s appreciation for jazz, it may be more than coincidence that the Roots’ mural is on one of the school’s walls.
The building that housed the Showboat is still there. The jazz club was in the basement of what was then the Douglass Hotel. The historical marker out front notes that Billie Holiday “often lived here.”
Last fall, I visited what used to be the Showboat with Yasuhiro “Fuji” Fujioka, founder of the Coltrane House of Osaka and co-author of “The John Coltrane Reference”; Lenora Early, founder of the Philadelphia John Coltrane House; and Dr. George E. Allen, former chair of Overbrook High School’s Art and Music Department and author of “I Was Not Asked.”
Until that visit, I assumed the Showboat was in the basement space with the two windows facing Lombard Street. As we descended the stairs, Dr. Allen said something was wrong. Back then, there was no landing between the steps. Instead, the club was down a steep set of stairs.
And sure enough, after a bit of snooping, we found what remains of the original steps that led down to the Showboat.
So imagine the likes of Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, Philly Joe Jones, Thelonious Monk, Dinah Washington, Ramsey Lewis, Ray Charles, Lee Morgan, Percy, Jimmy, and Tootie Heath (the Heath Brothers), and Nina Simon descending those steps to take up their place on the stage that was behind the bar.
As we build out the All That Philly Jazz interactive map, we will have images, video and audio that will take you back to the day when jazz and blues giants were live at the Showboat.