When people think of jazz, they tend to think of places like New Orleans, Chicago and Harlem. But Queens was home to more jazz icons than any of these places.
Fats Walker, Count Basie and Ella Fitzgerald were all drawn to the posh neighborhood of Addisleigh Park in St. Albans, which was more welcoming during segregation than Manhattan, but still close to the music scene in Harlem and the Village.
John Coltrane, Milt Hinton and Mercer Ellington, the Duke’s son, also called the borough home, and veteran jazz musicians Benny Waters, Jimmy Heath and Illinois Jacquet still do.
You can learn more about their lives and music on the unique Queens Jazz Trail, one of many fascinating cultural and scenic expeditions on offer in the borough.
A program of the Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts, the jazz trail includes an illustrated map and tours of the neighborhoods, historic sites and museums in the borough that reflect America’s jazz legends.
Voted “Best Overseas Tourism Project” in 1999 by the Professional Guild of British Travel Writers, and Best Jazz Tour in New York City by Village Voice in 2001, the trail’s escorted tours are led by Cobi Knight, a jazz singer who grew up in Queens and knew many jazz luminaries.
The trail includes driving tours and a short walk through Addisleigh Park, as well as a trip to Louis Armstrong’s home in Corona, which is right around the corner from where Dizzy Gillespie once lived and which is now a museum.
The Louis Armstrong Museum recently acquired photographer and longtime Armstrong friend Jack Bradley’s personal collection of Armstrong-related memorabilia, including dozens of films, letters and manuscripts and even Armstrong’s bedroom slippers and sports coats.
The tour is augmented with footage of jazz performances and jazz videos shown on the bus.
Queens Jazz Trail runs the first Saturday of every month. It departs from Flushing Town Hall at 1 p.m. and returns by 3:30 p.m. Tickets are $30, or $25 for members. For $10 more, a package deal includes the jazz trail and a Friday night jazz concert in the Town Hall Gallery. For more information, call 718-463-7700 or visit the web site at www.flushingtownhall.org/jazztrail.html.
For those seeking a more general introductory tour to the borough’s culture and history, SwingStreets offers a guided walking tour—of special interest to urban scholars, cultural historians, architecture buffs and music lovers—through some of Queens’ most vibrant and colorful neighborhoods.
The group bills its Queens tour as a “six-hour adventure.” During its course, participants will see the following neighborhoods:
Astoria, including its century-old Czech beer garden, Little Egypt’s hookah cafes and an array of Greek and Italian eateries.
Flushing, one of the first Dutch settlements and now a bustling community filled with Chinese, Korean and South Asian families.
Forest Hills, one of the most-admired planned communities in the United States.
Jackson Heights, which was inspired by Britain’s garden-city movement and developed by Edward MacDougall and his Queensboro Corporation between the two world wars. Cuisines from three dozen countries are available for sampling within a relatively concentrated area.
The tour finishes with a tram ride to Roosevelt Island. Tickets are $75. For more information, visit www.swingstreets.com or call 718-680-6677.
For those who don’t want to do so much walking, the Queens Historical Society offers an “armchair tour” of the historic houses of Queens and Brooklyn. The illustrated slide talk is presented at the society’s Flushing headquarters, the historic Kingsland Homestead in Weeping Beech Park. Those attending can also tour the society’s exhibitions.
On December 11th at 2:30 p.m., there will be an “armchair tour” of Jackson Heights.
On December 18th at 2:30 p.m., there will be an armchair tour of Flushing, which will contrast how the neighborhood looked early this century with the dramatic changes that have taken place in the last decade.
Admission to Kingsland Homestead is $3 or $2 for seniors and students. When the weather gets warmer, the society offers several walking tours led by historians and urban geographers. Call 718-939-0647 ext. 17 or visit www.queenshistoricalsociety.org for more information.
The Municipal Art Society (212-439-1049) and the Central Queens Historical Association (917-376-4496) also offer walking tours of local neighborhoods.
Nature buffs can hit the trails with Shorewalkers, a non-profit environmental and walking group. Among the hikes is a bird-walking expedition in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge and a hike through Alley Pond Park. Some tours are free; others require a small donation. Call 212-330-7686 or visit www.shorewalkers.org for more information.
“Wildman” Steve Brill, who dubs himself New York’s “best-known naturalist,” leads foraging tours through the borough’s parks. Participants learn how to identify edible and medicinal plants and are given the chance to sample the flora on offer. Brill requests a $10 donation for each hike. He also sells cookbooks. For more information, visit www.wildmanstevebrill.com or call 212-330-7686.
There’s a wealth of beauty in some of the most non-descript places—if you only knew where to look for it. Gain a deeper appreciation of the borough’s nature and history by taking advantage of one of the many tours sponsored by local museums, historical societies and conservation groups.