At Liberty Place, The Ghost Of Hot Jazz

 

Billy Krechmer (at left on clarinet) and his band at his club, May 1962 (Temple University Special Collections Research Center, Philadelphia Inquirer Collection)

Billy Krechmer (at left on clarinet) and his band at his club, May 1962 | Courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Author’s Note: I was inspired by a conversation with my mother, Kay, to explore the history of this Ranstead Street jazz club after she read my Hidden City Daily article, “Remembering the Downbeat”. In that piece I noted that the Downbeat’s proprietor, Nat Segall, began his music management career partnering with Billy Krechmer prior to opening his own club on South 11th Street. After reading the piece, my mother exclaimed with surprise, “Billy Krechmer’s! Your father and I used to go there all the time.” Intrigued, I set about researching this once popular, but now long forgotten Philly jazz institution.

Blowin’ Up At Billy’s

View of Ranstead Street, 1959, the sign for Billy Krechmer’s is visible in the center (Photo courtesy of PhillyHistory.org, a project of the Philadelphia Department of Records)

View of Ranstead Street, 1959. (The sign for Billy Krechmer’s is visible in the center of the photo) | Photo courtesy of PhillyHistory.org

When construction began in 1985 on One Liberty Place–the building that notoriously broke City Hall’s longstanding, unofficial height barrier and paved the way for our modern skyline–the 1600 block of Ranstead Street was sacrificed to make way for the new skyscraper. Ranstead Street–essentially an alley running from 16th to 17th Streets between Market and Chestnut Streets–was home to Billy Krechmer’s swing room for over 27 years. When it closed in 1966, Krechmer’s, at 1627 Ranstead, was hailed as the nation’s longest continuously running jazz club.

Wilhelm Frederick “Billy” Krechmer, a classically trained clarinetist who studied at the renowned Curtis Institute of Music, chose the jazz life over a classical career. Born in 1910 in Millville, New Jersey, he toured with some of the popular small jazz bands of the early 1930s before settling in Philadelphia and getting work gigging around town. He was in the house band at the Earle Theatre at 11th and Market Streets when a bout of carpal tunnel syndrome forced him to stop playing in 1938. In November of that year he and a partner, Nat Segall, opened a jazz club at 1627 Ranstead Street called the Jam Session. After several weeks, Segall left to open his own jazz club, the Downbeat, leaving Krechmer as sole proprietor of the Jam Session, which he later renamed after himself. Krechmer’s carpal tunnel eventually improved enough that he could resume playing. From the late 1930s until he closed the club in 1966 he served as both proprietor and leader of the house band.

Over time, Krechmer’s became known as a mecca for Dixieland jazz. Dixieland occupies a strange place in the jazz tradition. It was one of the first distinctive jazz styles to emerge from the musical melting pot of New Orleans around the turn of the twentieth century. Originally an African

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, May 3, 1964 | Courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, May 3, 1964 | Courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

American style, it was quickly adapted by white groups. The first ever jazz recordings were made in 1917 by a white New Orleans group, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. Dixieland was popular throughout the 1920s, but fell out of favor as a mainstream jazz style with the advent of big band swing in the 1930s. Then, beginning in the late 1940s, there was a Dixieland revival and the style became popular again. The dynamic was different this time, however, for Dixieland was now largely popular white music. Many of the black originators took part in the revival, but since the mid-20th century Dixieland has been a music played primarily by and for whites. Most black jazz fans of the 1950s and 1960s ignored Dixieland, as did jazz critics, who paid virtually no attention to it. To many, the revival seemed more about preserving an archaic style than the continued development of jazz. (The term “Dixieland” has since taken on a pejorative connotation in many circles. Its practitioners generally refer to the style as “Classic Jazz” or “Hot Jazz.”)

Krechmer’s club was known as a swing room in the early years. It was a place where big name jazz stars, regardless of color, would come to jam between sets or after their gigs at the major venues in town. Though, as the Dixieland revival took hold in the 1950s–and jazz began moving in directions that were less appealing to mainstream audiences–Krechmer’s became a bulwark of Dixieland. If you wanted to hear the latest in jazz from Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis, you had to go to clubs like Peps or the Showboat. If you wanted to hear Dixieland, you went to Billy Krechmer’s.

Philadelphia Daily News article announcing closing of Billy Krechmer’s, May 13, 1966 | Courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Philadelphia Daily News article announcing closing of Billy Krechmer’s, May 13, 1966 | Courtesy of the George D. McDowell Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

The original Krechmer’s was quite small–11 1/2 feet wide by 52 feet long, with a capacity of about 50 people. It was not a fancy place. In 1959, Krechmer purchased the adjacent property and broke through the walls, doubling the club’s size. He also added balcony seating. The club was very popular in the 1950s and early 1960s, often filled to capacity and attracting well-known players and fans of Dixieland.

By the mid 1960s, a combination of changes in the music business and his recurring problems with carpal tunnel led Billy Krechmer to get out of the jazz club business for good. His last show at the club was May 13, 1966. Shortly thereafter, an 1890s themed club called Your Father’s Mustache opened in the building. This didn’t last long, however, and eventually gave way to a disco club called the Opal Room. Meanwhile, Billy Krechmer moved to Longport, New Jersey, where he continued to play occasionally until the early 1990s. He died in 2002 at the age of 92, some seventeen years after the entire city block surrounding his club had been demolished to make way for One Liberty Place, leaving no trace of his 27 year-old Philly jazz legacy.

 

About the author

Jack McCarthy is a certified archivist and longtime Philadelphia area archival/historical consultant. He is currently directing a project for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania focusing on the archival collections of the region’s many small historical institutions. He recently concluded work as consulting archivist and researcher for Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio, an audio documentary on the history of Philadelphia Black radio, and served as consulting archivist for the Philadelphia Orchestra's 2012-2013 Leopold Stokowski centennial celebration. Jack has a master’s degree in music history from West Chester University and is particularly interested in the history of Philadelphia music. He is also involved in Northeast Philadelphia history. He is co-founder of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network, founding director of the Northeast Philadelphia Hall of Fame, and president of Friends of Northeast Philadelphia History.

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6 Comments


  1. Another reason not to support the destruction of classic philadelphia neighborhoods just so rich guys who don’t live in town can throw up a big ugly tower. But instead the majority of writers still flock to this type of giveaway of public property, just look at the SLS project on Broad St and its usurpation of Cypress St.

  2. Fantastic – I had no idea there was a Trad Jazz club in Philly. I wonder if Billy Krechmer ever played with Buddy Defranco? They were close in age, and both clarinetists went to Curtis.

  3. gordonwosak@aol.com

    Jack. Thanks so much for this article about Billy Krechmer’s! I lived in Ithan (near Villanova) and took my dates there in the early 60’s and loved the place. Rarely meet anyone now who knew of it..
    Little joints like this were priceless.

    Gordon, West Chester PA

  4. Thanks for the article – well informed, and fairly written. It is a shame that the value of classic (Dixieland, New Orleans) jazz has been obscured by the Crow Jim inclinations of some observers. Especially if you study (and enjoy) the rise of the variant known as British trad, there’s a lot of deep, spiritual listening in the best of what classic jazz has evolved into.

    Billy Krechmer’s was indeed a swing room when it began, and a 10-inch record, A Night at the Jam Session, proves it. Krechmer’s playing Goodman riffs, with a tight little combo of Hinesian piano and drums. Very cool stuff.

    By the time I arrived in Philly Krechmer’s was long gone, by I remember that block of Ranstead Steet. I wish I could remember the name of the classic bar that was down there. Above 18th street, an original section of Ranstead still remains, still conducting commerce in its own unique way.

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