Remembering Jazz at the Brooklyn Paramount
“ the theater... began featuring jazz as early as 1931, when Duke Ellington brought his orchestra to the Paramount stage. ”
By Jack Ford
You get a few clues as soon as you enter the building. A glimpse of marble here, a bit of Baroque grillwork there, let you know you're not just in some run-of-the-mill, multi-purpose university hall. Duck through the doorway to the right and the cavernous student cafeteria, with its grand staircase, wrought iron Juliet balconies, huge deco chandeliers and 40-foot high white wedding cake ceiling, confirms your suspicions - we're talking serious '20s movie palace here. But even that space - the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre's former main lobby - can't prepare you for what waits further inside. For though the theater's ornate proscenium arch now incongruously frames a Long Island University basketball court, the rest of the auditorium is still a nine-story riot of faux French-Italian Renaissance silver and gold.
Designed by the storied Chicago firm of Rapp & Rapp, the greatest of all the Jazz Age movie palace architects, the Brooklyn Paramount opened in 1928 as a 4,400-seat outer borough showpiece for its namesake studio. It was also, according to longtime L.I.U. professor Dr. Michael Hittman, the very first movie house designed exclusively for sound. From the beginning, however, the theater offered frequent live shows as well: by the early '30s, just about every major vaudevillian, from Mae West to Sophie Tucker to Jack Benny to Bob Hope to Burns and Allen, had passed through the Paramount's portals, and such legendary crooners as Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee and Russ Colombo all graced its stage. And though it continued to show films until 1962, the Paramount is perhaps best remembered today as the locus of the legendary Alan Freed '50s rock 'n' roll Jubilees, featuring such future hall-of- famers as Chuck Berry and Ritchie Valens.
Less well-known, however, is the Paramount's rich jazz history. According to Hittman, the theater, which has been owned by the university since 1950, began featuring jazz as early as 1931, when Duke Ellington brought his orchestra to the Paramount stage. But Duke was only the first of many of the music's true giants to play the Paramount; the short list includes Cab Calloway and Red Norvo (both in 1932); Johnny Hartman and Louis Jordan (both 1951); Nat "King" Cole (1953); Charlie Parker, Erroll Garner, Art Tatum, Stan Kenton, Charlie Ventura, Shorty Rogers' group (with Shelly Manne) and Lee Konitz (all in 1954); Oscar Peterson, Roy Eldridge, Stan Getz, Gene Krupa and Tony Bennett (all 1955); Bud Powell, Phil Woods and Kenny Dorham (all 1956); Billy Eckstine, Chet Baker, Phineas Newborn, Zoot Sims (all 1957); Dinah Washington, George Shearing, Dakota Staton, the Benny Golson-Art Farmer Jazztet and the legendary Miles Quintet with John Coltrane (all 1959); and Ray Charles (1960). Those, by the way, are just the one-offs; still others, like Illinois Jacquet, Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Count Basie, Joe Williams, Roy Haynes, Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, made multiple appearances here. Duke himself came at least two more times, bringing things full circle in March of 1971; that concert, says Hittman, was the last time jazz was heard in the hallowed Brooklyn hall.
Hittman, who's taught full-time at L.I.U. since 1968 (and serves as both host and producer of WLIU radio's "Jazz Sounds"), believes such extraordinary musical history should not go unnoticed, and to that end has put together, with the generous support of L.I.U. provost Gale Stevens-Haynes, this month's "Remembering Jazz at the Brooklyn Paramount". Equal parts conference, concert and celebration, the October 15th extravanganza will kick off with breakfast and registration at 8 am and continue throughout the day. In addition to Hittman himself, speaker highlights include "Encyclopedia of Jazz" author Ira Gitler discussing swing and bop (9:30 am); esteemed critic Gary Giddins on his recent biography subject Bing Crosby (10 am); current Village Voice reviewer Francis Davis moderating a "critic's corner" panel (11:15 am); a keynote address from WKCR radio's Phil Schaap (2:30 pm) ; and a musician's round table talk with trombonist Eddie Bert (a Paramount vet), drummer Jimmy Cobb (who shared the P's stage with Miles in '59), trumpeter Don Sickler and alto legend James Spaulding. (There's also an afternoon walking tour of the Paramount to be had at 1:30 pm with Cesar del Valle, as well as a photo exhibit curated by Hittman on the theater's jazz history for wandering through whenever time permits.)