George Townes
Jazz Singer


Interviewed by:
Becca Aronson
Laura Bouchelle
Bill Carapucci
Mark Kupets
Sara Nadim
Katie Prada
George Singing Solo, black and white.
George Townes
(This picture was taken in the 1970s at the First Nighter at Juniper and Race St. in Philadelphia)


The Project:

On Friday, March 25th, 2005 the six of us interviewed Philadelphia jazz singer George Townes as part of a field research study for our World Music class at the University of Pennsylvania. During the interview, our team learned about the culture of jazz in Philadelphia from George's recollections and about George himself through the anecdotes that he shared with us.

Preparation:

The following is some of the information that members of our group learned as they prepared for the interview.

One group member found the following information while preparing for the interview:

In preparation for the interview I searched the internet for information on jazz history that was specific to Philadelphia. I also searched for books at the library, but I found nothing that was relevant. However, there was a lot of good material on the internet that I used as a starting place for my interview preparation. Searching the internet for information on jazz in Philadelphia I first found information on the formation of the Local 274 musicians’ union, and the Clef Club from WHYY website (Finkel, Broad Street Jazz). I learned more about the Clef Club from the club’s own website, which briefly described the club’s history (“Our History”).

Another article gave a brief chronicle of Philadelphia’s jazz history beginning at the start of the 20th century talking about such Philadelphia musicians as Joe Venuti who played the violin, and Eddie Lang who played the guitar (Williams). The article then proceeded by briefly making mention of musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown before describing the Philadelphia careers of John Coltrane and Sun Ra in a bit more detail (Williams). This article was a good basic introduction to the larger names in Philadelphia’s jazz history and was a good reference for learning about the big names from different eras in Philadelphia.

Another useful site was ExplorePAhistory.com, which gave a brief history of jazz in Philadelphia beginning in the 1800s. From that site I learned the names of many important jazz clubs, such as Pep’s, and important regions for jazz in Philadelphia such as Colombia Avenue (“Jazz in Philadelphia”). Further, that site was another introduction to many of the important names in Philadelphia jazz, especially in the Bebop years, such as Philly Joe Jones, Clifford Brown, Jimmy Smith, and more well-known figures such as Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane (“Jazz in Philadelphia”).

I also learned about “Little Jimmy” Oliver from an article that was written about him after his death this year (Hunter). That article gave the names of other clubs and musicians that were important in the 1940’s in Philly, clubs where Oliver played, and famous musicians with whom he played. I also found information on John Coltrane from the WHYY web site. One page gave another lengthy list of notable Philadelphia jazz musicians including ones I learned about for the first time like Shirley Scott, and others that I learned about again such as “Philly” Joe Jones (Finkel, “Philly Jazz Connections”). The site also listed “a number of music and nightlife [centers],” such as “in West Philadelphia, 52nd Street between Arch and Locust” (Finkel, “Philly Jazz Connections”).

Before interviewing Mr. Townes, I also searched for Mr. Townes on the internet and found a couple sites with his name. The first listed a concert he had played in 2001 (“Previous Philadelphia Jazz Concerts”), and the second was a discography of Shirley Scott that listed George Townes on vocals for one of the tracks (Payne) however, when asked about it in the interview, George said that he hadn’t made such a recording.


This is a pucture of George singing on a "Jazz Cruise" in 2003.

 


This picture of a group of Philadelphia jazz musicians ("The Making of 'A Great Day In Philadelphia'") appeared in the Philadelphia Weekly on Dec. 13, 1995, on pages 62 and 63. It was taken by Elena Bouvier on Nov. 25, 1995.
Click here for a list of the people in the photo and an article about the photo.
("The Making of 'A Great Day In Philadelphia'") From the Philadelphia Weekly on Dec. 13, 1995, page 60.


This is a section of the above picture with George's face highlighted.

Another group member found the following information while preparing for the interview:

To prepare for the interview, I read articles online and on our class website to gather a better understanding of jazz and the history of jazz in Philadelphia. I read the article “A Musical Education: Lee Morgan and the Philadelphia Jazz Scene of the 1950’s.” This article helped me understand the Philadelphia jazz scene and to grasp what type of environment young musicians in Philadelphia grew up in. I think that before going to the interview it was important to be aware of the history in order to ask the best questions. From the article I learned that some of the schools in Philadelphia fostered many great jazz musicians and also that rising up to stardom in the jazz scene sometimes happened very quickly. Often it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Reading this article also helped to orientate me more with some of the famous names in jazz history, such as Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Roy Eldridge and Jimmy Heath (McMillan 158-161).

I also looked up some articles on the history of Philadelphia jazz and read an article about Jimmy Smith. From this article I learned about the role that music played in his youth and his entrance to the Philadelphia jazz scene, where he played with Don Gardener’s Sonotones (Holley). And lastly before going to the interview I went back to my notes from when Dottie Smith Gayle, called "Mother Dot", came to our class to re-familiarize myself with some of the key names of locations and musicians in Philadelphia.

 


This picture was taken in the 1970s when George was singing at the Sahara at 15th and South in Philadelphia.


This picture was also taken at the First Nighter on the same night as the picture from that venue above.


The Interview:

On Friday, March 25, 2005 we interviewed George Townes from 11:00am to about 12:30pm in a common room on the first floor of the University Square Apartment building at 3901 Market Street in Philadelphia, where George lives. We met and heard George speak when we went to the University Square Apartments at 3901 Market as a class, and it was nice going to the interview already having met George.We all arrived on time and he was waiting to let us into the building. We found someone to open the door to the same place where we had met him the first time. He sat on the plaid sofa up against the wall and the group members pulled up chairs to form a semi circle around him, except for one who sat beside him on the couch with the tape recorder to record the interview. We gave him the consent form to read and sign before we began. We all came with lists of prepared questions, but found quickly that they were unnecessary. Mr. Townes was very willing to share his story with us without much prompting on our parts.

The following are excerpts taken from our interview with George Townes. Each excerpt has an accompanying audio file of the excerpt in .mp3 format.

We asked George to tell us some of the places that he used to go to listen to good jazz in Philadelphia. He told us some of his favorite places, and it is clear that each one holds special memories.

George Townes [GT]: “And a place called Spider Kelly’s that was a club, and there was Kelly’s, um, fishery nexdoor, but Spider Kelly’s was the place, where if you want to hide from someone, don’t go to Spider Kelly’s, ‘cause they would see you there, and that was a good place. Then there was a Horn and Heartart on the corner at 15th and Market, Automat it’s no more there now, not there now. So we go there and eat something, you know, something like that. Them were some good days. And then on the corner at 16th and Market there was a club, uh, they had a revolving stage upstairs, that’s no more there either. Big bands used to go in there too. The Click, they called it the Click. And uh, they were the good days.”

Audio Excerpt One [0:53 sec].


George continuted to tell us about more jazz venues in Philadelphia, and also explained why he found it hard to find work as a jazz singer in Philadelphia. He went on to compare the jazz scenes of New York and Philadelphia.

GT: “…yeah there was another club here too called, um, its on Arch Street, Just Jazz. I got a couple pictures here, Just Jazz. And uh, big folks used to play there. Stan Getz, who was a Philadelphian. Oh yeah, all those guys, most of them told me to leave Philadelphia because there’s nothing I can do here. Nobody’s going to pay minimum or cover to see you because you are a resident here, you live here. Who want to pay a cover charge to see you? So they said leave. Dizzie Gillespie, you’ve heard of him, [interviewers say “mm hmm”] he told me to leave. You know what I mean?”

Sara Nadim [SN]: “Where did they tell you you should go, New York?”

GT: “Anywhere, anywhere but here. And, naturally they would go to New York. But see during that time New York was loaded. And then again, later on, you wouldn’t believe it, Philadelphia had more places to work than New York. They used to come down here to get jobs.”

Mark Kupets [MK]: “Was that just male singers? That…[muffled]”

GT: “No, everybody.”

MK: “Everybody?”

GT: “Everybody.”

Katie Prada [KP]: “Even if you were a female in Philadelphia?”

GT: “Yes, an instrumentalist…”

KP: “[muffled]..you were a resident, so you were excluded from…?”

GT: “Yes, that’s the way it is. Who wants to see, I see him, he sits in all the time. [hard to hear] Now they got people coming in who couldn’t carry my briefcase. [laughter and muffled words] You know what I mean? Even now.”

Audio Excerpt Two [1:25 min].

This is a picture of George singing at Just Jazz on Arch St. in the 1970s. Bobby Durham is on the drums and Benny Nelson is on bass.


George then continued to tell us about the places where good jazz could be heard in Philadelphia, and then he told us about what kind of group he likes to play with.

GT: “Ah, let’s see, Spider Kelly’s, Pep, Pep Boy’s, I mean [laughter] Pep, Pep’s. Now I was, I remember when Pep’s was a restaurant, Broad and South, but it became into a jazz club, Pep’s. Blue Note on Ridge Avenue. Ah, Adam’s Mark on City Line. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, um…”

SN: “Would you be accompanied by people playing, like a band or…”

GT: “My main thing is a piano player, you don’t have to have anybody else. If a piano player can play, change chords, change keys, and give me the right chords, its beautiful, if he can’t, lay out. Sometimes I’d have to piano, tell the piano player to lay out.”

Audio Excerpt Three [0:52 sec].

 

This is a picture of George singing at the Funeral of Bill Ryan in the 1980s. Kenny Gates is on the keyboard, Arthur Harper is on bass, and Lucky Thompson is on the drums.

 


This is a picture of George singing at an outdoor festival in the 1980s.

When we first heard George speak he told us about working with the legendary John Coltrane. When we asked him about working with Coltrane, he shared with us a special memory about working with "'Trane".

GT: “Uh, yeah. When I was in uh, when I first worked with him it was in Merchantville, New Jersey. Place called ‘Over the Top’. He was with a guy named Freddie Bullock. We used to work railroad together, he played vibes and piano. I was the singer. And, and ‘Trane [John Coltrane] was playing, so, when we finished ‘Trane said, ‘George, when we go back to Philly I want you with me.’ I said, ‘ok.’ Came back, he came into Spider Kelley’s.”

MK: “To which place?”

GT and KP: “Spider Kelley’s.”

MK: “Spider Kelley’s.”

GT: “I went there, they had Fats Wright, a guy that had a gun and a bottle of wine underneath his, underneath the piano, that’s what he did all the time. Oh yeah, he didn’t take any crap, but he could play. He could play. Ya, no charts, you didn’t need it because you know, they would, we learned then. And, uh, there was a guy named, Bob, ah, Boyd, Jimmy Boyd on bass, he’s in California today, out of music…real estate. He’s in L.A. On drums we had Kenny Dennis, Nancy Wilson’s first husband, on drums. In the wings we had ‘Trane on tenor, and Tommy Simms on trumpet. That was the first week. I was held over another week, on piano we had Shirley Scott, Jimmy, uh, Jimmy Merrit on bass, Coatesville Harris on drums, and in the wings ‘Trane and Simms. That’s how we started, then we did some more stuff. Going around, I mean, ‘Trane. But, then he knew he wasn’t going to get anywhere here. So, he left, all of them left.”

MK: “Because he was from here? And he knew…”

GT: “That’s right. They won’t pay anything here. Then he went out, and wow.”

Audio Excerpt Four [1:40 min].


This is a picture of George singing in the 1970s with Sam Dockery on the piano, Benny Nelson on bass, and Butch Ballard on drums.


On a more personal note, George also told us what his mother thought about him pursuing music instead of a more conventional career.

GT: “I asked my mother once, I said, ‘Mom, do you think I’ll make it in this business?’ She said, ‘yes, but I wish you would sing our songs,’ you see, she was in church.”

MK: “She meant, gospel? Or...”

GT: “Well, we didn’t call it gospel, just songs, yeah, yeah. I never did like the, I never did like the churches when they sway and all that mess. I didn’t like, that’s what they do now, anyhow. You know what I mean? I never did like that. You sing, you know what I mean, things like that, but it’s a different thing. I guess I’m a hold back from that kind of stuff, but I like just the voice, I like to hear that, you know, you don’t want all of that action stuff, you know, and I didn’t care for that. And like I told you, I miss her the most.”

Audio Excerpt Five [0:45 sec].

 

Evaluation of the Interview:

Overall, our group thought that the interview would be much more structured than it actually was. Instead of the strict question and answer session that we expected, George told the group stories from various points in his life, while we asked specific questions at times in the conversation. What we found surprising was that George told us so many personal stories, and stories about places he had traveled and had sang in Europe. We expected George to stick to the stories that had to do with the jazz scene in Philadelphia, but he told many stories about his experiences singing in Europe as well. At one point one of the group members asked him when he got his big break, and he laughed and said he never really had one. He told us that he was much better received in Europe than in the US, and that one day he hoped to return there. It was also surprising to learn the difficulty that George had when it came to finding a gig as a local singer in Philadelphia.

The photos that we also got from George were wonderful, so we have used many of them all over this page. Seeing photographs often lets you experience and have a better grasp of an environment; and these photographs serve as a window into the past.

The following pictures are from a bulletin put together by Fred Miles in the 1970s.


This is the front cover.


This is inside the bulletin, pages 2 and 3. On page two there is a picture of George at the top with Evelyn Simms.


The back page of the bulletin.


Comments on the Research Process:

As a whole, we were very surprised how easy it was to set up an interview time and date with George. We thought it was going to be much more difficult to find a suitable time for not only George, but also for each of the group members. Fortunately, George was very accommodative to our scheduling needs. In terms of the interview structure, many group members were surprised by how the interview was more of a guided conversation, rather than a question and answer session.

In terms of the actual content, everyone in the group came into the interview with open minds. Our knowledge on jazz in Philadelphia was limited to preliminary research and the previous group interviews performed in class. George quickly brought us up to speed with detailed accounts of his jazz experience in not only Philadelphia, but all over Europe. George invited us into his life, and we quickly learned about not only the pleasures of being a musician, but also some of the hardships. As a few members pointed out, it would have been nice to hear exactly what the atmosphere was like inside of a jazz club in Philadelphia. As a whole though, we were satisfied with the depth of detail from many of George’s experiences, and we felt he painted a clear portrait of his jazz career.

We are looking forward to learning more about the history of Philadelphia jazz once the other projects from the class are posted. We imagine that this information, in addition to our own will provide a great wealth of information. It will be very interesting to see how other people from the jazz community felt about jazz in Philadelphia.



Bill, Katie, George, and Sara on the morning of the interview.


Mark and George on the morning of the interview.

 

Additional Web Resources:

The following are resources that we found helpful in preparing for this interview:

Jazz in Philadelphia: This great site is from ExplorePAhistory.com and gives a brief history of jazz in Philadelphia beginning in the 1800s.

Clef Club of Jazz: This is the website of the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, Inc., which is a great resource for learning about this Philadelphia venue.

All About Jazz: This is a comprehensive site that contiains profiles of many musicians young and old, and is where one group member found an article about organist Jimmy Smith. This is a great resource for finding articles about a great number of jazz musicians.

Bibliography and Relevant Resources: (each of these resources is discussed in the "preparation" section above, or in the caption of a picture.)

Finkel, Kenneth. “Broad Street Jazz”. WHYY. WHYY, Inc. 13 Apr. 2005 <http://www.whyy.org/91FM/marker_clef.html>.

---. “Philly Jazz Connections”. WHYY. WHYY, Inc. 13 Apr. 2005 <http://www.whyy.org/91FM/marker_coltrane.html>.

Holley, Joe. “Jazz Musician Jimmy Smith, Master Organist, Dies at 76.” The Washington Post 11 Feb. 2005. 20 March 2005
< http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A15770-2005Feb10.html.>

Hunter, Al, Jr. “‘Little Jimmy’ Oliver Remembered”. Philadelphia Daily News. 11 Feb. 2005: 65. 13 Apr. 2005 <http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/entertainment/nightlife/10872683.htm?1c>.

“Jazz in Philadelphia”. ExplorePAhistory.com. 2003. WITF, Inc. 13 Apr. 2005 <http://www.explorepahistory.com/ExplorePAHistory/mainStory.do?storyName=Jazz+in+Philadelphia>.

McMillan, Jeffery S. 2001-02. "A musical education: Lee Morgan and the Philadelphia jazz scene of the 1950s." Current Musicology 71-73: 158-178.

“Our History”. Clef Club Web Site. The Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, Inc. 13 Apr. 2005 <http://www.clefclubofjazz.com/>.

Payne, Douglas. “Shirley Scott: Discography”. Doug Payne: Sound Insights. 13 Apr. 2005 <http://www.dougpayne.com/shirley1.htm>.

“Previous Philadelphia Jazz Concerts”. Jazzmatazz. 20 May 2002. 13 Apr. 2005 <http://jazzmatazz2.home.att.net/2001_phillyconcerts.html>.

Williams, Genevive. “Philadelphia”. The New Colonist. 13 Apr. 2005 <http://www.newcolonist.com/cs-philly.html>.

“The Making of 'A Great Day In Philadelphia'”. The Philadelphia Weekly. 13 Dec. 1995: p.60.



For George's personal pictures and the bulletin, we asked George about each picture and used the information he gave us to make the caption of each picture.


Updated 4/22/05