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Prominent Jazz Musicians: Their Histories in Washington, D.C.

Pearl Bailey, a mainstay in the Washington community, was born in Newport News, Virginia on March 29, 1918. She had her solo debut in 1944 in New York. Two years later she appeared on Broadway. During the 1940s, she was a frequent performer at the Howard Theater, drawing record crowds there. It was said Bailey always took care of her fans by serving coffee for those waiting in line outside the Howard. She could also be seen performing at Republic Gardens and Crystal Caverns. In 1952, she married Louie Bellson, a white drummer for Duke Ellington. In addition, Bailey obtained a degree at Georgetown University. In 1976, she served as a member of the American delegation to The United Nations. Pearl Bailey died on August 17, 1990.

Ramsey Lewis has been a prevalent musician in the Washington, D.C. jazz scene since the 1960’s. Lewis was born on May 27, 1935 in Chicago Illinois and later found his way to D.C. with his band, The Ramsey Lewis Trio, consisting of Lewis on piano, Eldee Young on double bass, and Redd Holt on drums. In 1965, while in D.C., the Trio recorded the hit album The In Crowd at the popular club Bohemian Caverns at 2001 11th Street, Northwest. There the recording took place live over a four day period. Many audience members, such as Rusty Hassan, a D.C. jazz historian, claim to be on the recording, clapping in the background. The album sold a million copies and received a Grammy award in 1965 for the Best Jazz Recording by a Small Group. Lewis continues to play in D.C. at clubs such as Blue’s Alley. In addition, he is a host on the local television network BET.

Elmer Snowden was born in Baltimore, Maryland on October 9, 1900, where he had his start with Eubie Blake. In 1921, he began his own combo here in Washington, D.C. with Sonny Greer and Otto Hardwicke. The group traveled to New York City in 1923 where they were joined by Duke Ellington and formed a band called "The Washingtonians." In 1924 the band returned to Washington after their success in New York City did not live up to their expectations. Elmer Snowden died May 14, 1973 in Philadelphia.

Dr. Billy Taylor is a prominent figure in Washington, D.C. as a musician and as an advocate of jazz. He was born July 24, 1921 in Greenville, North Carolina and studied at Virginia State College. He later moved to New York City where he worked as a pianist with many important musicians. In 1952, Taylor became the leader of his own trio and in 1975, at the University of Massachusetts, he received his DME. In 1982, Taylor published Jazz Piano: History and Development. Taylor is now an articulate representative for the arts, jazz in particular, and has been especially influential in Washington, D.C. Recently he was appointed as Artistic Advisor for Jazz at the Kennedy Center.

Sarah Vaughan, born March 27, 1924 in Newark, New Jersey, frequently graced Washington, D.C. with her virtuosic solo abilities. In 1944, young Sarah, at only nineteen, joined the Billy Eckstine Band as the female vocalist. She made her first recording with the band on December 31 of the same year. Sarah Vaughan often appeared in Washington to perform at the Club Bali on 14th and T Northwest and Crystal Caverns. In 1965, she performed in the White House for President Johnson. Later in her career she appeared at Georgetown’s Blues Alley annually. Sarah Vaughan died April 3, 1990.

John Coltrane (1926-1967) could be seen playing at local clubs such as Bohemian Caverns in 1962. For his performances at the Lincoln Theater, Coltrane insisted on the superb sound system which is still in place today.

Billie Holiday, born in Baltimore Maryland on April 7, 1915, often visited Washington, D.C. to perform at the Howard Theater on Seventh and T Streets and the famous clubs, Crystal Caverns and Club Bali. Billie Holiday died July 17, 1959.

Miles Davis (1962-1991) played the trumpet with the Billy Eckstine Band in 1944. In the late 1960s Davis appeared at Bohemian Caverns.

Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996) won an amateur music contest at the Howard Theater in the early 1930s. Her beautiful voice continued to be heard there throughout the 1940s.

Charlie Parker (1920-1955) blew his saxophone all night long at the Howard Theater and at Republic Gardens.

Louis Armstrong (1900-1971) celebrated the reopening of the Howard Theater in 1931.

Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993) played the trumpet in Billy Eckstine’s Band at Washington’s various performance venues. In 1943 Gillespie joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Washington, D.C. was one of his major stops in his 1989 tour.

Jelly Roll Mortin (1890-1941) Born in New Orleans, October 20, 1890, Ferdinand Lemont, otherwise known as "Jelly Roll" Morton, made claim to be the sole inventor of jazz. While there is no mistake that Jelly Roll was in influential jazz pianist, his claim may be slightly exaggerated, but that would not be out of character for this vivacious entrepreneur.

Jelly Roll's career as a jazz musician in Washington, D.C. began in 1936 when he moved to the District and became manager of a nightclub above a U Street restaurant. Financial backing came from Cordelia, Jelly Roll's partner, whose business knowledge left something to be desired. Although Jelly Roll's nightclub had potential to flourish as a jazz hotspot, Cordelia often invited her friends to come for free, seldom asking the full price for anything. While Jelly Roll acted as manager, he also worked as a part-time bartender, bouncer, feature performer, and occasional chef. The name of the club changed frequently, originally 'The Music Box,' then "The Blue Moon Inn,' and finally 'The Jungle Inn.' In 1937, Jelly Roll was joined in Washington, D.C. by his wife, Mabel, and the two soon came to the conclusion that Cordelia and her friends were not good for the club's business. The final straw came when one of Cordelia's friends stabbed Jelly Roll following a brief verbal altercation. After this incident, Mabel insited that she and Jelly Roll pack up, move on, and leave behind the turbulent nightclub business.

Although Jelly Roll remained in Washington, D.C. for only a few years, he left behind a legacy of jazz for the U Street community. The proximity of the Library of Congress allowed Jelly Roll to meet with Alan Lomax, the director of the Archive of American Folklore, in 1938 before departing Washington, D.C. Lomax recorded hours of Jelly Roll's music and oral history, establishing Jelly Roll's influence on jazz.

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