Rockhead's Paradise

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Rockhead's Paradise was a night club in Montreal, Canada, the first in the city to be owned by a black businessman. From circa 1931 until its demise in 1977, Rockhead's, as it was known locally, featured singers, dancers, comedians, and other African-American entertainers, mostly brought in from the United States; they were accompanied on stage by a house band of local black musicians. The three-story building also housed a street-level bar where jazz musicians, mostly local, performed, and a tavern.[1][2][3]

In 1928, Rufus Rockhead, a Jamaican-born immigrant, First World War veteran, and former railroad porter, bought the building at 1258 St.Antoine Street West, corner of Mountain street.[4] The three-story building initially housed hotel rooms on the top floor. In 1931, Rockhead converted the second and third floors into a cabaret-style night club and managed to obtain a liquor licence from the Quebec provincial authorities, a ground-breaking achievement for a black businessman at the time.[5]

The club became famous for the high quality of its all-black stage shows and the hospitality of its owner, who greeted patrons individually at the top of the stairs. Famous African-American musicians and entertainers, including Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald, often frequented the club after finishing their engagements elsewhere in the city, and sometimes performed impromptu on stage with the house band. In the 1940s, the club was known for some of Montreal's first performances by so-called female impersonators, featuring performers such as Dick Montgomery, Malva Bolda, and Billie McAllister.[6]

The club was located in Little Burgundy, a mainly black, inner-city residential neighbourhood where several Canadian jazz musicians grew up, notably Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones. While the club was popular with both black and white patrons, some white Canadians felt that it “jeopardized white Canadians’ morality and white womanhood in particular,”.[7] Rockhead was also known for encouraging younger local musicians, some of whom became members of the house band and/or played in his street-level bar/ jazz club.

In 1975 Rockhead suffered a stroke. Two years later his son Kenny Rockhead sold the club to Roué Doudou Boicel, who moved his jazz and blues nightclub The Rising Sun there from its original home on Sainte-Catherine Street West.[8] The move proved unsuccessful, and The Rising Sun subsequently moved back to its original home. The building was later resold and demolished, a victim of gentrification.

Rufus Rockhead died in a Montreal veteran's hospital in 1981.

In 1989, Rufus Rockhead was memorialized by the city of Montreal with a street named in his honor.[9]

In 2012, Montreal pianist Billy Georgette organized “Rockhead’s Last Jam” in honour of the club and its owner. The jam session included Oliver Jones, Norman Marshall Villeneuve, Leroy Mason, Glenn Bradley and Richard Parris.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Gilmore, John (2011). Swinging in Paradise: The Story of Jazz in Montreal. Ellipse Editions. ISBN 978-0986786600.
  2. ^ Winks, Robin (2000). The Blacks in Canada: A History. 2nd Ed. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP. pp. 332–35.
  3. ^ Williams, Dorothy (1997). Road to Now: : A History of Blacks in Montreal. Quebec: Véhicule Press. p. 44.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ Miller, Mark (2003). The Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada and Canadians in Jazz. The Mercury Press. pp. 172. ISBN 155128093-0.
  6. ^ Namaste, Viviane (2005). C'était du spectacle!: L'histoire des artistes transsexuelles à Montréal, 1955-1985. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. p. 12.
  7. ^ Mathieu, Sarah-Jane (2010). North of the Color Line: Migration and Black Resistance in Canada,1870-1955. USA: North Carolina UP. p. 6.
  8. ^ Miller, Mark (2003). The Miller Companion to Jazz in Canada and Canadians in Jazz. The Mercury Press. pp. 170, 173. ISBN 155128093-0.
  9. ^ "Commission de toponymie du Québec". Retrieved June 7, 2018.