MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and with Father's Day just around the corner, today we're dedicating our show to fatherhood. In just a bit we'll visit a great-horned owl that's acted as a surrogate father to more than two dozen baby owls in Virginia. And we'll check in with a Maryland dad who's been sailing with his family around the world. But first, we're going to pay tribute to one of the great fathers of jazz, as we check out The Location.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Our ongoing segment in which Kim Bender, author of the blog, The Location, tells us the intriguing stories behind locations around the region, some of them legendary, some of them little known. This week's location falls somewhere in between. It's in the original neighborhood of that jazz legend we mentioned. You may have heard of him, a guy by the name of Duke Ellington. Ellington grew up in Shaw, a historically vibrant center of African American intellectual and cultural life in northwest D.C. And the building we're standing inside is right next to one of Shaw's cultural hubs, the Howard Theater on T Street Northwest.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Actually, I say building, but I should clarify. Right now the place is more of a construction site, as builders turn it into Right, Proper Brew Pub, scheduled to open this fall.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Just because the listeners can't see us right now, we are standing…
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
So we're standing on basically gravel. The walls are kind of crumbly brick, clearly this is a space that is in transition. Kim Bender, what did this use to be once upon a time?
MS. KIM BENDER
Well, do you want to start at the beginning? Should we start from the very beginning? Because this building was two separate row houses, 624 and 626 T Street back then, and those were used for about 30 or 40 years as residences for African Americans who lived here. They were rental properties basically. And then 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.
What kind of place was Frank Holliday's?
Frank Holliday's Pool Hall was a center of African American community. There were doctors here, lawyers here, all the way down to Pullman porters, who would hang out at Frank Holliday's. It was a mixing of all different levels of African American society. And so when he was around 14, Duke Ellington would sneak in here. He was too young to really come in. And he would hang out with all these different people.
At that point, was he yet the musician that we know him to be today?
No. I think in his autobiography he talks about how he always was exposed to music. Both of his parents were pianists. He grew up with piano lessons and he had tutors. And I don't think though, at that point, he took it as seriously as he obviously became later. And when he started hanging out at Frank Holliday's all these jazz musicians were hanging out here from Howard Theatre and playing. And he would watch for a while, then start asking them questions while they were playing on the piano. And then they would show him things. And so he ended up having this slew of mentors.
I can read you part of his autobiography. Do you want me to read you that piece?
Yeah, sure, sure.
He writes, "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 a great left hand. And 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."
So he really did have this network of guys showing him the ropes.
Yeah, he did. That was what this place was. And it's how he found Doc Perry, who was his tutor for many years. And that was someone who taught him the most, of the men that he met here.
I wonder, if it weren't for this place, what path Duke Ellington would have taken in his career?
That's a good question because really, jazz is not something that comes from reading music only. I mean, the fact that he could meld different styles from all these different people, from people who could read music to people who are making it up on the spot, you know, he had every kind of technique to learn from in this place. And I think, you know, he, in a way, birthed jazz in his own mind from these different kinds of people.
Given how vibrant Frank Holliday's place was, what happened to it?
Well, the last thing that we really heard was that there was this article in The Post where the ceiling was collapsing, everyone had to run out. And, I mean, it was shortly after that that they knocked the building down and rebuilt it as this other structure, which is what remains today. It went from a two-story structure to a one-story. I know by 1928 it was listed in the census as being empty. And then it was, in the early '30s that it was changed over to this other building. Although, in -- it's called the Afro-American Newspaper, which is a historic African American paper in D.C.
There's listings of Frank Holliday from the '30s on hanging out with, you know, the people who are performing at the Howard Theater. There's one entry where he's talking about how whenever Duke Ellington comes to town, he moves out of his apartment and he lets Duke live there. He was listed as going to a bunch of boxing matches, but at that point he was old, probably just wasn't capable of operating the place anymore.
But, I mean, even though it disappeared, he left behind quite a legacy it sounds like.
Kim Bender is the author of the blog, The Location.
To read her original post about Frank Holliday's Pool Hall and to see historic photographs of the building, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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