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Holiday in Newark

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PostPosted: Sun Apr 15, 2007 5:19 am    Post subject: Holiday in Newark Reply with quote

Holiday in Newark
An anniversary remembrance of the jazz legend
Sunday, April 15, 2007

By the time she got to Newark for a weeklong club engagement in April 1957, Billie Holiday had seen plenty of hard times. There had been arrests for prostitution and drugs, chronic heroin use, loss of her cabaret license in New York, lawsuits and man problems.

She was only 42, but the misery had clearly caught up with her. Holiday's face was puffy, her smile forced. The trademark gardenia was gone from her hair, and she looked much older than her years. By the summer of 1959, she would be dead.

But the Billie Holiday who took the stage at Sugar Hill, a club on Broad Street, was another story. To those who saw her, she wasn't the troubled Billie Holiday of the tabloid headlines; she was Billie Holiday the author, TV and movie personality and pre-eminent female jazz singer of her era, maybe of all time. It was an image, they say, they've never forgotten.

"The voice was fading and her fame was on the way out, but she still had her presence," recalled Stan Myers, a jazz historian from Newark who attended one of the Sugar Hill shows. "Just to see her was enough. You sort of went along with it."

The 50th anniversary of Holiday's appearance at Sugar Hill takes place this week, beginning tomorrow. Perhaps the engagement would have passed quietly into history with countless other undocumented artistic performances had not it been photographed by Jerry Dantzic.

A freelance photographer from New York, Dantzic was hired by Decca records to stick with Holiday for several weeks in early 1957 and get shots the label envisioned using for promotional purposes. One week brought him to Newark.

Very little was ever used, leaving the photographs as perhaps the largest collection of unseen Billie Holiday pictures from a single club date in existence. In all, there are more than 400 pictures, color and black-and-white.

Dantzic not only photographed Holiday on and off the stage at Sugar Hill, he also photographed her in her room at the old Douglas Hotel on Hill Street, with her husband, Louis McKay, and while meeting with fans and walking the streets of Newark. He also snapped a number of shots in New York.

Dantzic died in December at age 81. His photo archives today are overseen by his son, Grayson, who remembers his father reminiscing about the fun he had with Holiday in Newark. "He recalled continually telling her jokes and trying to keep her happy," Dantzic said. "He'd also mimic that high-pitched voice of hers."

Golden years for jazz

Holiday's appearance at Sugar Hill 50 years ago came at a time when Newark was an entertainment hot spot. Live music was everywhere and almost every neighborhood had a movie theater. The city also had its share of after-hours joints and "juice" bars, where patrons might find a corner in which to throw some dice or buy a drink, even if the place wasn't authorized to do so. Musicians from New York loved coming to Newark for its relaxed atmosphere.

Along with Sugar Hill in a little stretch of Broad Street across from City Hall were two other music venues -- Teddy Powell's Lounge and the Wideaway Ballroom -- as well as the Rialto Theater, a second-run movie house. None has survived.

Sugar Hill was the brainchild of Bernie Weissman, a small-time entrepreneur with big-time ambitions. The location was already popular because it had previously housed a sports bar named after Charley Fusari, once a world-ranked prizefighter nicknamed the "Irvington Milkman." At the same time he was running Sugar Hill, Weissman was also trying to promote live music at the Adams Theater on Branford Place, a long-established home for big-name entertainment. He and his father ran a neighborhood bar on Kinney Street, too.

Now living in California, Weissman, 78, declined to be interviewed. He was known in certain social circles of Newark as a man always ready for action. When it came to Sugar Hill, he spared little effort attracting some of the most celebrated jazz artists of the day.

Horace Silver, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Betty Carter, Chet Baker, Cannonball Adderley, Art Blakey, Carmen McCrae, Charles Mingus and Stan Getz were some of the acts to appear at Sugar Hill, which opened in 1956 and had closed by 1959. Newark saxophonist Buddy Terry remembered seeing Dizzy Gillespie there on New Year's Eve 1957.

But booking Billie Holiday had to have been a coup for a place with room for barely 150 customers and, on many nights, no admission fee. Holiday was paid $1,600 for the week, and there was a charge to see her, recalled Weissman's younger brother, Albert, who worked at the bar.

Bernie Weissman tried to make the most of the engagement by plastering the front of the long narrow club, which featured two stages, with all sorts of promotional signs. Not that he would have had much difficulty drawing a crowd since Holiday was no stranger to Newark, or New Jersey. She'd even lived in Long Branch for a short time as a young girl, working as a maid.

"She hung in Newark a little bit," Newark-born jazz singer and pianist Andy Bey recalled of Holiday. "Newark was close to New York (where Holiday lived). My sister used to be friends with her hairdresser."

At times, in fact, Newark could well have been Holiday's second home, particularly after she lost her ability to sing in the clubs of New York following a drug conviction in 1947 that also cost her almost a year in prison.

Lady Day's Jersey gigs

Holiday was known to stay at the black-owned Coleman Hotel in Newark when she was in the area, and old-time Newarkers talk of locals they knew who did jobs for her at various points. Newark poet Amiri Baraka said he knows a woman (whom he declined to identify) who has one of the singer's gowns and cabaret cards. In her 1991 book "Swing City: Newark Nightlife, 1925-50," Barbara Kukla dates Holiday's solo performances in Newark to the Picadilly Club in 1946.

Carl "Tiny Prince" Brinson, founder of After Hours, a magazine that chronicled Newark's night life for five decades into the 1980s, recalls being dispatched to a private party in the area to get Holiday to the Picadilly on opening night, only to find her in no condition to go anywhere. Comedian Redd Foxx kept the crowd amused for a couple of hours while it waited in vain for Holiday to appear, he remembered.

Holiday later played Lloyd's Manor, the Caravan Club, the Savoy Plaza and Teddy Powell's Holiday Inn on Meeker Avenue in 1951, according to Kukla's research. Later, she was booked at Teddy Powell's Lounge downtown.

Reached at her home in Florida, Powell's widow, Clara, found it impossible to believe Holiday would have played Sugar Hill, given that Powell's husband was operating a club only a few doors away. "She got her start with Teddy Powell," Clara Powell said in surprise. Each time Holiday played the Lounge, fans would send so many flowers that "the place looked like an undertaker's parlor," Powell recalled.

Brinson, 88, recalled that Teddy Powell didn't take kindly to Holiday playing Sugar Hill and brought in his own star attraction, organist Jimmy Smith, to cut into Weissman's gate.

Holiday's connection with Newark and New Jersey extended back well before her club days to the big-band era.

Ken Vail, in his 1996 book, "Lady Day's Diary: The Life of Billie Holiday 1937-1959," cites eight appearances in New Jersey by Holiday with the orchestras of Count Basie and Artie Shaw in the years before she struck out on her own. Newark, Princeton, Red Bank, Asbury Park, Wildwood and Atlantic City were listed among those stops, but surely there were more.

One notable booking in the bunch was a two-week stint with the Basie Band in early 1937 at the Meadowbrook in Cedar Grove. The last night was broadcast by CBS and recorded by producer John Hammond, who had seen Holiday singing in Harlem in her youth and arranged her earliest recording dates.

Morristown was another spot in New Jersey where Holiday logged some time. She spent six months there in 1948, recuperating from her prison stay in West Virginia at the home of the mother of her then-accompanist, Bobby Tucker, and getting ready for her comeback concert at Carnegie Hall. In her 1956 autobiography, Holiday recalled Tucker meeting her at Penn Station in Newark after her train ride from prison and taking her to his "farm out near Morristown."

Tucker later told author Donald Clarke for his 1994 Viking Penguin biography of Holiday, "Wishing on the Moon: The Life and Times of Billie Holiday," that she'd managed to find a fix by the time she arrived in Newark. Tucker has been hospitalized of late and was unavailable for comment.

Memorable encounters

Fans who turned out for the Sugar Hill shows speak of performances both good and bad, noting that Holiday didn't go out of her way to greet fans but was cordial when approached. Calvin West, a former Newark councilman, called the show he saw "mesmerizing."

Joe Thomas, a resident of East Orange who was an up-and-coming saxophonist in the '50s, remembers getting Holiday to sign a program during an intermission, an item he later gave to a girlfriend. "We talked a little, and it was as though she'd known me a long time," Thomas recalled. "But there were a lot of other people talking to her and trying to get an autograph."

Jazz historian Myers, 78, remembers standing outside Sugar Hill at the end of the night and watching Holiday in an evening wrap heading by herself to her hotel room. His friends urged him to accompany the singer to find out what was going on in her life, but shyness kept him at his distance. "I've always regretted that decision and will the rest of my life," Myers said.

"I saw her on one of her bad nights," remembered Charles Cann, 85, another longtime Newarker who took his niece to a show. "To me, she was very high."

Holiday's band included popular saxophonist Paul Quinichette, and two local pickups, Bobby "Stix" Darden of Newark on drums and Jimmy Schenck of New Brunswick on bass. The consensus is the pianist was Carl Drinkard, a musician with New Jersey ties who was about to give way to the better-known Mal Waldron, Holiday's final accompanist.

Darden resides in Plainfield today, while Schenck has lived in Hawaii since 1987. Each said he'd played with Holiday once before the Sugar Hill date but never afterward. Their memories of that week have faded, but Darden recalled he was paid $12 a night for his backup work.

Darden said the band needed no rehearsing because all the serious jazz musicians of the day knew Holiday's songs and could play them off the top of their heads. Any last-second variations could be picked up simply by watching the pianist's hands, he said.

Holiday kept to herself between sets, sitting at the end of Sugar Hill's bar drinking and playing with her pet Chihuahua, Pepi, Darden recalled. They never did much more than make small talk.

"She'd had so many problems, her attitude was, 'I'm still here and making it, I'll do the best I can,'" said Darden, 78. "You've got to remember the criminal justice system was harsh and did things to her that shouldn't have been done. If this had been today, she would have been slapped on the wrist and sent to a place to get her act together."

"It was a good job and an easy job because she knew what she was doing," recalled Schenck, 79. "But for me, it was just another week's work. I never looked at people as stars."

A career in decline

Albert Weissman recalled the club being packed for Holiday, though others say the audience built over the week and that capacity wasn't reached until the weekend. Weissman said many fans came from New York, where Holiday couldn't play clubs.

The last day was Easter Sunday, and saxophonist Bill Phipps, a member of the four-piece opening act, remembers Weissman taking all the musicians out to lunch that afternoon.

"It was the one chance we had to speak with her and she was nice," recalled Phipps, 75, of West Orange, whose cousin Gene had backed Holiday on saxophone at the Apollo Theater just before World War II and in Newark. "She knew we were young and in awe of her."

Newark trombonist Grachan Moncur III said he was part of the popular jam session at Sugar Hill that Weissman once told him helped the place stay in business.

He recalled Holiday's appearance and remembers walking down to the men's room on closing night and seeing the singer in obvious distress sitting in a small room to the left of the stairs. Several angry men surrounded Holiday, and one was holding what appeared to be a piece of rubber hose, said Moncur, 69.

"She looked so out of it, and they weren't happy because she wasn't ready to take the stage yet," he remembered. "It was cruel, a scene right out of the 'Lady Sings the Blues' movie with Diana Ross."

When he returned upstairs, Moncur noticed the door to the room was shut. But shortly afterward, Holiday bounded up the stairs, climbed to the bandstand and performed as though nothing was wrong.

"I never heard or felt anything like that in my life," said Moncur, whose father was a bassist who had recorded with Holiday. "It was the essence of Billie. I saw her a couple of other times later before she died, in upstate New York and at a club in the city. She was very elegant, but looked much older. It was like seeing someone from the 1920s."

Holiday continued returning to Newark after her stop at Sugar Hill. Weissman, 74, said she came back to the club once more but wasn't sure of the date, saying he left before the place closed. His main job, he said, had been "watching the bartenders so they wouldn't steal."

Another of his duties was driving Holiday to New York when she wanted to stay the night there, usually when McKay was fooling around on her, Weissman said. New York's bars were open two hours later than Newark's, and the two often stopped at Birdland in Midtown or in the clubs of Harlem on their way to Holiday's place in Queens, he recalled.

"Not many people can say they had Billie Holiday singing to them in a car," Weissman said.

Heartbreaking finale

Other documented appearances of Holiday in Newark were three spots in May and July of 1958 on Art Ford's "Jazz Party," a television program that aired out of Symphony Hall.

"I'd remembered her from 10 years before when she was kind of voluptuous, but she was very thin, quiet and ill," said vibist Harry Sheppard, 79, one of the few surviving members of the Jazz Party band. "Yet she still had it together. She snapped her fingers and clapped along with the beat. That, and she smiled at everyone."

The following July, Holiday died after a lengthy stay in a New York hospital. She was still taking drugs, still in trouble with the law and just about broke. It was about as sad an ending as a major star could have, yet the tragic circumstances of her life and death probably helped cement Holiday's immortality.

Today, music fans throughout the world, no doubt enthralled by the timeless nature of her voice and the wide range of emotion it imparts, revere the jazz singer known simply as "Lady Day" like few other artists. A bronze statue of her stands in Baltimore, where she grew up.

Dan Morgenstern, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark, said Holiday would not want to be remembered for her misfortunes. He said he first saw her perform in 1950, got to know her and has never tired of listening to her recordings, particularly the early material.

"Billie put so much feeling into what she did," Morgenstern said. "She was like a jazz player the way she sang. The musicians loved her because they saw her as one of their own. ... She'd want to be remembered for what she did with a song, and that's what she should be remembered for."

Guy Sterling may be reached at or (973) 392-4088.

April 7, 1915: Born in Philadelphia to Sadie Harris and Clarence Holiday; named Eleanora

May 2, 1929: Arrested with her mother for prostitution in Harlem

Spring 1930: Starts singing in Harlem after-hours joints

Nov. 27, 1933: First recording session, with the Benny Goodman Orchestra; session produced by John Hammond, who took note of her the previous year

Nov. 23, 1934: Debuts at the Apollo Theater

March 15, 1938: Joins the Artie Shaw Orchestra

April 20, 1939: Records "Strange Fruit"

Jan. 18, 1944: First major concert appearance, at New York's Metropolitan Opera House

Feb. 16, 1946: First solo concert, at Town Hall

May 28, 1947: Enters prison in West Virginia on drug charge; released following March

July 18, 1954: Featured on the final night of the inaugural Newport Jazz Festival

Oct. 5, 1958: Appears on the final night of the first Monterey Jazz Festival

July 17, 1959: Dies at 44 after a 46-day stay at the Metropolitan Hospital in New York that includes an arrest for heroin possession

July 21, 1959: Funeral at St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in Manhattan draws 3,000

Bands played or recorded with: Duke Ellington Orchestra; Teddy Wilson Orchestra; Count Basie Band; Benny Carter & His All-Star Band; Louis Armstrong Orchestra; Eddie Heywood & His Orchestra; Paul Whiteman Orchestra; Toots Camarata and His Orchestra; Gerald Wilson Big Band; her own orchestra

About the photographer

Jerry Dantzic didn't take up photography until after he returned from combat duty in World War II and earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and English at Kent State University. He got his start when he joined the Columbia Camera Club while taking night classes at Columbia University in the early '50s.

In 1956, he joined the American Society of Magazine Photographers and was soon taking pictures for many of the major papers and magazines of the day, including Life, Look and The Saturday Evening Post. In 1958, he opened his own studio in New York and continued taking pictures into the '80s. Along the way, he won two Guggenheim fellowships and staged a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

His work is part of the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian Institution, New York Public Library, Whitney Museum of American Art and International Center of Photography. A survey of his early work, "Jerry Dantzic's New York: The Fifties in Focus," was published in 2002. Dantzic also taught for 25 years, at Long Island University and Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

He was born in Baltimore on June 3, 1925, and died Dec. 14, 2006, leaving his wife, Cynthia, and son, Grayson.
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Jule Spohn
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PostPosted: Sun Apr 15, 2007 8:57 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

If anyone really wants to be taken back in time to the "nightclubs" in Newark, then pick up the book mentioned here: "Swing City - Newark Nightlife" by Barbara Kukla. I've had my copy for a number of years and keep going back to it from time to time.

Of course, as a young white kid growing up in the 40's and 50's in Newark, I didn't go to most of the places mentioned in the book, but I had heard about them over the years from various friends and neighbors who had gone to them, and often wished that they were still around after I got out of the Marine Corps in the mid to late 60's.

Also, let's not forget that Newark had many bars, clubs, and even the radio station, which carried Country and Western music - Shorty and Rusty Warren, etc. - back in the 40's and 50's.

Newark was really quite the place back then with all of the great movie theaters, burlesques theaters, the Mosque Theater, bars, clubs, radio stations, restaurants, department stores, etc.
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PostPosted: Sun Apr 15, 2007 9:30 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

hi jule, i have to agree with you when you read everything about newark , all the great things that happened there, what a great city that we all came from, i will look for the book. have a good day i hope you dont get much bad weather, nancy
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Jule Spohn
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PostPosted: Mon Apr 16, 2007 12:30 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hello Nancy. I think that you can buy it on
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PostPosted: Mon Apr 16, 2007 1:17 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Jule Spohn wrote:
Hello Nancy. I think that you can buy it on
thank you jule
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