In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the area around 7th and T was a bustling hub of culture in D.C.’s African American community.
Washington, D.C.'s very own father of jazz, Duke Ellington, grew up in the Shaw neighborhood of northwest D.C., a historically vibrant center of African American intellectual and cultural life. And an especially vibrant center within that neighborhood was a place Ellington came to know quite well as a budding musician: Frank Holliday's Pool Hall.
Today, 624 T Street NW stands where Frank Holliday's used to be; the space is scheduled to open as Right, Proper Brew Pub, and as Kim Bender, author of the blog, "the location," points out, the building has a rich history in the community.
"This building was two separate row houses, 624 and 626 T Street, and those were used for about 30 or 40 years as residences for African Americans," Bender says. "They were rental properties. Somewhere between 1910 and 1913 the wall between the two buildings was knocked out on the first floor and they were combined into one business. It's at that point that this became Frank Holiday's Pool Hall."
As Bender describes it, Frank Holliday's Pool Hall was a center of African American community.
"There were doctors here, lawyers here, all the way to down to Pullman porters," she says. "It was a mixing of all different levels of African American society."
And it was into this mix that Duke Ellington stepped in. At age 14, "he would hang around all these different people," Bender says. "All these jazz musicians were hanging out here from Howard Theatre and playing. And he would watch for a while and start asking them questions while they were playing on the piano. They would show him things, so he had a slew of mentors."
Indeed, as Ellington writes in his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress:
Of course, all the piano players used to hang out there, too. There was Ralph Green, who never really became a professional piano player. Claude Hopkins was there. Shrimp Bronner was another. Phil Word, who used to play the piano at the Howard Theatre, was a good song writer too. Roscoe Lee, who became a dentist, would be there. He and Claude Hopkins were reader piano players, like Doc Perry, Louis Brown, and Louis Thomas, who came by from time to time. Les Dishman was the great left hand. Then there were Clarence Bowser, Sticky Mack, and Blind Johnny. These cats couldn't read, but there was a wonderful thing, an exchange, which went on between them and the guys who did.
Kim Bender argues that Ellington's experiences with all these different musicians at Frank Holliday's Pool House helped shape him as a virtuoso musician.
"Jazz is not something that comes from reading music only," she says. "He could meld different styles from all these different people, from people who could read music, to people who were making it up on the spot.
"He had every kind of technique to learn from in this place, and I think in a way he birthed jazz in his own mind from these different kinds of people."
[Music: "Turn Your Face" by John Davis from Title Tracks / "Duke's Place (Digital Remaster)" by Duke Ellington & Louis Armstrong from The Great Summit - The Master Tapes ]
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