Friday, January 16, 2015

Chicago, 1941, the blues (but no Earl Hines)

While browsing a recently, and lavishly, published book about a historical jazz record label, I saw this picture:

Source Shorpy.com
In the book the picture comes cropped and tilted, and the caption reads "Earl Hines at the mic during a gig in Chicago, April 1941". But that's not Earl Hines. Not even close.

Shorpy.com, where I found this version of the image, carries this caption: April 1941. "Tavern on the South Side of Chicago, Illinois." Acetate negative by Russell Lee for the Farm Security Administration. Interestingly, in the comments section someone says "looks like bandleader and pianist Earl Hines is at the mike". Oh, well...

The picture can also be found at the Library of Congress files, here. There are other pictures from the same venue, Tony's Tavern, here and here.




As per the Library of Congress files, we know the photographer was Russell Lee. However, I haven't been able to find the names of the musicians on the bandstand (although they do look familiar, especially the pianist and the drummer).

The place itself shows a few interesting features: note the Disney-esque murals, with characters from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The clock on the right has a message that reads "It's tops for taste", possibly and advertisement for the Atlas Brewing Co., who copyrighted the slogan in 1937.

A little more information can be found on the book Chicago Blues (Arcadia Publishing), a photo book with a self-explanatory title published late last year. It carries our photograph on the cover, and the accompanying text reads:
Russell Lee took this photograph on April 6, 1941, at Tony's Tavern. Located at Thirty-first and Federal Streets in Chicago, the heart of a neighborhood called Bronzeville, Tony's Tavern opened around 1900. Its owner, Tony Finkelstein, hosted some music legends—Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Estelle and Jimmy Yancey. Menu specialties of the house were gumbo, fried shrimp, and hot dogs. Although big-name jazz and blues performers were often showcased at Tony's Tavern, lesser-known groups were also welcome, such as the one shown here. The painted mural of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Severn Dwarfs was used as an identity backdrop for photograph sessions.  
Anyone interested in this kind of vintage photography of African-American life should note that the Library of Congress has plenty more images by Lee for the Farm Security Administration (an FDR initiative from very different times), including these from Chicago's South Side (you can see guitar legend Lonnie Johnson, unidentified, in some of them).
  • More info on photographer Russell Lee, at Wikipedia
  • Texas State University - San Marcos has a site dedicated to Lee, here.
  • Shorpy.com has more pictures by Russell Lee, here.


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