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Get to know the Charleston man who opened a hopping, long-running Harlem jazz club in the 1920s

Get to know the Charleston man who opened a hopping, long-running Harlem jazz club in the 1920s
September 2021

Ed Smalls’s Smalls Paradise was known for late nights and welcoming integrated audiences

A postcard from Smalls Paradise jazz club in Harlem, with an inset of owner Edwin Smalls.

At the end of Porgy and Bess, the hero, Porgy, based on real-life Charlestonian Sammy Smalls, heads to the “heavenly land” of New York City in search of his dream; we’re never told if he finds it. But another Smalls from Charleston definitely did: Edwin Alexander Smalls. Born here on September 12, 1882, he joined many other African Americans in the migration north, and in the mid-1920s, found his “Paradise”— known to all as Smalls Paradise.

Watch the 1933 short film Smash Your Baggage, the only recording of the Smalls' Paradise entertainers.

For decades, the club on 7th Avenue and 135th Street was at the center of Harlem nightlife. Famous jazz musicians (including those from Charleston’s Jenkins Orphanage) jammed there (it’s also where Billie Holiday tried to get her start), and celebrities including Tallulah Bankhead, Joe Louis, and Ethel Waters joined the droves of common folk.

Smalls Paradise was Black-owned and welcomed an integrated audience. Famed for his hospitality, food, and waiters who danced the Charleston, Smalls was savvy in other fields as well. A friend of New York Mayor Jimmy Walker and pastor and politician Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.; Smalls also gave Malcolm X one of his first jobs.

Although the club continued under the ownership of others, including basketball great Wilt Chamberlain, it never ceased being known as Smalls until it closed in 1986 as the longest-running club in Harlem. Smalls died at the age of 92 on October 13, 1974.