Plaque recalls spot where Dizzy, Ravi and Duke jammed
By ALBERT AMATEAU | In a neighborhood renowned for its historic and cultural heritage, another bronze plaque on a building might go unnoticed.
But the plaque installed on March 21 at 108 Waverly Place marks a spot in the Village that really swings.
“Prior Home of The Institute of Jazz Studies Founded by Marshall W. Stearns 1952,” says the small bronze marker decorated with a few notes of music and a trumpet in low relief.
Stearns, a jazz fan since his student days at Harvard — where he also played guitar and C melody saxophone in his own band — became a professor of medieval English, teaching Chaucer at Cornell, Hunter College and even Hawaii for a while.
In 1950 Stearns was in Greenwich Village giving a course of lectures, “Perspectives in Jazz,” at New York University. About that time, he moved into the Gothic Revival-style row house on Waverly Place with his famous collection of jazz records and memorabilia that tipped the scales at four tons.
With contributions from jazz musicians, scholars and writers, Stearns organized The Institute of Jazz Studies and incorporated it in 1952 with a board of advisers that included jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Stan Kenton, as well as writers Leonard Feather and Ralph Ellison.
Stearns found a curator, Sheldon Harris, and attracted volunteers to help run the institute, whose floor-to-ceiling collection of records, books and instruments occupied the first floor of 108 Waverly Place.
But Stearns began looking for an academic “angel” who would guarantee to keep the institute open permanently for scholars and musicians. The search ended in 1966 when Rutgers University agreed to take it over just before Stearns died in December of that year.
The current owner of the house, Nuri Akgul, a jazz fan himself, acquired the building in 1996, attracted by the neo-Gothic facade with stained-glass windows. But he wasn’t aware of its place in jazz history until five years later.
“On June 14, 2001, I got a letter from a rare book dealer in Staten Island who offered to sell me ‘The Story of Jazz’ by Marshall W. Stearns for $45, mentioning that the author lived in my building,” Akgul said.
“Of course I bought the book,” said Akgul, who has amassed his own collection of books and news clippings about Stearns, the institute, the house itself and its even earlier residents.
Stearns wrote articles on jazz for DownBeat, the music magazine devoted to jazz. On his more academic side, he had written “Robert Henryson: A Biographical Study of the Fifteenth Century Scottish Poet.”
In 1956, Stearns toured the Near East with Dizzy Gillespie and his band as a special consultant to the U.S. State Department’s goodwill jazz tour.
Oxford University Press published “The Story of Jazz” in 1956 after 10 years of work and Life magazine did an article in 1957 about the book party at 108 Waverly Place.
“Dizzy Gillespie played the trumpet and Ravi Shankar played the sitar. Duke Ellington was at the piano,” said Akgul. “It must have been pretty loud because neighbors called police, but when they found Duke Ellington was playing they listened for a while, got some autographs and left,” Akgul said, showing the magazine clipping to a visitor.
The buildings at 108-114 Waverly Place are all that remain of the original nine rowhouses built around 1826, but they were extensively altered over the years. The facade of No. 108, with its cut masonry and crenelated cornices simulating a castle, was designed in 1906 by Charles C. Haight. The arched window at the ground floor is a 1927 alteration that replaced a former garage entrance.
Akgul has tracked down references about previous residents. Among them was Jan Yoors, a renowned Belgian-American tapestry designer, photographer and chronicler of Gypsy life, who lived in the ground-floor studio at 108 Waverly Place in the 1960s and 1970s with his two wives, Marianne and Annabert.
Yoors died in 1977 but his wives remained in the studio until August 1999, executing Yoors’ tapestry designs on a 15-foot-long loom.
Back in 1890, Richard Harding Davis, the journalist and novelist famous for covering the Spanish-American War and World War l, lived in the building. And in 1929 to 1930, Miriam Hopkins, a showgirl who became a Hollywood star and rival to Bette Davis, threw loud, lavish parties that attracted tabloid attention to her pad at 108 Waverly Place.