MANHATTAN’S BRILL BUILDING
A JAZZ SHOWCASE AND MUSICAL SHRINE
I am constantly looking for historic buildings that are a part of the fabric of jazz history whenever I am in Manhattan. One building I have been looking for for years has been hiding in plain sight (not exactly) in the Times Square area. I have walked past it dozens of times. It is the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, at 49th. I say “not exactly” because the façades of buildings fronting on Broadway in that area are so overloaded with signs of all sorts, usually comprised of brilliant, blinking lights, that it is hard to discern what building is supporting the signage. The last time I was in New York City, at Thanksgiving of 2014,(*)I walked right past this building on 49th and Broadway with my son (with whom I stay when I visit, he lives nearby on 51st), and pointed out intuitively and uncertainly that the Paradise Restaurant occupied one of the buildings at that intersection, probably the one on the northwest corner. Being the loving son he is, he did not ask: “what’s so important about the Paradise Restaurant?” He assumed that if I was making this point, there must be some significance to it, somewhere.
I did not definitively put together the pieces of information lodged in my brain somewhat haphazardly over many decades about the Paradise Restaurant until I read an article in New York magazine (3-24-14 issue) about the Brill Building being “The Hit Factory” of the rock-and-roll era. (Please note: there is also a building in Manhattan called “The Hit Factory.” It is located at 421 West 54th, and is a recording space.) Oddly, the picture of the Brill Building used in the article was one from the 1930s, which included a prominent sign on the building for the Paradise Restaurant. (The headliner was Morton Downey.) A Eureka! moment ensued for yours truly: the Paradise Restaurant was located in the Brill Building, which is still located at 1619 Broadway. Given that basic fact, I began researching the history of the Brill Building. That led naturally to the series of jazz showcases that were housed in the same space on the second floor of that building from the early 1930s into the 1950s.
“Royal Garden Blues”
Composed by Spencer and Clarence Williams; probably arranged by Abe Osser.
Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra live at the Paradise Restaurant, New York City on April 3, 1938.
Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Steve Lipkins, first trumpet; Irving Goodman, trumpet; Thomas B. “Sonny” Lee, first trombone; Al George, trombone; Mike Doty, first alto saxophone; Joe Dixon, alto saxophone; Georgie Auld and Clyde Rounds, tenor saxophones; Joe Lippman, piano; Tom Morgan, guitar; Hank Wayland bass; Johnny Blowers, drums. Solos by Bunny Berigan, Georgie Auld and Sonny Lee.
Please don’t think me too obtuse in putting this together rather slowly. In all of the research I have done over the years about various jazz-related venues that occupied the space initially occupied by the Paradise Restaurant at 49th and Broadway, I have never seen anything that indicated that that space was in the Brill Building.
Here is a little background about the Brill Building. It was built in 1930-31, is 11 stories tall and occupies the northwest corner of 49th and Broadway. It was named for the Brill brothers, Samuel, Max and Maurice, who operated a chain of clothing stores in New York City for many years prior to the 1930s. They were the lessors of the real estate upon which the building was erected by developer Abraham Lefcourt. Lefcourt was wiped-out by the Depression and defaulted on his obligations to the Brill brothers. Consequently, they took over the building. Lefcourt died in 1932, at about the time the building was first being occupied by tenants.
There are two curious niches in the Broadway façade of the Brill Building: one at the top of the ornate main entrance on Broadway (pictured at left), and one on the exterior of the 11th floor penthouse. Each niche contains the bust of a young man, said to be the son of Abraham Lefcourt, Alan, who died in February 1930 at age 18. The bust above the entrance door is significantly smaller than the one near the top of the building’s façade.
The vast second floor “loft” (Manhattan jargon for a large open space in a building) was initially leased to the Paradise Restaurant, which would become a popular cabaret during the balance of the 1930s. Reached by stairs located directly left of the Broadway entrance, it covered approximately 15,000 square feet and held as many as a thousand people. Planned by the celebrated architect and interior designer Joseph Urban, the cost of its construction was estimated at $500,000 (about $7.5 million today). Large exterior signs, obscuring the second-floor windows and projecting at an angle over the corner, claimed it was “America’s foremost restaurant” with the “world’s most beautiful girls.” Floorshows, sometimes called “Paradise Parades,” were accompanied by such well-known performers as Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra (ten weeks, starting October 13, 1933), Bunny Berigan (seven weeks, starting March 20, 1938), and Glenn Miller (two weeks starting June 14, 1938, and five weeks starting December 23, 1938), whose bands also played for dancing. Aircheck recordings by Berigan and Miller from their engagements at the Paradise exist, and have been released commercially. The Paradise Restaurant was operated by Jack Adler, president and attorney; Nicky Blair, manager; and Nils T. Grantlund, who staged the floor shows.
The Paradise Restaurant closed in late 1939 or early 1940, but reopened as the Hurricane, on April 14, 1940, with “palm trees, tropical flora and fauna” evoking the Pacific Ocean island of Tahiti. Operated briefly by lawyer David J. Wolper (later a producer of documentary and other TV programs), who reportedly received ownership as part of a 1942 financial settlement with a gangster, the Hurricane had a troubled existence, marred by suspicious fires and stench bombs. Duke Ellington headlined at the Hurricane during 1943 and 1944, and some of Ellington’s performances were aired nationally on the Mutual and Columbia Broadcasting Systems. Many aircheck recordings from these broadcasts have been preserved and issued.
“Time’s a Wastin'” aka “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be”
Composed and arranged by Mercer Ellington with probable assistance from Duke.
Recorded live on October 1, 1945 by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra from Cafe’ Zanzibar in New York City.
Duke Ellington, piano, directing: Shelton Hemphill, Taft Jordan, Cat Anderson, trumpets; Rex Stewart, cornet; Lawrence Brown, Claude Jones, Joseph Nanton, trombones; Otto Hardwick and Johnny Hodges, alto saxophones; Al Sears and Jimmy Hamilton, tenor saxophones; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy, guitar; Lloyd Trotman, bass; Sonny Greer, drums. Solos: Johnny Hodges, Rex Stewart and Lawrence Brown.
Club (Café) Zanzibar occupied the second floor of the Brill Building from approximately 1944 to 1948. Ellington frequently performed there as well, as did the Nat King Cole Trio, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, the Ink Spots, and Louis Jordan.
In 1949 the Zanzibar became Bop City (The Jazz Center of the World as its neon sign proclaimed), managed by Ralph Watkins, formerly of the Royal Roost, another legendary jazz venue. He told the United Press at the time that his staff would dress in “bop fashion,” wearing berets and polka-dot ties and that “some will sport goatees, which are popular among bop players.” Bop City debuted with Artie Shaw and Ella Fitzgerald as headliners on April 14, 1949. (A third band was on the bill led by trombonist Kai Winding. It included Gerry Mulligan on baritone sax, Brew Moore on tenor sax, George Wallington on piano, Curley Russell on bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums.) This debut was a disaster for Shaw who presented a program of “long-hair music” to an audience primed to hear jazz. Subsequent headliners included Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, the Dizzy Gillespie and His Orchestra, and Sarah Vaughan. The club also maintained an enlightened policy (for 1949) of hiring “mixed waiters,” meaning waiters of different races. Despite presenting celebrated performers, Bop City struggled to find a consistent audience and closed in 1950 or 1951. In subsequent years, this space was occupied by the Avalon Ballroom, which closed around 1966.
From 1934 until the early 1950s, a large billboard advertising Camel cigarettes was atop the penthouse facing Broadway to the south. In the early 1950s, that billboard was replaced with a billboard ad for Budweiser beer. A new Camel advertisement, an illuminated sign depicting a man blowing actual smoke rings, was placed on a second story façade on the east side of Broadway in Times Square.
Many music publishers and others who are involved in the music business have occupied suites on the upper floors of the Brill Building over the years. From 1940 to 1962, the building housed between 100 and 165 tenants engaged in songwriting, music publishing, talent management, and vocal coaching. Also occupying offices there were booking agents, publicity agents and performers. Among the first music publishers to locate in the Brill Building were Tommy Dorsey (Sun and Embassy Music Corporations,1940), and Duke Ellington (Tempo Music, Inc.1941). The parties given by Dorsey in his 11th floor penthouse suite throughout the 1940s could accurately be described as bacchanal.
Other early tenants tended to be music publishers, some with ties to Tin Pan Alley. They included the T. B. Harms Company, one of the earliest American firms to profit from the sale of sheet music for songs from Broadway musicals; Mills Music Inc., headed by Jack and Irving Mills (aka Joe Primrose), a major independent publisher of sheet music and jazz recordings; Famous Music, established in 1928 by Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount Pictures) to produce and publish songs from film musicals; Southern Music Company, founded by music scout and engineer Ralph S. Peer in 1928; Crawford Music Corporation (B. G. De Sylva, Lew Brown & Ray Henderson); and lyricist/composer Irving Caesar, one of the building’s longest term tenants, who wrote more than 700 songs and continued to lease space until the 1970s. According to the Times Square Alliance, of more than 1200 songs performed on the popular radio and television program Your Hit Parade (1935-58), 404 songs, about a third, originated with Brill Building tenants. Other 1930s tenants included numerous attorneys involved in the music business; Hyman Caplan, a boxing promoter; theater producer George Choos; as well as the management offices for the Ben Bernie, Earl J. Carpenter, and George Olsen orchestras.(Above left: Ornate main entrance of the Brill Building.)
As the popularity of jazz and big bands grew in the late 1930s, many popular groups, some with ties to music publishers in the building, leased offices in the Brill Building, including Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey, and Duke Ellington. One such tenant, Ben Barton, a former vaudevillian, founded the Barton Music Corporation in 1943. A close friend of Frank Sinatra, who was featured with Dorsey’s orchestra in the early 1940s, Barton’s firm published and controlled many of Sinatra’s best-known songs, as did a later tenant, Sinatra Songs, until the mid-1960s. Nat King Cole and Louis Prima had offices here in the 1950s, as did the influential radio disk jockey Alan Freed, Roost (later Roulette) Records, the music publishing companies Charles K. Harris and Harry von Tilzer, and the celebrated songwriting team of Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen.
Though the ground floor was planned for retail stores, the earliest tenant to open was actually a pair of movie theaters operated by the Trans-Lux Movies Corporation. Located to the right of the Broadway entrance, the New York Times said it was: “constructed in modern style, with a silver and black design, the two houses have turnstiles instead of doormen, daylight projection, and other innovations.” The Trans-Lux opened in May 1931, with one screen devoted to short features and the other to sound newsreels. To celebrate the opening, President Herbert Hoover wired Courtland Smith, the operator: “I extend congratulations on the opening of your New York theaters. The showing of new pictures throughout the country cannot but be educational and instructive. The bringing of world events into the lives of great numbers of our people will serve to promote better understanding and closer world relations.”(Above right: Actor Tony Curtis is about to enter a taxi on Broadway, just north of the Brill Building, during filming of Sweet Smell of Success, 1957. Note the neon sign for the Trans-Lux Theater in the Brill Building.)
In late 1937 the theaters closed, and the space was leased to boxing great Jack Dempsey. It was one of several businesses owned by the famed prize fighter, who held the world’s heavyweight title from 1919 to 1926. With a streamlined storefront and interior, its napkins described the “Broadway Bar and Cocktail Lounge” as “The Meeting Place of the World.” Dempsey remained a prominent celebrity and the restaurant attracted both fight fans and musicians. Jack Dempsey’s stayed at this location until 1974, when it closed following a dispute with the building’s new owner. At this time, the New York Times described it as “one of the last survivors of the Damon Runyon era of Broadway.” (At left: swing era legend Artie Shaw and his wife Evelyn Keyes outside of Jack Dempsey’s in 1970.)
In 1940, the large space at the corner of 49th and Broadway became the Turf Restaurant, operated by Jack Joseph Amiel and Arnold Ruben. One location in a small chain, it gained particular notoriety in 1951 when Amiel’s horse, Count Turf, won the Kentucky Derby. The restaurant specialized in lobster and steak (called Surf and Turf by the restaurant’s chef), as well as what evolved into famous New York cheesecake. Amiel, who later became a part owner of Jack Dempsey’s, sold his interest in the Turf in 1957 and the restaurant closed in 1963. Popular with songwriters and musicians, Duke Ellington was a frequent customer at the Turf, and aspiring actor Sidney Poitier worked there as a dishwasher – his first job in New York City – in 1943.
From 1974 to 2012, the corner storefront formerly occupied by the Turf was leased to Colony Records, also known as the Colony Record Center. Founded by Harold S. (Nappy) Grossbardt and Sidney Turk in 1948, the store was formerly located at Broadway and 52nd Street, where it developed a reputation as a gathering place for musicians. Colony specialized in vintage records, sheet music, and souvenirs devoted to the Broadway theater district. In my many visits to Manhattan over more than 40 years, a stop at the Colony was mandatory. It is most ironic that on all those visits, I never knew that the space just above the Colony housed The Paradise Restaurant, The Hurricane, Club Zanzibar, and Bop City, where so many of the greatest jazz musicians performed.
The Brill Building has been featured in a handful of feature films, including The House on 92nd Street (1945) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957), in which the gilt lobby appears, as well as in several Woody Allen productions: Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Hollywood Ending (2002), and Anything Else (2003). Sweet Smell of Success is a particular favorite of mine because of its film noir look, great performances by Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, and its strong jazz content. (The jazz combo featured in the film was led by Chico Hamilton. In his band was flutist Paul Horn and cellist Fred Katz. The underscoring, much in a jazz vein, was composed by Elmer Bernstein.)
In December of 2016 I was in Manhattan and walked by the Brill Building. I was happy to see that it is being totally refurbished, and it is now, finally, being promoted via large signs on the construction scaffolding surrounding it as The Brill Building. Ah, those smart New York real estate developers! They finally have figured out that this is a historic building, and as such might have value. Better late than never.
Although fans and historians of rock music have assiduously documented how the history of that genre of American music has taken place in the Brill Building since the 1950s, jazz fans and historians have been far less active in researching and recounting how so much of the history of jazz was literally played out on the second floor of that venerable structure from the 1930s into the 1950s. It is my hope that this article and accompanying images will begin the process of correcting that imbalance.
NOTE: I am much indebted to the research done by Matthew A. Postal, of the Research Department of the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission, which was presented to that Commission in 2010, when the Brill Building was designated a New York City landmark. His work was based on research done earlier by Gale Harris.
(*) Thankfully, I have returned to Manhattan a number of times since the fall of 2014, when I wrote this article.
The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.