It was the first summer of “the Casinos”. Atlantic City was the wild, wild west, the battle of the pimps and a Mafia shoot out every minute. Crime and greed swelled like buzzards, flies, screw worms and maggots on a fresh, juicy carcass. People were getting rolled, robbed, conned, swindled, shot, blown-up, thrown off tall buildings, kidnapped and all manner of things on the main streets anytime of day or night. Having been the top entertainment and vacation spot for the east coast in it’s grandest hour, Atlantic City had drifted to sleep for some years and fallen to stale crustiness. The city was left to seagulls, empty buildings, a large low income population including many older retired people who peacefully lived near the beach as well as a shadier crowd.
Or as stated in “The History of Atlantic City”:
”possibly because of the publics access to national air travel, the shift of the population westward, the general deterioration of the city, or a shift in the public’s taste for more sophisticated entertainment, Atlantic City lost much of its shine; and most of its tourists.”
But, through most of that volatile summer of Atlantic City’s provocative transformation, the Jitney
Driver still let my dog, Shane, ride the bus. Shane rode with impeccable dignity, sitting tall, his paw on the armrest, gazing out the window, in his own seat from the Inlet
to the Jockey Club, right smack in the heat of it all
That was my last summer in New Jersey and it was spent mostly at the Jockey Club. As I look back now, it remains to be one of the most memorable summers of my life. The Jockey Club was one of the oldest clubs in Atlantic City and had in the past, been host to the best of musical performers since the 1920's. It had been closed as the city fell to ruins and recently reopened as a Jazz club. It quickly became a hang-out for Atlantic City Musician's Union members and others that used to play there in brighter days. I was a “bartendress” there, working from 11 pm to 6 am. Even though I was under age, my rosy youth, camaraderie with all the musicians that frequented the place and the blatant lawlessness of the times caused the manager, let’s call him “Kicky", to retain me as he felt I was good for business. Only musicians and a relatively small clientele were still interested in hearing Jazz and business had been slow. But I will tell you now, the Jockey Club had one final very hot summer before it’s demise and luckily for me, I was there.
The summer before the onslaught of the casinos, I sang at Ted Dion’s Supper Club. Atlantic City was still in a state of “general deterioration” and was an inspiring humid, sleepy place to hang for a college girl and dedicated music student. I also waitressed at The Club Harlem, thanks to one of my school buddies, in between gigs around Atlantic City. Seeing all the shows was the best part of the job. I mention Ted Dion’s Supper Club because as soon as the casinos opened, Ted himself gambled his big night club away and ended up with a tiny hole-in-the-wall burger joint, about 9 feet X 15 feet, next to the Jockey Club. He was there behind the counter every night with his beautiful, sweet wife Chris who had the prettiest red hair. Ted and his beer belly had fallen to repeating the same story every night, to whoever would listen, like a broken record, “the club he lost, he woulda coulda been rich, so on and so on". His grand finale came sometime after I caught the plane to Los Angeles. He shot and killed his beautiful wife because he had become pathologically and obsessively jealous. I suppose he is still in jail.
Every night at the Jockey Club was a soaring adventure. The house band played from 12 midnight to 6 am led by the great George Mesterhazy. The most amazing and unexpected musicians would wander in all through the night to play and sit in, including guys that played with Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Betty Carter, Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Sun Ra, Red Norvo, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald or even Art Blakey, Joe Zawinul, Ray Draper, Howard Alden or Cedar Walton themselves. It seemed to be an endless procession of Jazz giants and there were many more. I found stacks of Billie Holiday's publicity shots stuffed in some forgotten cabinet in the back. No one cared about these forgotten treasures except this motley, freakish group of displaced musicians that couldn’t fit in anywhere else in life, being a bit odd, overly sensitive and overly dramatic. They only fit in there, in the red smokey glow of the Jockey Club where Jazz ruled if even for one last blazing moment of glorious summer nights.
I quickly learned that no matter how scruffy or incoherent a person appeared that I should treat them with the utmost respect and graciousness because I never knew exactly who they might be and what piece of Jazz glory they possessed. Sadly, many of the greatest musicians of all times have succumbed to addiction and alcoholism. For those Jazz giants, the reopening of the Jockey Club was a grand mecca for them. They could bask in the glory of better days gone by with the dignity that they deserved. Life wasn’t very kind to many of these people. I had a six hour music lesson in Jazz every night. As the summer went on, I was asked to sit in more and more which meant everything in the world to me.
Some of us went to New York to hear music when we could. We heard Bill Evans at One Step Down just before he passed away. Sadly, there were about 5 people there listening, maybe 10 by the end of the show, all musicians. We had lunch with Don Cherry in the East Village.
Back in Atlantic City, we had dinner parties at Mama Motts, where I ate the best Italian food I have ever had, ever. We stayed up till the morning sun was high one day to see a demolition crew implode one of the largest old buildings to make way for the new casinos. One night as I was busy making martinis, I looked up at the stage and saw that George had removed his very nice suit and was playing as dignified as ever in his underpants. In the middle of the summer, "Kicky" decided to host an Armenian week so we had Jazz, a smokin' Ud player, delicious food and really great bellydancers for a week. I learned that summer that if you lend an album to a musician, you will get some extraneous thing, like a teapot, back along with a long story about how they lost that amazing Nat Adderley album. It was a great summer of learning.
As fall crept in and the leaves began to turn, I was invited to Los Angeles to sing. I still remember the day my friend came over to drive me to the airport in New York as clear as if it were yesterday. He was another incredible piano player with a style like no one else. I can still hear him playing an unforgettable improvisation of "California Dreamin" on my piano as I jammed the last of my stuff in my suitcase, leaving my New Jersey home and my enchanted summer at the Jockey Club behind forever. I thought I was just going to California for a visit and that I would return for another summer at the Jockey Club. Life never goes according to the plans we have. I still get a lump in my throat when I hear that song to this day. My dear friend thought it was a good idea to get me drunk for the plane ride. I was still lit-up when I stepped off the plane in Los Angeles, which made it all the more surreal.
All the land in Atlantic City became so valuable as the casinos took over, that any tactic became fair game to secure a desired lot. After I moved to Los Angeles, I heard that “they” blew up the Jockey Club for the insurance money and sold the land to some casino or something like that. I’m sure there was a more involved story surrounding the “suspicious fire” mentioned by the authorities in the following newspaper clip:
"City Fire Burns 5 Buildings
Published: September 8, 1982
Five downtown buildings, including the well known Jockey Club, were
destroyed by a suspicious fire early today, authorities said.
William Mall, acting deputy fire chief, estimated the damage at $600,000. No injuries were reported. Officials said the blaze, which was reported at 4:55 A.M., was confined to the five buildings, on South North Carolina Avenue near the Resorts International Hotel Casino. The Jockey Club, built in the 1920's, had been reopened in May as a jazz club after being closed for several years."
New York Times Archive
The legendary Jockey Club was gone. A casino sits there now.
Another phone call from New York after I moved to Los Angeles brought the news that Ray Draper was shot and killed in a robbery in Harlem. Ray was the most sincere, sweetest, gentlemanly, well spoken guy around. Maybe he was eaten by his own inability to endure the harshness of this world. I will never forget the night he took me to the Paradise Club and all the encouragement he gave me in my own musical evolution.
The music scene in Atlantic City was taken over by casino lounges sporting bland cover bands that all sounded just like someone else but not quite. The music was a continuation of the dreamy ambiance you heard in the elevator on the way up to spill all your money, your home or your car into the gambling machine. There was no place for real hot, on the edge, take it all the way out Jazz in this new world. Fancy shows at Resorts International featured more mainstream music, except, they did have Ella Fitzgerald play that summer.
The Jockey Club and the greatness that transpired within it's walls became an expendable passé blip that was easily forgotten by those hungry for the sound of tepid homogenous music. Progress barrelled forward, as inevitably everything must change, and the casinos thoughtlessly devoured the Jockey Club along with Billie Holiday, Ray Draper, Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, Don Cherry and countless others.
The demise of the Jockey Club
Jockey Club history
The Club Harlem
GLAMOUR, GEEKS & GANGSTERS: Atlantic City Before the Casinos
Atlantic City Jitney Association
”The Atlantic City Jitney Association was started in 1915. It is the longest running non-subsidized transit company in America.”
History of Atlantic City
some of the greats including those still alive and doing well:
Rahsaan Roland Kirk