Standing in front of a movie screen on Thursday night at ConnCAT in Science Park, filmmaker Frank Mitchell recognized a lot of familiar faces in the small but attentive crowd who had come to see Unsung Heroes, his movie about New Haven’s jazz scene.
“There are folks in the audience who can tell the entire story themselves,” he said.
And soon enough, Allen “Rubbs” Williams, former bartender at the Monterey Club on Dixwell Avenue, would watch a slightly younger version of himself on the screen talk about the history and legacy of New Haven jazz — and offer some insight about how that history might shape the city’s future.
The screening of Unsung Heroes was the first in a series of events ConnCAT is hosting for African American History Month, explained ConnCAT Chief Operating Officer Genevieve Walker before the screening.
The idea for the series began when Walker and others at ConnCAT found themselves in a discussion of how uncannily relevant Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece What’s Going On continued to be today.
The possibilities branched out from there until ConnCAT had programmed events for every Thursday in February from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. In addition to the Unsung Heroes screening, the event on Feb. 8 will focus on African drumming. Feb. 15 on hip hop culture, and Feb. 22 on the idea that started it all, a panel discussion of What’s Going On. All the events are free and happen at ConnCAT, 4 Science Park, off Winchester Avenue near Division Street.
Released in 2001 and using interview footage collected from dozens of people for years before that, Unsung Heroes — produced and directed by Rebecca L. Abbott and written by Abbot and W. Frank Mitchell — tells the story of the rise of jazz in New Haven from the 1920s through its heyday in the years after World War II. It first sets out the conditions that laid the groundwork: an influx of African-American migrants from the Carolinas, drawn to New Haven by the promise of work in its factories, particularly the Winchester factory. This promise went largely filled, and with hard but steady work employing a neighborhood, Dixwell Avenue from its base at Broadway to the city limits became, as the film’s narration puts it, “black New Haven’s Main Street.”
“All along Dixwell Avenue, you could go out on a Friday, Saturday night and fall from one club to the other. You could go and listen to what’s going here, then say, ‘let’s go down to the corner and see who’ playing down here,’” said Reginald Jackson, a graphic designer and former drummer.
“You could go from one end of Dixwell Avenue all the way to the other end of Dixwell Avenue. That was the street. That’s where everybody went, starting from Yale all the way up,” said singer Jodie Meyers Stanford.
The most high-profile club on Dixwell Avenue was the Monterey Club at 265-267 Dixwell Ave. Under the ownership of Rufus Greenlee, a parade of jazz luminaries graced the club’s stage, from Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. There were closed-door jam sessions with Ella Fitzgerald. Johnny “Hammond” Smith recorded a live album there called Black Coffee.
Greenlee was a pillar of the community, insisting on good behavior in the club from patrons and employees and getting it. Williams (in the film) recalled how he could never hang onto money; he was always spending it or lending it, without keeping track of it. Greenlee, his boss, noticed and started asking Williams for money himself, a couple bucks here, a couple bucks there. Williams always gave it to him. After a while Greenlee presented Williams with a bankbook for a savings account with a few hundred dollars in it. It was all the money Greenlee had borrowed from Willliams. It was the money Williams couldn’t save; Greenlee had done it for him, and was giving it all back to him.
Horace Silver, who grew up in Norwalk and would go on to have a long career as a hard bop composer and pianist in the 1950s, cut his teeth as a high school student at the Monterey. He played tenor sax and piano. “We played two nights a week up there,” he said. “So I’d get through high school at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on Friday, and then 5 or 6 o’clock or so I’d take the train to New Haven, have dinner…. We’d go to the gig, play the gig, and afterwards, we’d come home” to a musician’s house in New Haven. “We would stay up until 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, talking music.”
But the Monterey was far from alone. There was New Haven jazz legend Willie Ruff’s place, the Playback Club, nearby on Winchester Avenue. Dixon’s Restaurant was on Ashmun Street. There was the Recorder Club and the Golden Gate. The Golden Gate had its stage in the window. “Even if you were too young to go in, you could stand on the sidewalk and be entertained,” Stanford said.
In one building was the Musicians’ Club on the second floor and the Democratic Club on the third floor. “And those are the days that I really miss, because it was a home for all the musicians. Any time of day, if a bunch of musicians got together, they could go up the Musicians’ Club. Somebody would have their horn, someone would be on the piano, any time of day or in the evening,” said former drummer Sam Dixon.
Drummer Roy Haynes destroyed the drum set one night at the Democratic Club. At Lillian’s Paradise downtown, “there was a riot,” Silver recalled, with tables and chairs going airborne. The band ended up hiding under the grand piano until the fight died down.
The heady atmosphere gave rise to a strong local jazz scene. Dickey Meyers (Jodie’s father) became a hero of the tenor sax, along with Tommy Brazile. Ernie Washington was an “amazing” piano player. The interviewees in Unsung Heroes rattle off a long list of names — trumpet players, bass players, players across the range of instruments, enough to field several bands over. As several interviewers said in the film, New Haven’s musicians were “black, white, yellow, green, purple,” — from a musical perspective, it didn’t matter as long as it was good.
The ways that music broke down racial barriers meant that black and white musicians mixed more than the general populace did. A unionized musical landscape that began with two segregated unions — ostensibly for downtown and uptown clubs, but in reality for white and black musicians, respectively — ultimately led to a single union (though, unfortunately, merging the two unions often meant that black musicians got less work than white musicians). It also meant that there was a legacy to hand down. And the Buster Brothers, Eddie and Bobby, who both played organ, became “the heart and soul of jazz music in New Haven,” as the narration put it. They played with the greats that came through town. But they also played with whoever wanted to play with them, and in their knowledge, skill, and enthusiasm, they created a next generation of players.
“The first thing that would come out of Eddie’s mouth, or Bobby’s, was ‘where’s your horn? Where’s your horn? Go get it. It’s not going to do any good in the car. Take it out. Bring it in. Let’s jam,” said James “Dinkie” Johnson, who owned Dinkie’s Jazz Club.
“They were born mentors, born leaders,” bassist Jeff Fuller said. “They were the foundation of jazz in New Haven.”
Unsung Heroes ends on that hopeful note, of a tradition passed down. It holds water. People have built on the foundation the Buster Brothers laid down, with the result that jazz in all its forms is an integral part of New Haven’s musical landscape, even beyond the genre’s borders.
But the documentary left a few questions open, too. Most important: Maybe the musicians are still here, but what happened to the clubs on Dixwell Avenue? What happened to the crowds that could keep the Monterey packed from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.? What happened to black New Haven’s Main Street?
That was the question that drove the discussion after the screening. “It’s changed so much,” said an audience member about Dixwell Avenue, “and I don’t think we understand the history.”
Another audience member started by giving the same answer Willie Ruff gave in an interview not long ago: television. But this audience member kept going. People stopped going out. People started staying home. The bonds of community that were made strong by everyone always seeing everyone else out began to weaken. “As a people, we kind of let our guard down,” she said.
Someone else picked up on that point about how television changed things. “We would see things on TV that we couldn’t have,” she said. Before that, “we were poor but didn’t know we were poor.” The change even affected how many people played music. One audience member pointed out that lots of the musicians on the scene were amateur. “They didn’t have TV but they had instruments.”
Drugs became another refrain that the audience returned to. Williams recalled that Greenlee had no tolerance for people under the influence of drugs at the Monterey, which at the time meant heroin. His patrons and musicians abided by it. But then marijuana came into vogue, and people accepted it. “It changed some of the attitude about drugs,” he said.
Mitchell then returned to where the film began. “This entire area was full of jobs. You could work all day and then go to a club. You could walk home for lunch,” he said. “Not having steady work in the neighborhood meant you couldn’t have clubs.” Another audience member pointed out how urban renewal projects didn’t strengthen the community like they could have.
But what could be done about all that now? How could the legacy be continued? How might jazz, and music, grow again? Here there was some good news. Walker pointed out that jazz was taught in several of New Haven’s schools. Many of the musicians in Unsung Heroes were still around. Yale, with its robust jazz program, was full of possibilities. Questions turned to whether the film could be shown in schools in the city to make students more aware of what the city — or even just what Dixwell Avenue — had once been.
Mitchell agreed that was a good idea. After all, he said, “the story and the history only live if we keep telling it.”
For information on ConnCAT’s upcoming programming for African American History Month, visit its Facebook page here.