“Sittin’ In: Jazz Clubs of the 1940s and 1950s” Vol. 3 — Ubangi Club

July 17th, 2021

 

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…..Jeff Gold’s book Sittin’ In: Jazz Clubs of the 1940s and 1950s is a visual history of many of the country’s most influential night clubs and ballrooms during jazz music’s golden era.

…..The book is centered around a collection of memorabilia Mr. Gold discovered, and features photographs of club patrons taken by in-house photographers, as well as postcards, handbills, menus, matchbooks, and posters.

…..In cooperation with Mr. Gold, Jerry Jazz Musician will occasionally publish a noteworthy excerpt from the book.   In this edition, Gold writes about Harlem’s Ubangi Club, and shares photographs and memorabilia from his collection.

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(Editors note:  Readers should keep in mind the context and complexity of the era in which this club existed)

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Ubangi Club

2221 Seventh Avenue at 131st Street

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Pianist and vocalist Gladys Bentley, who performed at the Ubangi Club

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…..The Ubangi Club opened in 1934 in what had been the original location of Connie’s Inn.  Writer James F. Wilson noted, “With a name intended to evoke associations with Africa and ‘the suggestion of voodooism,’ the Ubangi Club traded on the taste for the exotic that tourists craved from Harlem.”

…..While the Ubangi had house bands led by respected leaders including Erskine Hawkins and Teddy Hill, it is best remembered as the home base for “gender-bending” African American vocalist and pianist Gladys Bentley.  Dressed in her signature cream-colored tuxedo and top hat, her hair closely cropped and slicked back, Bentley was notorious throughout the city for putting her own raunchy lyrics to popular melodies of the day.  A 1936 article in the Afro American noted: “To describe one night at the famous Ubangi Club should be sufficient to convince the most skeptical just why the playboys from Broadway and Riverside Drive desert their own sin dives and come to Harlem to bask in the muted brilliance of this popular Black and tan resort.  Sunday night saw the club alive with fashionable guests, famous artists of stage, screen and radio and an unusual array of talent on hand to display their wares.  The singing waiters…move about the floor with a portable piano plunked by blue-eyed Lea Simmons….About fifty people, including the prettiest Creole chorus of twenty-five svelte lovelies…take part in the gala review.  The drawing card of the Ubangi Club is the buxom, mannish dressed Gladys Bentley, who has been a fixture there for years and still draws a crowd.”

…..But in 1937, New York passed a law prohibiting cross-dressing entertainment, and the Ubangi had to “go straight.”  Sometime afterward, the club relocated to midtown, to a building that was later home to Birdland.  After a 1944 cabaret tax went into effect, the club stopped presenting floor shows and was forced to close a few years later.

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Ubangi Club postcard advertising Erskine Hawkins’ “Bama” State Collegians with “Gladys Bentley and a cast of 40,” mid-1930s

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Ubangi Club Follies program, mid-1940s

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Songs featured in this version of the Ubangi Club Follies include “Nudist” and “Reefer Smokers Ball.”

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Watch a PBS profile of Gladys Bentley

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Click here to visit Gladys Bentley’s Wikipedia page

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Listen to the 1936 recording of Erskine Hawkins and His Bama State Collegians play “Until the Real Thing Comes Along.”

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Click here to visit the Bama State Collegians Wikipedia page

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Click here to read Vol 1, on the Savoy Ballroom

Click here to read Vol 2, on Birdland

Click here to read Vol 3, on Club Ubangi

Click here to read Vol 4, Four Harlem Nightspots

Click here to read Vol 5, on Connie’s Inn and Smalls’ Paradise

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Click here to read our interview with Jeff Gold

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photo courtesy Jeff Gold

Jeff Gold is a Grammy Award-winning music historian, archivist, author, and executive.  Profiled by Rolling Stone as one of five “top collectors of high-end music memorabilia,” he is an internationally recognized expert who has consulted for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Museum of Pop Culture, and various record labels and cultural institutions.  He has also appeared as a music memorabilia expert on PBS’s History Detectives and VH1’s Rock Collectors.  His other books include 101 Essential Rock Records: The Golden Age of Vinyl from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols and Total Chaos: The Story of the Stooges/As Told by Iggy Pop.  He own the music memorabilia website Recordmecca.com and writes about topics of interest to collectors on its blog. 

Follow Jeff on Twitter at @recordmecca or on Instagram at @recordmecca.

 

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All text and images — unless otherwise noted — © Jeff Gold.  Excerpted from Sittin’ In:  Jazz Clubs of the 1940s and 1950s (Harper Design).  Published by permission of Jeff Gold.

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