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In New Haven: The Legacy Of Dixwell Avenue's Jazz Scene

Greater New Haven African American Historical Society via Walk New Haven
Vaudeville performer Rufus Greenlee with his dance partner, Hilda Rogers. Greenlee founded a jazz club called the Monterey in New Haven in 1934. Today the building is abandoned, but jazz can still be heard in a few spots throughout the city.

Rufus Greenlee was a vaudeville performer. In 1934, he opened a restaurant on Dixwell Avenue in New Haven. As jazz music became popular, Greenlee saw an opportunity, so he turned his restaurant into a club for artists like Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Greenlee called his club the Monterey. 

"A lot of people came through, Nat King Cole. We had a live album recording there with Johnny Hammond Smith, and he recorded Black Coffee. One of the songs is named after me, thank you."

Credit Courtesy of Delores Greenlee
Delores Greenlee, one of Rufus Greenlee's children.

That’s Delores Greenlee, Rufus Greenlee’s daughter.

Delores says she wasn’t old enough at the time to understand the club’s importance, but she loves when people still come up to her and tell her about her father.

"One of the former bartenders at the Monterey talked about my father and how he would always borrow money from him and what he was actually doing was putting that money away for him and saving it for him and later gave it to him so he’d wouldn’t spend all his money. You know, people looking out for people like that."

The Monterey Club today is abandoned with peeling plaster on the facade. It’s next to some of the oldest African-American churches in New Haven, but the neighborhood is full of vacant lots. And the quiet of Dixwell Avenue is sometimes interrupted by gunfire.

Credit Anthony Moaton / WSHU
Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church, one of the oldest African-American churches in New Haven, is just down the street from the old Monterey Club.

The area looked a lot different back in the 1930s. The Winchester Arms Factory was around the corner from the Monterey Club. Delores Greenlee says the African-American community bustled with life. 

"There were more black businesses back then. And of course, then also you had Winchester, where a lot of people worked. So, all in that area, it was really close-knit, but now it’s not so much."

Credit Courtesy of New Haven Historical Society
The Winchester Repeating Arms Company flourished in the 1940s when it received a government contract to produce the M1 carbine for the U.S. military.

Rufus Greenlee passed away in 1963. His wife owned the club until she passed away in the late ‘80s, which is when Delores and her sister took ownership.  

"It was not the best of times. Then we had the gang culture affect us."

The club was in the middle of two rival gangs.

"Then it got to be, you know, an issue of safety for my sister and myself, cause it was just us."

They closed the club in 1991. And then in 2002, Greenlee decided to host a jazz picnic in honor of the Monterey Club. A high school friend had a suggestion: why not have it at his parents' house?

“‘What? Have it at their house?’ And little did I know that the yard in Woodbridge was large enough to do just that. So it was the perfect setting."

The jazz picnics eventually moved to the New Haven parks. For seven years, they attracted successful R&B and jazz artists like Angela Bofill and Phil Perry. And then Greenlee stopped the picnics because liability insurance was too expensive. Now, she says, it’s hard to find live music like in the heyday of the Monterey Club. 

"You can’t find jazz like that anymore, you know, consistently. Other than Rohn on Mondays."

There's at least one place now where the music is still consistent. It's a lounge above a popular Yale hangout—Toad's Place on York Street in New Haven. 

Credit Courtesy of Toad's Place
Toad's Place has been a live concert venue in New Haven since the 1970s.

29-year-old Lindsey Pina is from New Haven. She goes to Toad's every Monday night when they feature jazz music in the part of the club they call Lilly’s Pad. 

"I got really acquainted with, like, different people. I see them out on the street in New Haven. They’re like, 'Lindsey, what’s up, what’s up!' So, I’m very connected with the people in here, you know?"

Pina says she’s found a sense of community here. 

"I used to go out to clubs. And, it’s so rowdy, but here, it’s like low-key. Cool, calm and collected. And that’s about it, you know? More people can come, it’s only $5."

Musician Rohn Lawrence remembers feeling that same sense of community when he came to the Monterey Club as a teenager.

"My dad would take me there on Saturday afternoons, and we’d sit at that table, me and my sister, and have a Shirley Temple and watch jazz and stuff. One of the guys I used to watch, he was probably one of the bigger musical figures in the area, Bobby Buster, who I eventually wound up marrying his daughter."

Lawrence travelled the world as a guitarist. He was also a musical director for successful R&B, soul and jazz musicians like Dianne Reeves, Will Downing and Nancy Wilson. But he came back to New Haven after a friend offered him a permanent spot at Lilly’s Pad on Monday nights.

"Friends of mine would be passing through town, different musicians, they knew I was around on a Monday night, they’d come and sit in and play, I’d have everybody from guys from Earth, Wind and Fire to the whole Tower of Power horn section sitting in with me on a stage the size of this table."

Lawrence now goes up and down the East Coast as a traveling musician. He plays all kinds of music, not just jazz. But he always looks forward to Mondays at Lilly’s Pad.

"It’s a lot of fun. But it’s still work, but my Monday nights are my fun nights."

Lilly’s Pad may be a little haven in New Haven. There are a few clubs in the city where you can go, but not like the old Monterey Club. Delores Greenlee says people still have a desire for that type of live music.

"And I’m always being asked, ‘Are you gonna open another Monterey?’ or ‘When are you having another jazz picnic?’"

Unfortunately, she says she has no intention of opening another jazz club in Dixwell. But there is excitement about a new community center underway. And it may even include a music studio.

Credit Anthony Moaton / WSHU
Site of the future "Q House" Community Center on Dixwell Avenue.

Cassandra Basler, a former senior editor at WSHU, came to the station by way of Columbia Journalism School in New York City. When she's not reporting on wealth and poverty, she's writing about food and family.
Anthony Moaton is a former fellow at WSHU.