Only In the Bronx: The Maxine Sullivan Women in Jazz Series

by Elena Martínez

Along with jazz musician/2018 JEN LeJENds of Latin Jazz Award Honoree Bobby Sanabria, I am the Co-Artistic Director of the Bronx Music Heritage Center (BMHC). It is located in Morrisania, just a few blocks east of Crotona Park.  What many people don’t know is that there is a legacy of women in jazz in this neighborhood; a rich history that deserves to be recognized and celebrated.

A young Jelena Ana Milcetic started her singing career at the 845 Club on Prospect Avenue while still in high school. The name on the marquee was Helen Milcetic (she later changed her last name to Merrill). Pianist Bertha Hope lived on Lyman Street after marrying Elmo and moving here from California. Nancy Williams was discovered while singing at the Blue Morroco on Boston Road (which was run by Sylvia Robinson of Mickey & Sylvia fame). Pianist Valerie Capers and bassist Mimi Rogers grew up in this neighborhood. Vocalist Lucy Blanco grew up closeby.  She now is part of the Garifuna Jazz Ensemble which fuses jazz and with the Garifuna rhythms and language of her heritage (the Garifuna community comes from Honduras, Belize and Guatemala; the largest Garifuna community outside of Central America lives in the Bronx). The Garifuna Jazz Ensemble is in the vanguard of the emergence of a new Latin music and jazz fusion.

To recognize, educate about, and celebrate this history, we have created the Maxine Sullivan Women in Jazz series at the BMHC. Why name it after Maxine Sullivan? Maxine (1911-1987) was born Marietta Williams in Homestead, Pennsylvania. As a teenager, she sang in local singing contests and performed with her uncle’s band, which eventually led to a gig in Pittsburgh at a former speakeasy called the Benjamin Harrison Literary Club where her future husband, bassist John Kirby saw her perform. She came to New York City in 1937 and in her first week here she went to 52nd Street and became the vocalist at the Onyx Club singing for Kirby’s group.

Maxine soon made her debut recording with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. Thornhill suggested she do a swing version of the Scottish folk song, “Loch Lomond.” This song was a hit and gave her international acclaim. In 1938, she appeared in the movie Going Places with Louis Armstrong, where they both introduced the song, “Jeepers Creepers.” She also appeared on Broadway with Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman in a jazz version of “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.” She became a pioneer in radio in 1940 when she performed with John Kirby on a national weekly radio program called “Flow Gently Sweet Rhythm”—becoming one of the earliest black jazz musicians to have their own radio program. In 1958 she was one of three women to appear in the legendary “A Great Day in Harlem” photograph (along with Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams).

By 1957 she had divorced Kirby and married stride pianist Cliff Jackson. She temporarily retired to stay home and raise her family. During this time she became involved in Bronx civic affairs and began community organizing from her home at 818 Ritter Place including the Good Words Club for children where she taught them to recite poetry. The home also became the setting for jam sessions for local jazz musicians. Maxine and her husband also bought another house at 1312 Stebbins Avenue and converted it to a boarding house for musicians. When Jackson died in 1979 Maxine wanted to open a jazz community center dedicated to her late husband, so the home on Stebbins Avenue became known as “The House That Jazz Built.” It had its grand opening on July 19,1975. but unfortunately, today the house is abandoned.

Aside from these civic works, Sullivan’s generosity is remembered in other ways as well. Valerie Capers (she is on the BMHC’s Music Advisory Board) who grew up in the area on Union Street remembers seeing Maxine in the neighborhood at Ritter Place. As a teenager interested in jazz, Valerie and her friend went to Maxine’s house and were invited in to talk. Valerie has always remembered this kindness from a “celebrity” who took the time to speak to young people in the neighborhood. In recognition of this, and to also recognize the many unsung women musicians in jazz, Bobby and I decided to name the featured series at the BMHC in her honor, to someone who opened doors both literally and figuratively.

While the jazz history of the neighborhood mostly remains in the form of street signs remembering some of the area’s swinging former residents—Elmo Hope, Henry “Red” Allen, Donald Byrd—Maxine Sullivan’s house on Ritter Place remains a testimony to a neighborhood that has a greater legacy than the fires and devastation imposed on the area, but as one of the cradles of our nation’s greatest art form.

Elena Martínez is the Co-Artistic Director of the Bronx Music Heritage Center a gallery and performance space celebrating the Bronx’s musical and artistic legacy. She has been a Folklorist at City Lore since 1997. Her work included getting Casa Amadeo (the longest continually-run Latin music store in NYC) nominated to the National Register of Historic Places. She co-produced the documentary, From Mambo to Hip Hop: A South Bronx Tale, which aired on PBS in 2006 and was a producer for the documentary, We Like It Like That: The Story of Latin Boogaloo, which premiered at the SXSW Festival in 2015. She was also a producer on the short documentary, Eddie Palmieri: A Revolution on Harlem River Drive (Red Bull Academy 2016).

Watch the video “Bronx Jazz Greats Jam at Bronx Music Heritage Center: Black Is Beautiful”

photo: Francisco Molina Reyes III