MANHATTAN WANDERERS MAY TRACK DOWN old music landmarks, but like Gladys Knight they’ve got to use their imagination: anyone looking for Smalls Paradise, the original Cotton Club, the midtown Cotton Club, the original Birdland, Roseland, the folk clubs, the rock venues, the neighborhood opera houses… is lucky to find a plaque. And even the plaques disappear, like the ones in the fleeting “jazz walk” along West 52nd Street. The Apollo springs eternal, but don’t blink.
Marshall’s Hotel gets no monument. The block itself is monumental now, West 53rd between 6th and 7th Avenues, office buildings and huge (modern) hotels, many people on their way somewhere. But the Marshall is real, real gone. Its address(es), numbers 127 and 129, survive only on the City’s old tax maps. Our best nearby glimpse of what was: the 21 Club, the former speakeasy now Haut Zagat, around the corner at 21 West 52nd, two row houses stuck together, like the Marshall.
Imagining the buildings might help to imagine what happened in this one place, and elsewhere on this one block: a coming-together of an African-American artistic and intellectual community, in the years just after 1900, such as this country had not seen, poets, painters, thinkers, dancers, and entertainers and musicians who transformed music the world round. The Harlem Renaissance started here, then moved uptown.
“Here,” we should understand, was a big, vague, vanished area known, notoriously, as the Tenderloin. Think poverty, disease, nightlife, and sin, the kind of place preachers and pols love to “clean up”. The word itself was slang for look-the-other-way bribes paid to Tammany Hall and its agents, according to Kenneth T. Jackson’s Encyclopedia of New York City, which sites the Tenderloin in west midtown, north of 24th Street and south of 42nd, 5th Avenue to 7th.
But that was circa 1880. Twenty years later, the boundaries had blurred and grown, mostly northward, as Manhattan swelled with vast numbers of new immigrants, Italian and Jewish and Slavic and Puerto Rican, along with a great “in-migration” of African-Americans, many of them escapees from the violence of the Jim Crow American South, many of them new settlers in the Tenderloin. Much of the neighborhood was still rundown and risky, but in those same years the center of the city’s Theater District had also moved north, from Union Square to Long Acre (later Times) Square, bringing some degree of respectability—not to mention more money—to the area. And in the lower 50s, at the top of the Tenderloin, there took shape a middle-class black neighborhood that attracted—and even invented—its own culture.
Maybe James L. “Jimmie” Marshall just wanted to have a respectable hotel that would welcome black guests. For a few months in early 1900, he and a partner had owned another place lower on the Loin, on West 31st, but very quickly the partnership broke up and Marshall went out on his own, opening what was now the Marshall Hotel in October of that year. The move to West 53rd brought a nicer building on a nicer block, with another upright, black-owned hotel, the Maceo, down the street. Jimmie Marshall had rooms, a restaurant that never closed, and a ballroom. He appears to have had good business sense.
More important, Jimmie Marshall had personality, the kind of charisma and showmanship that we see through the decades in restaurateurs and club owners and impresarios from Toots Shor to Elaine Kaufman to Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, people with a specific, crucial talent for making celebrities feel comfortable and, of course, celebrated. They endure in memory chiefly for the establishments they ran. What history there is of Jimmie Marshall survives because he had this hotel, and because, like no one before him, he could draw black stars.
Black stars? A few years earlier, the phrase would have made no sense. But now they were all here, in New York and at the Marshall: Bert Williams and George Walker, the kings of black vaudeville who soon would be the first to cross the color line on stage; Bob Cole and Billy Johnson, songwriters as well as performers, who maintained a “studio” in the Marshall that drew the likes of the white singer/actress Lillian Russell, in search of new material; the writer and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois; the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Johnson; musicians including Will Marion Cook and Eubie Blake; and the poet/lyricists Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson.
For James Weldon Johnson, a young man in his 20s from Jacksonville, Florida, who came north after graduating from Clark Atlanta University, the Marshall and its neighborhood dazzled and transformed: “In this new centre there sprang up a new phase of life among coloured New Yorkers… a fashionable sort of life that hitherto had not existed… On Sunday evenings the crowd became a crush; and to be sure of service one had to book a table in advance. This new centre also brought about a revolutionary change in Negro artistic life.
“A good many white actors and musicians also frequented the Marshall, and it was no unusual thing for some among the biggest Broadway stars to run up there for an evening. So there were always present numbers of those who love to be in the light reflected from celebrities… To be a visitor there, without at the same time being a rank outsider, was a distinction.”
The idea that turned into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was argued out over the tables of the Marshall. The first New York organization of black musicians, James Reese Europe’s Clef Club—something between a booking agency and a union that drew the best players of the day—took shape at those same tables, sent out touring orchestras, and moved to its own building (and club) across the street.
A MEETING PLACE, A CELEBRITY HANGOUT, GOOD FOOD...still, people came here first for the music. And what kind of music was that? With the new century, African-American popular music had a name, ragtime, short for “ragged time,” meaning syncopated. But ragtime could cover everything from Scott Joplin’s formal (and haunting) piano compositions—his “Maple Leaf Rag” was a million-seller as SHEET MUSIC—to band music for dances like the Cake Walk (arising from dance competitions in the black community—you could win a cake).
No one, at this point, called it jazz. James Weldon Johnson will have you know, however, that “the first modern jazz band ever heard on a New York stage, and probably on any other stage, was organized at the Marshall and made its debut at Proctor’s Twenty-third Street Theatre in the early spring of 1905. It was a playing-singing-dancing orchestra, making dominant use of banjos, mandolins, guitars, saxophones, and drums in combination, and was called the Memphis Students”—featuring Jim Europe. Book your time-travel now.*
The Marshall, maybe, even hosted royalty. In February and March of 1902, Prince Henry of Prussia came to New York on a friendship mission from Kaiser Wilhelm II. Writing a column years later for the New York Age, an African-American newspaper, Lester A. Walton recalled the Prince’s visit:
“He was taken to the Hotel Marshall, where colored singers and dancers of ability appeared for his express benefit. As he sat and listened to the musical numbers he, from time to time, expressed himself as being greatly pleased with the work of the artists.”
The official diary of the Prince’s American tour does not mention this stop. But members of New York’s white high society—the self-styled “Four Hundred,” who hobnobbed here with Henry— certainly knew and frequented the Marshall. So, for example, did “Diamond Jim” Brady and Florenz Ziegfeld.
Musical-theater students: Walton tells us that the idea of “cabaret”—a place where people could eat and drink and watch a “sophisticated” floor show—originated at the Marshall, then on to Paris, Berlin, etc. Maybe Henry tipped them off.
WHAT JAMES WELDON JOHNSON would call “the brightest days of the Marshall” lasted more than a decade, reaching a pinnacle of sorts around 1910-11. Jimmie Marshall took two ads in the November 1910 debut edition of The Crisis, the official magazine (enduring to this day) of the NAACP, proudly calling his place “the leading colored restaurant in America,” with “shell fish a specialty” and “good music—vocal and instrumental”. Top that, New Orleans.
We look back on the treasured music meccas of our own younger days, and we know these places almost never last, except as museums of themselves. Tastes change, people move, people age. By the second decade of the 20th century, African-American New Yorkers were moving to another residential neighborhood, with a Dutch name, above 125th Street. The culture, and the energy, and the optimism, traveled with them.
But the Marshall didn’t fade, it fell. Like other innovators, Jimmie Marshall and his hotel had special problems that came with being first. That a respectable place existed in central Manhattan where people of different races could meet and socialize on equal terms, clearly offended powerful elements of white New York. If the police would not stop it, others would.
The historian Jennifer Fronc has documented the failed efforts of the so-called “Committee of Fourteen”—a self-appointed group of white moral arbiters—to catch Jimmie Marshall in some illegal act, sending in private investigators—well, spies—to sit at the bar fishing for prostitutes, liquor-law violations, anything. But the Committee’s main source of outrage was in plain sight. Fronc writes, “As William S. Bennet, Congressman and Committee of Fourteen member, explained, ‘If it is a colored place in which white people were not admitted at all,’ then it ‘would seem to me that there is no chance for trouble.’” Not just race-mixing, but interracial dating couples, were the trouble.
The stuff of great melodrama, but let’s add this one nuance. The same Lester A. Walton column in the New York Age, published October 9th, 1913 as a kind of obituary, claims that “the Marshall hotel was not closed at the instance of the local authorities,” but also suggests that some African-Americans in New York were just as uncomfortable with goings-on at the hotel, and with men “of the Jack Johnson type, who cared naught for public opinion, but who were obsessed with a passion for ‘going big’ in public with a certain class of women.”
Ultimately and predictably, the authorities—led by New York City Mayor William Jay Gaynor—did indeed find themselves shocked at what was going on in west-50s nightlife, and pushed through an ordinance that forced everyone to close at one in the morning—just two hours after the theaters typically let out—and killed the entire scene (before Prohibition killed it again). After one last blowout party, the Marshall closed at dawn on September 5th, 1913. The Mayor died of a heart attack five days later. The world moved to Harlem, but with a lesson learned: at the Cotton Club, great African-American entertainers still played, sang, and danced… for all-white audiences, until Duke Ellington persuaded the white owners to integrate, a little. The Savoy Ballroom and other venues integrated as well.
The Municipal Archives’ collection of circa-1940 tax photos provides a coda: the Marshall had become a parking garage and Esso “filling station,” surrounded by more garages, handy for your night out on the Great White Way. Gas up and say goodbye.
*To read more about the music, and hear it, look for Tim Brooks’s landmark Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry 1890-1919 (Illinois, 2004), and its companion two-CD set (Archeophone Records, 2005). The recording quality is often poor, and people played more carefully in the studio than they did live, but imagine the Marshall.
Jennifer Fronc, “The Marshall Hotel,” The Gotham Center for New York History, 6/5/2010
James Weldon Johnson, Black Manhattan (1930, reprinted by Da Capo Press 1991)
Research: Rachel Lintz