In her memoir, African American activist and former Black Panther party member, Assata Shakur, recalls a Brooklyn night in the early 1960s when she attended a party hosted by the warlord of the Fort Greene Chaplins, a black gang that once ruled the Walt Whitman/Robert Ingersoll Housing Development (better known as the Fort Greene Project–once described in the New York Times as a place of cold urine stenched staircases, leaky walls, chipped plaster, and rusted elevators; a place where “nowhere this side of Moscow are you likely to find public housing so closely duplicating the squalor it was designed to supplant.”). In those days, it was typical to read in the tabloids that a youth had been “stabbed near the Navy Yard” or “stomped to death in an argument over a dime”. Gangs with sinister nom-de-guerres like the Chaplains, the Mau-Maus and the Fort Greene Stompers blinded each other with a mixture of Red Devil lye and Pepsi-Cola and hurled each other from rooftops. Still, Shakur recalls her evening of eating French fries, drinking Thunderbird and wine, smoking cigarettes in the hallway and dancing the night away, as “romantic”. “The music was playing and the lights were down low…” she writes, “and I was feeling gooooooood”. In other words, Fort Greene may have been bleak but it was also bliss; a place for style and street cred. Birds wore mile high bouffant hairdos, jet black eyeliner, and tiny stacked cuban-heeled Voodoo shoes and hep cats bopped in tight-crotch pants and stocking caps pressed down over close cropped waves. In an era of economic strain and unrest, the times were tough and the area was tougher. Brooklyn was also THE destination for great black music. All kinds of music.
Fort Greene projects would give birth to doo-wop singer Little Anthony Gourdine (of Little Anthony and the Imperials), rapper Dana Dane, MCs Just-Ice and ODB, R&B singer/songwriter Lisa Fischer and Grammy award winning gospel music artist Hezekiah Walker. My own memories extend back to the new jack swing days when, as a foster kid runaway, I spent many a night hopping the train from the Bronx all the way to Brooklyn, ducking bullets to find shelter at my best friend Marcelle’s apartment, who, at the time was dating R&B singer Aaron Hall, pre-Guy fame.
In the first decade of the 20th century, Roland Hayes the first African American concert singer to receive international fame, performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). As early as 1920, “negro folk music” received serious attention when presented in concert by the Choral Art Club of Brooklyn and the Columbia University Sunday Afternoon Chapel Choir Brooklyn Choral Ensemble. During the height of the jazz age, in 1928, the Brooklyn Paramount Theater opened its doors on Flatbush and DeKalb avenue. Built with a 2,000 pipe, 257 stops Wurlitzer organ second only in size to the behemoth at Radio City Music Hall, the ornate rococo designed theater was a magnificent 4,124 seat movie palace. It is a little known fact that the Paramount also helped introduce Brooklyn to jazz, presenting artists such as Duke Ellington in 1931. Later, in the post WWII era, BAM and the Paramount became venues for venerable pop artists of their day who are now thought of only in a jazz context including Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday, Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstine, and Miles Davis.
The legacy of jazz continued well into 1960s with the influx of notable jazz musicians into the area, making their residences in the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill districts. In 1959, jazz musician John Coltrane’s cousin Mary, and trombonist Charles Greenlee (also known by his Muslim name, Harnifan Majid) rented rooms in a house in at 245 Carlton Avenue between DeKalb and Willoughby, owned by jazz trombonist Slide Hamptonand appropriately nick-named the “jazz house”. Hampton rented rooms to Freddy Hubbard, Wes Montgomery, Larry Ridley, and Eric Dolphy, and often conducted late night jam sessions in his living room.(Dolphy would compose and dedicate a piece to the house titled “245”). Mary would later recall her cousin’s frequent visits.
Around that same time, the Brooklyn Paramount would receive its second wind, introducing Brooklyn to rock n- roll. In the 1950s, radio DJ Alan Freed’s rock-n-roll shows played at the theater, with acts including Chuck Berry and Fats Domino (later, after concern over teenage rioting, the shows were moved to the Brooklyn Fox Theater, on Flatbush and Nevins. At the height of the rock n’ roll era, artists including Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, the Ronettes, Ben E. King, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Mary Wells, Dione Warwick, Patti Labelle & the Bluebelles, the Spinners, the O’Jays, the Marvelettes, Chubby Checker, the Shirelles, Jackie Wilson, Johnny Mathis and Etta James, the Isley Brothers, Bo Diddley and the Flamingos all played either the Fox or the Paramount. When Alan Freed fell victim to the payola scandal of the 1960s, TV host Clay Cole continued his ten-day holiday show tradition, in 1964 featuring a Motown revue with Marvin Gaye, the Miracles, the Marvelettes, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations and the Supremes, breaking all existing attendance records. Cole would also present other acts at the Fox, including, Ray Charles, Bo Diddley, and Little Anthony & The Imperials. According to anthropology professor Michael Hittman, there were five shows a day noon through midnight” at the Brooklyn Paramount, each show preceded by a B movie. Rock musician/songwriter Peter Sando recalls the shows “would run for ten days” with line forming half around the block as early as 3:30 a.m. Mounted police were called in and barricades erected to the teenagers to the sidewalks. Hittman writes, “It was a strange scene in the twilight, all these kids, black, white, Hispanic, all with a common thread binding them together, the Music! And everybody was there–all the Rock and Roll stars–sometimes over 20 acts in a show! All for $2.50… every act came out and did their two or three best hits and went right off leaving the crowd dying for more.”
With the erection of more modern concert stages, dinosaurs like the Paramount and the Fox were simply outmoded. The Paramount was shuttered in 1960 and converted two years later into its current use as a gymnasium for Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus (the world famous organ and some of the original rococo arches remain). On Thursday, February 3, 1968, the $8 Million Fox Theater went dark and its imminent demolition followed soon after. Nevertheless, Fort Greene music lived on. From the housing projects to the street corners to coffee shops, the Fort Greene/Clinton Hill district became the stomping ground for hip-hop icons including Jermaine Dupree, Big Daddy Kane, Kurtis Blow, Jay-Z. L’il Kim, L’il Cease, Talib Kweli, GangStarr, Easy Mo Bee, and Mos Def. Biggie Smalls aka the Notorious B.I.G. rhymed in the cipher, bagged groceries and sold dime bags on Fulton Street, married singer Faith Evans and embarked upon a successful rap career, making their first home in a two bedroom, two bathroom loft on Carlton Avenue near Myrtle. From her brownstone behind BAM, famed jazz singer Betty Carter and her pianist/life partner Daniel Mixon, honed the talents of Jacky Terrenson, Brian Blade and Pevin Everitt. Cecil Taylor, Randy Weston, the Marsallis Brothers, Erykah Badu all called (or still call) Fort Greene Brooklyn home. As do R&B singer/songwriter Gordon Chambers. In the Brooklyn bohemian 80s and 90s, underground music venues continued throughout Fort Greene at smaller venues including Two Steps Down Restaurant, Sheila’s, Tillie’s Café, Frank’s Lounge and the Kokobar, a Cyberlounge/Espresso Bar/Bookstore opened by writer Rebecca Walker (daughter of Alice Walker) and her partner Angel Williams (with backing from Grammy award winning singer/songwriter, Tracy Chapman). Afro-punk returns to Brooklyn annually with groups like Bad Brains and performances by Ninja Sonic, Activator, Game Rebellion, and P.O.S. and the annual Fort Green fest organized by Peter Tulloch (which has featured the rapper Common as well as Mos Def). Yes, the music lives on.