Queens Jazz Legacy

One of the greatest cultural exports that America has produced for the world are the wonderful genres of African American music. Throughout the U.S. many cities are known for being epicenters of various forms of Black American music. New Orleans is famously known as the birthplace of jazz, the Mississippi delta as the origin of blues and New York of course as the birthplace of hip-hop. With a focus on jazz, we all know that the musical genre would become famous the world over. Jazz music thrived in big cities as it moved out of the south; Chicago, Los Angeles and New York would all become major scenes in the history of jazz. New York, Manhattan to be specific, was viewed as the place where jazz was truly alive and rightfully so. Many black musicians flocked to New York City to have careers and a better life but it is the borough of Queens that often isn’t thought about when the average person thinks about jazz. I’d like to highlight the importance that Queens played in jazz music in New York.

 Queens borough, the largest of all five boroughs of New York, but also one of the most overlooked places to visit, has a long history and connection to jazz in New York. What Queens may have lacked in glitz and glamour and nightlife, it more than made up for it in rural suburban living. If the city is where jazz was played, Queens is where the musicians called home. This may come as a surprise to some but, it makes quite a bit of sense when you look at the jazz history of Queens.

Queens claim as the home of jazz greats goes back to the early 1920’s. In 1923, music producer Clarence Williams and his wife jazz singer Eva Taylor moved to Jamaica, Queens from the deep south of Louisiana. Williams purchased a home along with eight connecting lots on 108th Ave. During the great migration, many black people left the harsh and violent racism of Jim Crow south to achieve better lives in places like California, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, and New York. However, not all that moved north wanted to live in the city. Many blacks, including people like Williams wanted to have some semblance of where they came from. Queens for several decades was considered the suburbs and even rural and underdeveloped compared to places like Manhattan and Brooklyn. For many blacks coming from the south, this was an attractive feature of Queens. To have the aesthetic appeal of the south with the comforts of the north, while, for musicians, living close enough to the action of the city without having to live there.

In the 30’s and 40’s swing music was dominating and with this also came more musicians. Big names such as Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Woody Herman would move into newly developed apartments in the Jackson Heights neighborhood. Another haven for jazz musicians was Addisleigh Park in the St. Albans neighborhood. Greats such as Fats Waller, Count Basie, Mercer Ellington, Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald called the area home. In 1943, the King of Jazz himself, Louis Armstrong moved to Corona, Queens. Louis’ wife Lucille had spent her teenage years in Corona and found the house without telling Louis anything about it. After coming off of tour, Louis sees his home in Corona for the first time and immediately falls in love with it. It would be the place that Louis called home until he passed away. There must have been something about Queens that spoke to the musicians, whether it was out of necessity or true love of the area many people called Queens home. Louis Armstrong truly loved his home in Corona. Speaking of his neighborhood, Armstrong writes  “Our Neighborhood When my wife Lucille and I moved into this neighborhood there were mostly white people. A few Colored families. Just think… Through the 29 years that we’ve been living in this house, we have seen just about 3 generations come up on this particular Block – 107 street between 34th and 37th Ave. Lots of them have grown up – married ‘ had Children. Their Children still come and visit Aunt Lucille Uncle Louis.” Clearly Louis was able to find peace in Corona. The demographics of Queens has changed over the years to being one of the most ethnically diverse places in America, and it speaks to how open Queens has been to new people trying to create a new life in the epicenter of the U.S.

Bebop icon Dizzy Gillespie who is originally from Cheraw, SC moved to Flushing Queens, after saving up money while living in an apartment, he moved to Corona, Queens, only  one block away from Louis Armstrong. Dizzy was a neighbor of Armstrong for about a decade, oftentimes Dizzy would hang out with Satchmo, speaking volumes to the culmination of jazz talent in Queens. Think about it, the king of jazz and a pioneer of bebop only a block away from each other is nothing short of amazing. The list of legends continues, Charles Mingus, Bix Beiderbecke, Nat and Cannonball Adderly, Clark Terry, Mezz Mezzrow, Chick Corea and Tony Bennet all called Queens home at one point or another.

A poster for the Queens Jazz Trail Tour, which guides visitors through significant places in Queens for jazz musicians.

Queens may not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking about NYC but, it is a place that holds a lot of jazz history and home of the amazing Louis Armstrong House Museum. Queens hold more than meets the eye, all one must do is explore a little and you will be impressed with what you discover.

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