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Jazz returns to historic Manhattan Casino

ST. PETERSBURG — The drummer's sticks rose and struck the drumhead, the upright bass player plucked the strings and the keyboardist's fingers danced, when finally the trumpeter belted a whiney burst.

The four musicians, dressed in black, played straight-ahead jazz with a walking bass line and a 4/4 tempo that makes dancing easy. The floors here were once worn bare by twisting feet, and yet on the Sunday, which marked the official return of jazz to the Manhattan Casino after almost 50 years, no one seemed eager to take the floor first.

The venue at 642 22nd Street S closed its doors at the end of the 1960s. After getting built in 1925, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington helped make it one of the few locations that African-Americans could hear live music of that caliber in the area.

Days before the concerts, fliers were hung on neighborhood street poles. On the days of shows, young children and teens waited for the tour buses to arrive near 22nd Street and Seventh Avenue S to watch the band unload.

"The bands went on to play at the Coliseum, on the other side of town, but we heard them first," said Mozell Davis, who remembered watching B.B. King play here in 1956.

Sometimes the whole band walked down the street with their suit jackets in their hands to a soda shop to chat with the locals about what was happening in town. John T. Baker Jr., 82, of St. Petersburg, knew the music promoter at the time and danced many a boisterous night at the old Manhattan.

"This is not a replica," he said Sunday, wearing a white linen walking suit and alligator skin shoes. "I'll tell you that much."

Now the Manhattan Casino features polished metal banquette tables and large windows that allow the light in and but stay closed to keep the air conditioned room cool. In the old days, Baker said, there was no air conditioning so the small windows were always open. The humidity, the falling sweat and kicking feet warped the floor and it creaked as you stepped. But with the windows always open, the music ran in beats across the neighborhood, and even blocks away children too young to attend heard it as they lay in bed.

That's how drum player Ron Gregg, 67, remembered those days — awake past bedtime and music pulsed out of the Manhattan like it were a lighthouse of sound. Those nights probably helped direct him toward a future in music, Gregg said. He played all through school and later in the military. Sunday night he was first to count out the beat on stage.

Several songs passed and still everyone sat behind their tables. Maurice Fontane, seated in a motorized chair, struck up an organ tone and the rest of the band fell into the melody.

Alex Burns, 73, and Rose Mack, 61, both of St. Petersburg, walked from the back of the room to the middle. Burns held out his left arm and Rose placed hers below his shoulder. The two swayed, then met, swayed, then met, and finally dancing, too, had returned to the Manhattan Casino.

Jazz returns to historic Manhattan Casino 06/08/14 [Last modified: Sunday, June 8, 2014 11:27pm]
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