Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

A Piano with a Past

February 21, 2017 Archive Insight
THF166445

Talented African-American jazz pianists played this piano at Detroit’s Club Harlem during the mid-1930s, How did the piano acquire its ivory finish? A few years after Club Harlem closed, the Warblers moved to Allen Park. The piano went with them. Perhaps the ivory lacquer was added by Maurine Warbler—a more appropriate look, perhaps, for a piano that now resided in a suburban home THF166445 (From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Allene Warbler in Remembrance of Her Parents Allen and Rene Warbler.)

The quiet ivory exterior of this unassuming little piano belies its jazz-infused past. Hidden beneath the ivory lacquer are glimpses of silver that offer a clue to its former life. Not only did this piano have a “front row seat” at one of the many jazz clubs that dotted Detroit’s Paradise Valley district during the 1930s and 1940s—it was part of the show.  

In March 1934, this piano left the Wurlitzer company’s DeKalb, Illinois factory for its new destination—Detroit. It was delivered to a jazz club called Club Harlem, housed in the basement of the Lawn Apartment building on Vernor at Brush. To give the piano an appropriately “jazzy” look, the club’s managers painted over the piano’s rather reserved mahogany factory finish with aluminum paint. The back of the piano—the side visible to the audience—was covered with black velvet, decorated with large glittery musical notes. The piano’s small size—only 61-keys instead of the standard 88—was likely an asset to upstart Club Harlem in what may have been tight quarters filled with patrons in this basement nightclub. Too, its small size made it more affordable than a standard upright piano. Detroit’s economy was only beginning its slow and uneven recovery from the depths of the Depression. 

More Alcohol, More Jazz
The timing of this new club’s opening in early 1934 was no accident. Prohibition had ended the previous December—it was again legal to manufacture, sell and transport intoxicating beverages in the United States. During the 13 years that prohibition had been in force, “underground” establishments had continued to discreetly serve patrons liquor, as well as often offering food and live shows. Now they could do it openly.

During the 1920s, jazz, a musical form rooted in the African American experience, had taken America—and the world—by storm. The fresh, lively sound of jazz was different than anything that had come before. It was the perfect “accompaniment”—in fact, helped define—this more modern era. A 1919 song, Take Me to the Land of Jazz, captured things perfectly with these lyrics, “How in every cabaret, it’s the only thing they play.”     

Detroit's Paradise Valley
During the 1930s, a commercial center emerged in an area of Detroit (bounded by Gratiot, Vernor, Brush and Hastings streets) that became known as Paradise Valley.  Racial discrimination had sequestered the city’s African-American population into a tight-knit and vibrant community on Detroit’s near east side. Here, black-owned businesses dotted the streets and Detroit’s African-American community could shop, eat, and enjoy their leisure time. Paradise Valley--with its clubs, theaters and dance halls—would become the major entertainment spot in Detroit, as a growing number of nightspots offered places where jazz could be enjoyed. Talented African-American musicians and singers, including Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, and Louis Armstrong, lit up the nights.Paradise Valley experienced its most rapid growth after Prohibition ended in 1933, with many jazz clubs--including Club Harlem--added during the following decade. 

During the day, Paradise Valley was predominantly black. At night and into the wee hours of the morning, Paradise Valley became more racially balanced, as many white Detroiters sought the entertainment opportunities found there. A major factor was the development of the black-and-tan nightclub, which catered to both African American and white audiences. Club Harlem, located at the northern boundary of Paradise Valley, was one of these black-and-tan jazz clubs. Many of the black-and-tan clubs in the district were owned by African-American businessmen. A few, like Club Harlem, were owned by whites.

Club Harlem
Club Harlem’s owner was Morris Wasserman. Wasserman ran a loan business and owned a pawn shop. (It was said that Wasserman also had ties to Detroit’s notorious Purple Gang, criminals involved in the illegal liquor trade during Prohibition.) Wasserman hired Allen Warbler to manage the club. Warbler had previously worked for Jean Goldkette, a prominent band organizer and booking agent, at Goldkette’s popular Detroit ballroom, the Graystone, during its heyday of the 1920s. Warbler's wife, Maurine, who had worked for a theatrical booking agent, designed many of the costumes worn by the chorus performers at Club Harlem.

Among the performers who played Club Harlem was 19-year-old Milt Buckner. Orphaned at the age of 9 and adopted by members of Earl Walton’s band, Milt and his brother Ted were prominent jazz musicians in 1930s Detroit. A few years later, Milt Buckner would join Lionel Hampton’s band as pianist and key music arranger. Bands headed by Monk Culp and Ernest Cooper also played Club Harlem. Other musicians who entertained Club Harlem’s audiences were 23-year-old saxophone player Charles “Tubby” Bowen, who would later lead a band under the name Tubby Bowen and His Tubs, and 25-year-old Sammy Price, a Texas pianist who became the house pianist for Decca Records in New York City in 1938, recording with many of New York’s jazz and blues greats.   

Club Harlem had a short run--it operated from just 1934 to 1935. Club Harlem’s piano, once played by musicians like Milt Buckner and Sammy Price, ended its jazz career.  Allen Warbler, Club Harlem’s manager, went into the real restate business. Club Harlem’s owner, Morris Wasserman, would open the Flame Show Bar on John R in Detroit in 1949. The Flame Show Bar would become one of the city’s major jazz clubs during the 1950s.

THF249299
Pianist Sammy Price in a publicity shot from the mid-1930s THF249299. (From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Allene Warbler in Remembrance of Her Parents Allen and Rene Warbler.)

THF249293
These young women were likely dancers in Club Harlem’s “Shim Sham Shimmy” chorus THF249293 (From the Collections of The Henry Ford.  Gift of Allene Warbler in Remembrance of Her Parents Allen and Rene Warbler.)

Farewell to Paradise Valley
From the 1930s into the early 1950s, Paradise Valley bustled. But, in the 1950s and 1960s, urban renewal projects designed to “modernize” the city while eradicating “blight,” along with freeway construction for I-75, erased this vibrant African-American community—scattering its inhabitants. Little remained of Paradise Valley and neighboring Black Bottom (named by French explorers for its rich soil), where the majority of Detroit’s African-American community resided in rundown clapboard houses built to house the flood of German immigrants who arrived in the 1850s. No efforts were made by the city to support the relocation of the African-Americans who had resided there. Detroit’s urban renewal projects—and their devastating effect on this community—helped fuel the growing resentment against racial discrimination that would culminate in the 1967 Detroit riots.   

 A little of Paradise Valley hung on for a few decades, though. The 606 Horse Shoe Lounge was the last remaining nightclub from the glory days of Detroit’s Paradise Valley. The club was located at 606 E. Adams from the 1930s to the 1950s. It had featured a floor show, an orchestra, and its owner John R. “Buffalo” James as emcee. Construction of the I-75 freeway forced the club to relocate to 1907 N. St. Antoine by the early 1960s. This last vestige of Paradise Valley’s legendary jazz clubs was demolished in 2002, the building razed as part of the Ford Field construction.

THF166450
The 606 Horse Shoe Lounge was the last remaining nightclub from Detroit’s legendary Paradise Valley  THF166450 (From the Collections of The Henry Ford. Gift of Arthur A. Jadach.)

Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.

Facebook Comments