Author Talk – Sittin’ In: Jazz Clubs of the 1940s and 1950s
In this 360°Sound exclusive, music historian, memorabilia dealer, and former music executive Jeff Gold discusses his new coffee-table book Sittin’ In: Jazz Clubs of the 1940s and 1950s (out now on Harper Design). The 256-page book consists of over 200 rare souvenir photos and memorabilia from American jazz clubs like Village Vanguard, Cotton Club, and many others. Sittin’ In also features revealing interviews, including two with jazz legends who performed in clubs in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Sonny Rollins and Quincy Jones.
Gold began his long career in music as an employee of Rhino Records, the Los Angeles store that became the label, and produced the first record on Rhino, “Go to Rhino Records” by Wild Man Fischer in 1975. Gold then landed his dream job at A&M Records as the assistant to the president and was later promoted to vice president of marketing and creative services. In 1990, Gold became an executive at Warner Bros. “I was a fanatic record collector, so I had my total fantasy career working with artists like Prince, R.E.M. and Red Hot Chili Peppers and art directing album covers,” he said. In 1991, Gold won a Grammy for Best Album Package for the Suzanne Vega album Days of Open Hand.
Sittin’ In is Gold’s third book. He also wrote 101 Essential Rock Records: The Golden Age of Vinyl from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols and Total Chaos: The Story of the Stooges. Named one of the “top collectors of high-end music memorabilia” by Rolling Stone, Gold was a consultant to the Bob Dylan Archives at the University of Tulsa. Gold runs the memorabilia site RecordMecca.com.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
360°: You bought a collection of jazz memorabilia that included souvenir club photos from the ‘40s and ‘50s. Tell us about your decision to turn the photos into a book.
I get calls from people all the time on things they want to sell. This was somebody I had met once before years ago. He had collected jazz memorabilia for about 30 years. He was also collecting other things and wanted to cash out some of his jazz holdings to fund his other collecting.
So, we went to his bank and he parked me in this little 5-by-5-foot room that they have for people going through the contents of their safety deposit boxes. He disappeared then came back about five minutes later with a hand truck with these very large safety deposit boxes, maybe five or six of them. He had put his best stuff in these, in kind of the order he had bought them. It wasn’t organized; it was kind of a treasure hunt.
You might find 20 photos and then some unused concert tickets, some autographed stuff, some handbills and posters and some of these [souvenir] photos. I’d seen all that other stuff many times, but I’d never seen souvenir photos from jazz clubs. Each club might have what they called the ‘camera girl.’ [Jazz historian] Dan Morgenstern, who was at some of these clubs, told me it was most often a girl. They’d go around and photograph everybody at their table and go in the backroom and develop them in a quickie darkroom. They’d have them in a custom portfolio with the club’s artwork at the end of the evening so you could buy them for a dollar as a souvenir. I’d seen things from cruise ships and stuff like that but never specifically for jazz clubs and that’s all he had.
As I was sorting through this stuff, I was putting aside the things I wanted to buy and these photos from jazz clubs kept accumulating and kind of blowing my mind. As I had about 30 of them, I said, ‘I’ve been collecting and dealing this stuff my whole life and I’ve never seen one of them. These can’t be that widespread a phenomenon.’
I came home and I started researching and I couldn’t find any websites with any of these or any books. There aren’t any books devoted to jazz clubs. Occasionally you’ll find one about a specific club or there’s a book on the Chicago scene about the Chicago clubs but that’s about it. I had sworn off doing other books because they’re just so much work. But I kept staring at these photos and eventually it was kind of a battle of will between the stack of photos and me.
Eventually, I decided these things need to be seen by people – they’re so amazing. They document part of the phenomenon of jazz clubs we never see. You see photos of clubs and it’s always the performer on stage or people waiting out in front in line or maybe the marquee of the club. You never see what the inside looks like or who the people were going to these shows. I just decided that I thought that was an important aspect that hadn’t been documented.
I’m going to ask you a question you asked jazz pianist Jason Moran in the book. The jazz scene of the ‘40s and ‘50s is well documented and still fascinates musicians, fans and historians today. Why do you think that is?
First off, the music is amazing, innovative, and still listened to today with awe. Some of the musicians, like Charlie Parker or Duke Ellington, have become these iconic figures. It’s kind of a romantic scene. You look at the people in these photos and they’re dressed to the nines. As Jason pointed out, this is a terrible time in American history. You had WWII and the Depression. And yet, these clubs provided a real escape for people. Movies like The Cotton Club, which isn’t historically accurate, but I think romanticize the scene. And there’s people’s general interest in nostalgia.
You interviewed jazz icons Quincy Jones and Sonny Rollins. Tell us a little bit about what they brought to the book.
When I decided to do this, I had to be honest with myself, I’m not an expert in jazz clubs. Well, I am now, but I wasn’t then. And so, how do I find out about this? I gotta talk to some people who were there. Quincy was my dream, No. 1 interview. I had met him a few times in the record business. His grandson is a friend of mine, and I knew some people in the record business who are very close to him, so I was able to secure an interview. I wanted to know what the racial situation was like there because this was obviously during the Jim Crow Era. He came to New York in the very early ‘50s, but he played clubs in Seattle and in Boston in the ‘40s.
When I asked him what the racial situation was like I was completely unprepared for what he told me, essentially that this was kind of an oasis from racism in these clubs. While racism was out there, everyone got along in these clubs. On stage, it was only about whether you could play, nobody cared about what your race was. The audiences too were just there to enjoy the music. He says in the book, ‘Racism would’ve been over in the 1950s if they listened to the jazz guys!’ That really kind of shocked me.
My second dream interview was Sonny Rollins. He’s a little older and started going to these clubs in New York as a teenager to play them in the late ‘40s. He described how he was underage, and he had to draw on a mustache using an eyebrow pencil. I said this is what Quincy told me. What was your experience? And it was exactly the same thing. It almost felt like he’d been waiting for someone to ask them this question. He went on kind of a tear about how jazz musicians never get credit for how integrated the scene was and all anybody cared about was whether you could play.
He was kind of shocked when he started playing some of these clubs because he’d grown up in Harlem around Black people. These white people coming up to him and telling him how great he was and wanting his autograph and wanting to get him to pose for pictures with him. He just hadn’t experienced anything like that before. At the end of this tear, he said, ‘I think it’s really important. I hope you put this in your book.’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ That was really revealing and surprising to me.
If you could time travel to the ‘40s and ‘50s and see a jazz legend at one of the clubs in the book, which club would you choose?
I’d probably want to go see either [New York City club] The Three Deuces in the ‘40s, or Birdland, which started at the very tail end of the ‘40s, or the Royal Roost, which was just before that, to see some bebop with Charlie Parker. Birdland was probably the fanciest and most famous, but the other ones were really where this stuff first started happening. They’re legendary clubs.
Visit Sittinin.com to order a copy, see photo spreads from the book, and listen to a playlist of artists who performed at these clubs discussed in the book.