On Tuesday evenings in the mid 1950s, young jazz enthusiasts from all over the city would gather inside the popular music store, Music City, at what is now 1033 Chestnut Street. Some came to jam, while others sat back and listened to intimate performances by major players of the era. It was an especially fertile period in Philly jazz when the city hummed with lively clubs and was home to many of the genre’s important instrumentalists. For aspiring teenage musicians who were too young to get into the clubs, Music City was a place to trade notes with fellow young players and even to play with their musical heroes if they were lucky. Many emerging Philly jazz performers of the 1950s cut their teeth there.
Music City was owned by local musicians Ellis Tollin and William Welch. Like most music stores, it sold instruments and offered lessons, but there was also an auditorium on the fourth floor where the jazz sessions were held. The performances were managed by Tollin, a jazz drummer who wanted to provide an environment for young people to hear good jazz and learn from accomplished players. Tollin personally knew a number of the big-name jazz musicians of the time and would get them to stop in for a session at the store when they were playing in town. Many did so gladly. In those days, club gigs for well-known jazz players were usually multi-day engagements, lasting from Tuesday through Saturday, starting at around 9PM each night. They would stop by Music City on Tuesdays at 7PM to perform and offer guidance to local aspiring players before heading off to their main gig.
Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Stan Getz, and a host of other jazz stars would climb the three flights of stairs at Music City to play for the young jazz lovers. The audience often included such future stars as Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons, and Archie Shepp, along with some 200-300 other young jazz buffs who regularly gathered there on Tuesday nights. If the younger players were good and confident enough, they were allowed to sit in with the older players, who would offer encouragement and advice. Sometimes the lessons were harder, however. Several attendees recall the time that Lee Morgan, 17 years old and cocky about his prodigious talent, got up to play with the seasoned saxophonist Sonny Stitt. Sensing that Morgan needed to be put in his place, Stitt called for a difficult tune in a strange key at a very fast tempo. Morgan stumbled badly and his public embarrassment led him to rededicate himself to developing his craft.
One of the most memorable sessions at Music City–a particularly poignant performance that has been the subject of much debate in the annals of jazz history–was a concert by the great trumpeter Clifford Brown. Brown had established himself as one of the top trumpeters in jazz by the mid-1950s. He was living in Philadelphia during this period and was a frequent, featured guest at Music City. As the original story went, Brown performed at the store on the evening of June 26, 1956, accompanied by Ellis Tollin on drums and several other Philly musicians, and left directly from there to drive to a gig in Chicago. With him on the trip were the pianist Richie Powell and his wife, Nancy, who did the driving. On the Pennsylvania Turnpike between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, the car ran off the road and crashed, killing all three. Brown’s set at Music City had allegedly been recorded that night and for years it was believed that his last musical performance was captured just hours before his death. In 1973 Columbia Records released the album, “Clifford Brown: Live At Music City,” a recording that was cherished for its historical importance and sentimental value. However, subsequent research revealed that while Clifford Brown did play at Music City on the evening of his death, the recording in question was actually made during an appearance at the store a year earlier, on May 31, 1955. The recording is still commercially available, now entitled “Clifford Brown: Live At Music City 1955.”
The store’s co-owner, Ellis Tollin, will go down in music history for another reason. In addition to his many other musical activities, he was a session musician who played on recordings for local pop and rock ‘n roll record companies like Cameo Parkway. Tollin played drums on the “The Twist,” Chubby Checker’s early 1960s mega-hit dance record. The song was a Cameo Parkway remake of an earlier record of the same name by rhythm and blues singer Hank Ballard. Cameo Parkway producer Dave Appel recalled in later years that at the recording session for “The Twist,” Tollin, a bit of a jazz purist who didn’t think too much of rock ‘n roll, said “I don’t do this shit,” and proceeded during the recording to accent the second and fourth beats on the Chubby Checker version, rather than the first and third beats as Ballard’s drummer had done. Tollin thus gave the song its signature beat to which dancers the world over have swiveled their hips to ever since.
Author’s note: Some jazz history books give the store’s location in the mid-1950s as 18th and Chestnut Streets. This is incorrect. While Music City did re-locate to 18th and Chestnut years later, the mid-1950s jazz sessions were held at the store that is located at what is now 1033 Chestnut Street. A mid-1950s newspaper account also gives Music City’s address as 1035 Chestnut, but the current address on the building is 1033 Chestnut.
Join archivist and Philadelphia music historian Jack McCarthy on his Hidden City walking tour, “Exploring Jazz History”, this Saturday, May 16th.