The most high-profile club on Dixwell Avenue was the Monterey Club at 265-267 Dixwell Ave. Under the ownership of Rufus Greenlee, a parade of jazz luminaries graced the club’s stage, from Josephine Baker, Billie Holiday, and Sarah Vaughan to Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. There were closed-door jam sessions with Ella Fitzgerald. Johnny “Hammond” Smith recorded a live album there called Black Coffee.
Greenlee was a pillar of the community, insisting on good behavior in the club from patrons and employees and getting it. Williams (in the film) recalled how he could never hang onto money; he was always spending it or lending it, without keeping track of it. Greenlee, his boss, noticed and started asking Williams for money himself, a couple bucks here, a couple bucks there. Williams always gave it to him. After a while Greenlee presented Williams with a bankbook for a savings account with a few hundred dollars in it. It was all the money Greenlee had borrowed from Willliams. It was the money Williams couldn’t save; Greenlee had done it for him, and was giving it all back to him.
Horace Silver, who grew up in Norwalk and would go on to have a long career as a hard bop composer and pianist in the 1950s, cut his teeth as a high school student at the Monterey. He played tenor sax and piano. “We played two nights a week up there,” he said. “So I’d get through high school at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on Friday, and then 5 or 6 o’clock or so I’d take the train to New Haven, have dinner…. We’d go to the gig, play the gig, and afterwards, we’d come home” to a musician’s house in New Haven. “We would stay up until 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, talking music.”
But the Monterey was far from alone. There was New Haven jazz legend Willie Ruff’s place, the Playback Club, nearby on Winchester Avenue. Dixon’s Restaurant was on Ashmun Street. There was the Recorder Club and the Golden Gate. The Golden Gate had its stage in the window. “Even if you were too young to go in, you could stand on the sidewalk and be entertained,” Stanford said.
In one building was the Musicians’ Club on the second floor and the Democratic Club on the third floor. “And those are the days that I really miss, because it was a home for all the musicians. Any time of day, if a bunch of musicians got together, they could go up the Musicians’ Club. Somebody would have their horn, someone would be on the piano, any time of day or in the evening,” said former drummer Sam Dixon.
Drummer Roy Haynes destroyed the drum set one night at the Democratic Club. At Lillian’s Paradise downtown, “there was a riot,” Silver recalled, with tables and chairs going airborne. The band ended up hiding under the grand piano until the fight died down.
The heady atmosphere gave rise to a strong local jazz scene. Dickey Meyers (Jodie’s father) became a hero of the tenor sax, along with Tommy Brazile. Ernie Washington was an “amazing” piano player. The interviewees in Unsung Heroes rattle off a long list of names — trumpet players, bass players, players across the range of instruments, enough to field several bands over. As several interviewers said in the film, New Haven’s musicians were “black, white, yellow, green, purple,” — from a musical perspective, it didn’t matter as long as it was good.
The ways that music broke down racial barriers meant that black and white musicians mixed more than the general populace did. A unionized musical landscape that began with two segregated unions — ostensibly for downtown and uptown clubs, but in reality for white and black musicians, respectively — ultimately led to a single union (though, unfortunately, merging the two unions often meant that black musicians got less work than white musicians). It also meant that there was a legacy to hand down. And the Buster Brothers, Eddie and Bobby, who both played organ, became “the heart and soul of jazz music in New Haven,” as the narration put it. They played with the greats that came through town. But they also played with whoever wanted to play with them, and in their knowledge, skill, and enthusiasm, they created a next generation of players.
“The first thing that would come out of Eddie’s mouth, or Bobby’s, was ‘where’s your horn? Where’s your horn? Go get it. It’s not going to do any good in the car. Take it out. Bring it in. Let’s jam,” said James “Dinkie” Johnson, who owned Dinkie’s Jazz Club.
“They were born mentors, born leaders,” bassist Jeff Fuller said. “They were the foundation of jazz in New Haven.”
Unsung Heroes ends on that hopeful note, of a tradition passed down. It holds water. People have built on the foundation the Buster Brothers laid down, with the result that jazz in all its forms is an integral part of New Haven’s musical landscape, even beyond the genre’s borders.
But the documentary left a few questions open, too. Most important: Maybe the musicians are still here, but what happened to the clubs on Dixwell Avenue? What happened to the crowds that could keep the Monterey packed from 10 a.m. to 1 a.m.? What happened to black New Haven’s Main Street?
That was the question that drove the discussion after the screening. “It’s changed so much,” said an audience member about Dixwell Avenue, “and I don’t think we understand the history.”
Another audience member started by giving the same answer Willie Ruff gave in an interview not long ago: television. But this audience member kept going. People stopped going out. People started staying home. The bonds of community that were made strong by everyone always seeing everyone else out began to weaken. “As a people, we kind of let our guard down,” she said.