The three-story club was founded in 1928 by Rufus Rockhead, a Jamaican-born railway porter who was able to draw some of the biggest names in blues and jazz during Montreal’s Sin City heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s. Rockhead opened the club with the income he earned on the rails as a porter, and then later as a bootlegger, allegedly running booze for Al Capone. The club was first located at the Mountain Tavern at 1254 St. Antoine Street, on the corner of Mountain St. It initially featured hotel rooms on the top floor; eventually, Rockhead converted the second and third floors into a cabaret. Even though African Canadians were unable to get liquor licenses, Rockhead used what sway he had among friends to help him get the license. After three years of running the Mountain Tavern, Rufus parlayed the tavern into the jazz club Rockhead’s Paradise.
The club was located in Little Burgundy, an area known for producing talented jazz musicians, most notably Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones. While the club was particularly popular—given its long tenure and the caliber of jazz musicians who played there—many white Canadians felt that jazz and the crowd it attracted “jeopardized white Canadians’ morality and white womanhood in particular,” as Sarah-Jane Mathieu contends in her book North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870-1955.
Of all the jazz clubs in Montreal in the twentieth century Rockhead’s Paradise was the most popular until it closed its doors permanently in 1980 when it was sold and then shortly thereafter demolished, followed by the creation of the Ville Marie Expressway. During its fifty-year tenure, numerous renowned jazz players played at Rockhead’s Paradise, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Leadbelly, Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie, and Sammy Davis Jr.
During its last years of operation, the club was the home of Rising Sun (Soleil Levant), which was a jazz, blues, and reggae club. In 2012, 32 years after Rockhead’s Paradise was demolished, pianist Billy Georgette organized “Rockhead’s Last Jam” to honour the now legendary iconic jazz figure and club along with some of Montreal’s luminary jazz musicians and stalwarts who got their start at the Little Burgundy jazz club, including: Oliver Jones, Billy Georgette, Norman Marshall Villeneuve, Leroy Mason, Glenn Bradley and Richard Parris, among other notables, for what was perhaps their last collective jam. As Georgette recalls: “It was quite the place. I believe it was the first club owned by a black in Montreal and maybe in all of Canada. And the tavern was reputed to have the longest bar in the city at 75 feet. There was so much going on at the time. Not just the music. I remember the hookers, who were almost motherly to us. There was so much excitement there. But then modern construction just wiped it all off the map. It’s such a pity.”
In 1989, Rufus Rockhead was memorialized by the city of Montreal with a street named in his honor in the Little Burgundy neighborhood.
- Gilmore, John (2011). Swinging in Paradise: The Story of Jazz in Montreal. Ellipse Editions. ISBN 978-0986786600.
- Winks, Robin (2000). The Blacks in Canada: A History. 2nd Ed. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP. pp. 332–35.
- Williams, Dorothy (1997). Road to Now: : A History of Blacks in Montreal. Quebec: Vehicule Press. p. 44.
- Brownstein, Bill (June 28, 2012). "Rockhead's Last Jam: Paradise Regained". The Gazette. Retrieved June 1, 2013.
- Mathieu, Sarah-Jane (2010). North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada, 1870-1955. USA: North Carolina UP. pp. 71; 201; 240.
- Miller, Mark (2003). The Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada and Canadians in Jazz. The Mercury Press. p. 172. ISBN 155128093-0.
- Sherman, David (Jan 20, 1979). "Rufus Rockhead is in a wheelchair ..." The Gazette. Retrieved December 31, 2014.
- Mathieu, Sarah-Jane, (2010). North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada,1870-1955. USA: North Carolina UP. p. 6.
- Miller, Mark (2003). The Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada and Canadians in Jazz. The Mercury Press. pp. 170; 173. ISBN 155128093-0.
- "Commission de toponymie du Québec". Retrieved June 7, 2018.