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Hidden History: rich, African-American jazz culture of New Haven

Hidden History

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (WTNH) — It’s a part of New Haven history that you may not know about. There was a time when Dixwell Ave. was line with the best jazz clubs between New York and Boston. Those clubs played host to some of history’s greatest jazz musicians.

The Hawkins Jazz Collective recently performed at New Haven’s Owl Shop. Gil Hawkins Jr., the drummer in the band, told News 8 he “basically was born playing jazz here in New Haven.”

When Gil Hawkins was born, you could play jazz pretty much everywhere in the Elm City.

For our story, we brought together some people who lived that jazz scene.

“There was no place you could go that you wouldn’t find some jazz group playing some place in New Haven.”

– Jeanette Thomas\New Haven

“There was a place called the Golden Gate and they had the bandstand right in the window, so you could stand outside and you could see the band, you could hear the band.”

– Jesse Hameen II\Drummer

Drummer Jesse Hameen grew up in New Haven. His parents moved to New Haven from North Carolina. Like so many African Americans in the 1930s and ’40s, they left the cotton and tobacco fields and headed north for factory jobs. In New Haven, they settled along Dixwell Ave., and that’s where jazz flourished.

“And Dixwell Avenue should be called an historical district. Somehow they should have a big plaque there because there was so much jazz…”

– Jesse Hameen II\Drummer

Jeanette Thomas would stand outside the clubs to listen to the music when she was too young to get in.

“And we used to line up, like you see the red carpet. On both sides people would line up.”

– Jesse Hameen II\Drummer

In 2001, filmmaker Rebecca Abbott created the documentary “Unsung Heroes: The Music of Jazz in New Haven” to capture memories of all the clubs, and there was one at the top of everyone’s list.

“The Monterey was the prime club that echoed throughout Connecticut and surrounding states…It was something that was the thing to do…It was the place to go.”

– ‘Unsung Heroes’

Jesse Hameen played the Monterey.

“They would let us in there in the daytime and we would jam. Just the musicians would get together and the people from the community would come in.”

– Jesse Hameen II\Drummer

The Monterey was torn down years ago. There used to be jazz clubs all over the very African-American neighborhood where the club once stood. But what has kept this history kind of hidden is the fact that there was a whole other world of jazz clubs in downtown New Haven, but in those, only white musicians were allowed to play. There were even two different musicians unions.

“I belonged to the colored union and there were kind of certain gigs that we didn’t get and couldn’t get because they were downtown.”

– Jesse Hameen II\Drummer

That didn’t stop the word from getting out to musicians like Jeff Fuller who was studying music at Yale.

“I did eventually learn through my peers that were playing jazz in the neighborhoods and in the clubs and in the jam sessions. Oh this is really exciting.”

– Jeff Fuller/Bass

And New Haven drew big names: Art Blakey, Billie Holiday at Lilian’s Paradise. The Elm City also created some big names: The Buster Brothers (famous for jazz organ) are at the top of the list, along with Hameen and Fuller.

We asked them to describe the New Haven jazz sound. Fuller said, “Highly competent, but highly soulful and highly emotional at the same time.”

It’s harder to find, but folks like Gil Hawkins are still playing like that today.

“Just to keep that tradition alive is paramount. What else can you do, you just have to keep playing it and basically school the audience, in a sense.”

– Gil Hawkins Jr.\Drummer

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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