Today it’s the last building standing on a lonely stretch of Ridge Avenue in Sharswood, a vacant-eyed skeleton that looks as if it might crumble any second. But back in the day, this emaciated Victorian knew how to party. Operating as the Checker Cafe (later, the Checker Club), it was part of a bustling African American entertainment district where jazz performers like Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, and Bessie Smith honed their craft.
It’s a bit ironic that the Checker is the only one of those Ridge Avenue joints to survive. It wasn’t the biggest or best known of the venues that lined the avenue during North Philadelphia’s jazz heyday in the mid-20th century. That distinction was probably held by the Pearl Theater on the next block, where Bailey and her sister Jura worked as ushers, and brother Bill tended the candy counter.
Trumpeter Cullen Knight, who grew up a block away, says the Checker was where musicians hung out before and after the shows, partly because the food and the house trio were equally reliable. Its motto was “Good Food. Good Cooks. Good Service.” Among those providing service was Pearl Bailey, who did a stint as a singing waitress and is now immortalized by a mural on the building’s south side. In the '30s, a gay singer known as the “Sepia Gloria Swanson” was also a regular.
While some clubs, like Ridge Cotton Club and Blue Note, took their inspiration from famous Harlem venues, the Checker got its name from the black-and-white pattern painted on the ground floor. Its horseshoe-shaped bar had just enough space in its curve for a small band. Tables occupied the rest of the room.
Like so many corner bars in Philadelphia, the Checker started out as a house. The first section of the handsome brick Victorian, which sits on a triangular block at Oxford and 21st Streets, was completed in 1890 and extended in stages. By 1915, the sliver building ran the length of its Oxford Street block. The ridiculously stretched-out facade was broken up with two large bay windows and an ornate, iron balcony. Male patrons entered the Checker from the corner of Ridge, under a dramatic turret that somehow still clings to the windowless shell, while “ladies” had a less conspicuous entrance on Oxford.
Ridge Avenue began to go downhill after riots hit North Philadelphia in 1964, and the blocks of music clubs are now silent vacant lots. The Philadelphia Housing Authority, which is embarking on a massive urban renewal project in Sharswood, was intent on eliminating the Checker Cafe. The demolition was stopped after jazz historian Faye Anderson alerted federal officials to the building’s importance as the surviving relic of the avenue’s great musical past. What happens next is unclear, but as long as the Checker stands, Ridge Avenue’s contribution to jazz history won’t be forgotten.