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ON THE MICHIGAN STRIP
FOR A BRIEF, SHINING PERIOD IN THE '30S AND '40S, ONE EAST SIDE STRETCH SAW SOME OF BUFFALO'S BEST MUSICIANS MAKE INCREDIBLE JAZZ. "YOU COULD HARDLY WALK THE STREETS," RECALLS ONE OBSERVER. "THEY WERE ALWAYS PACKED."

The building still stands. It's ready to make it into the next millennium.

The great H.H. Crawford mural on its side has been effaced by wind, rain and time, but the four walls are still strong. If you walk past it at midday now, though, you can't get in to see its legendary ceiling. That's because all of its doors are locked. It's the storeroom, no less, for a plumbing supply house.

But in its prime it was a nightclub, one of the most fabled spots in all of Buffalo -- the Moonglow. On the corner of Michigan Avenue and William Street, it was just down the street from Ann Montgomery's Little Harlem (which is long gone).

The Moonglow, according to Buffalo educator and civic leader Jesse Nash, was "the shining star. People came from Canada, from all over to come to Moonglow." (The old-timers never refer to it as "the Moonglow." To them, it's just Moonglow.)

In the early and mid-'60s it still had some sort of nightlife as a rough and ready R&B bar called the Lucky Clover. Beer and spicy Polish sausage was sold, hookers hung out at the tiny adjacent rib and coffee joint (in full view of the police station across the street), and the bandstand rocked with rollicking local imitators of the Coasters.

By the '90s, the whole area -- one of the greatest in Buffalo nightlife -- was dead to entertainment. But once upon a time, it was the East Side's answer to Main Street, with music and entertainment happening everywhere.

"On Saturday night," says Nash, "you could hardly walk the streets. They were always packed."

From the early '30s, when the Vendome was in full gear, to the mid-'40s, when the Moonglow was forced to close for the first time, there were things happening on "the Michigan Strip" that have become, quite literally, fabulous by many local lights.

It is, for instance, part of jazz legend that the great small Stuff Smith Band that took New York's Onyx Club by storm in 1936 -- it included such major jazz figures as trumpet player Jonah Jones and eventually drummer Cozy Cole -- gigged all around the Michigan strip before its historic New York debut. Smith -- one of the greatest jazz violinists -- and Cole quite literally got their act together on the Michigan Strip.

Smith lived in Buffalo in the early '30s. Even after all his years of world-touring success (he used to be, for instance, a favorite of Nat "King" Cole's when Cole wanted to go back to swinging hard), the great violinist and jazz spirit couldn't help gravitating back to Buffalo to work. Nash recalls being ushered with Smith into Harry Altman's basement office at the Town Casino only to be told that in its new incarnation as Buffalo's greatest nightclub, the Town Casino couldn't hire a small musical act like Smith.

Smith, recalls Nash, was a singular figure. With his gravelly voice, he'd begin sentences with a throat-clearing "uhr-rah." And then "he could tell you the key of two pool balls colliding. He could tell you the key of a streetcar coming to a screeching halt. He was unbelievable."

The first big showplace in the area was probably the Vendome. But, remembers Nash, in its heyday in the war years, you could walk Michigan from the Hotel Winters near Broadway past the Little Harlem, and Pearl's to the Cloverleaf, encountering a marvelous weekend nightlife.

As late as 1948, says Nash, he remembers being part of a phenomenal local band led by Al Williams at the Horse Shoe Bar, on the nearby corner of Pine and William. "We were only eight pieces," he said, "but we sounded like 20."

Out of this East Side cultural cradle came such formidable jazz figures as pianist Wade Legge. Once called "Chubby" by the guys in the neighborhood, Legge wound up playing with Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus on seminal recordings as one of the primal be-bop pianists. Out of it, a bit later, came the great drummer Frankie Dunlop, probably the finest and most compatible drummer Thelonious Monk had after Art Blakey and Max Roach.

They were all alumni of a musical and entertainment scene in Buffalo that was, in its heyday, as thronged and active as the much better-known nightlife around Harry Altman's Town Casino.

In those pre-Selma and pre-Montgomery days, de facto segregation in the North dictated that there be a white musicians local -- Local 43 -- and a colored musicians local, 533. According to Marlon Holt, son of ubiquitous Buffalo trumpet player Georgie Holt, Local 533 was the first colored musicians local in New York State.

A fountain of information about Buffalo nightlife in the "jazz triangle," Marlon Holt can tell you about the Moonglow's dancers and its wonderful black vaudeville life featuring such figures as "Yo-Yo King" Ollie Olazario and "The Modern Aunt Jemima," who was a star in the recondite vaudeville art of "hollering."

It was customary, after their uptown gigs, for black musicians visiting Buffalo to congregate around the "jazz triangle" to jam and hang out. You could, then, in the early '30s walk into the Little Harlem and hear the Jimmy Lunceford Band. And later on, maybe such guest sit-ins as Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne.

The food at the Little Harlem back then -- up to the early '40s -- was Chinese food. That's because, according to Nash, the Michigan area back then also functioned as something of a Chinatown.

Madeline Davis, author of a history of lesbian Buffalo, points out that among the other notable distinctions of the clubs in the Michigan Strip is that, in segregated and socially stratified eras, they were the places that were routinely open to all minorities, sexual as well as political and racial.

No one should be surprised at the terrific jazz figures who emerged from it.

In the '70s, a valiant last-ditch attempt was made to preserve as much of the venues as could be preserved as part of a "Jazz Triangle" area. Cultural preservation hadn't yet became the mainstream community temper. It came to naught. A golden opportunity to preserve one of the least-known of Buffalo cultural glories in the 20th century was lost.

But drive down Michigan Avenue sometime. Pause at the southeast corner of William and Michigan and look at the building with the locked doors, the building that now houses plumbing equipment for sale.

Once upon a time, it, and others like it, was a temple of what America ever so slowly came to revere toward the end of the 20th century.

Marvel that even in the century's most callous and heedless years, it was never demolished or razed by fire.

And the fact that, even today, it's still there.