How’d that penny get inside the bottle
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    Auction Finds

    Lucky penny keychain leads to St. Louis jazz bar & Miles Davis

    I was sifting through the leftovers in a box lot from auction, not seeing anything of interest or value when I spotted an aluminum horseshoe-shaped keychain with a penny in the center. Then I spotted another one, and then another.

    Curious, I picked up one of them and read the inscription:

    KEEP ME AND NEVER GO BROKE. I BRING GOOD LUCK.

    That was written on the front of the horseshoe, which bore a 1949 penny with President Lincoln’s face.

    GLASS BAR. AIR CONDITIONED-FINEST LIQUORS. 2935 LAWFORD BLVD. ST. LOUIS 3, MO.

    This was the flip side, and I saw that the coin was an early wheat penny.

    The front sides of two of the Glass Bar lucky pennies from auction.

    The front sides of two of the Glass Bar lucky pennies from auction.

    This was a novelty item, which I was about to dismiss when I decided to find out what I could about the Glass Bar. Googling, I learned that the bar – in its second incarnation with a new name, Peacock Alley – was the “premier” jazz place in St. Louis in the 1950s, located in the Midtown Hotel in the heart and soul of the city’s African American community. Peacock Alley was the club where Miles Davis and his incomparable quintet made in February 1957 what is considered one of his must-have recordings, “Miles Davis Quintet at Peacock Alley.”

    The combo consisted of Davis on trumpet, Paul Chambers on bass, Red Garland on piano, Philly Joe Jones on drums and John Coltrane on tenor sax. The five were the most-talked about jazz quintet in the country. One reviewer, however, trashed the performance, which riled Davis.

    The recordings were done over two consecutive Saturday afternoons during DJ Jesse “Spider” Burks’ weekly jazz concerts at Peacock Alley, and broadcast over KSTL-AM where he worked. The afternoon concerts – free to women – ran from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., but the radio broadcast lasted for only an hour, Burks reminded the audience during the recordings. That wasn’t the end of the gig for Davis and his quintet: They were back at it from 9 p.m. to 1:15 a.m. The recordings were made by a local label, the Soulard (Davis was signed with Columbia at the time). The recordings seemed to have been released in 1997.

    The flip side of the Glass Bar lucky penny from auction.

    The flip side of the Glass Bar lucky penny from auction.

    Burks was a big name himself: He was one of St. Louis’ first African American disc jockeys and a jazz connoisseur with a large following.

    Peacock Alley was Davis’ second appearance in seven months at this hometown bar with his first quintet. He subsequently fired Coltrane and Jones – both addicted to heroin (Coltrane would later come back to play with Davis, who also had had his own issues with heroin). The quintet had played at Peacock Alley in July 1956, but the sessions apparently were not broadcast or recorded.

    The Glass Bar opened in 1944 in the basement of the Midtown Hotel (it’s also listed as Midland Hotel in some cases), not far from Union Station and on a typical street where bars/nightclubs, residences, restaurants, beauty shops and other businesses co-existed. The area was part of Mill Creek Valley, and 95 percent of its residents were African American, some of whom had migrated from the South seeking a better life. The bar was remodeled and then reopened in 1955 (or 1956) as Peacock Alley.

    Lawton Street looking east from Leffingwell Avenue in the foreground, 1960. These buildings were slated for demolition.

    Lawton Street looking east from Leffingwell Avenue in the foreground, 1960. These residences, which appear to be in good condition, were slated for demolition. Photo from the St. Louis Redevelopment Projects Collection at the Missouri History Museum.

    The club attracted some of the best-known jazz entertainers around, including Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Young , Bud Powell, Carmen McRae, Max Roach, Jimmy Smith and Sonny Stitt. It also attracted local musicians, and offered not only jazz but R&B.

    Midtown Hotel apparently was pretty popular, too, at a time when black businesses flourished because African Americans were excluded from white establishments. Members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity chose the hotel (other black hotels captured the spillover) as the headquarters for their Midwest Regional Convention in December 1956 (double rooms were $8.20 with bath, singles without bath, $4.55). The hotel was listed in “The Negro Motorist Green Book” in 1949 and 1954 as a place to stop to eat (it had a café) or rest your weary body. The Glass Bar was also listed, under “Taverns.”

    By the 1960s, the hotel and other black institutions were victims of a massive urban renewal project in Mill Creek Valley, with demolition starting in 1959. One article stated that the hotel was demolished in 1957. I found a mention of Peacock Alley in an article from the 1960s, but by 1968 it apparently was no longer was around.

    A view of Mill Creek Valley looking toward the west from Union Station before urban renewal, 1959. Photo from Community Development Agency Collection, used in the 250 in 250 exhibit in 2015 on St. Louis history.

    At left, a view of Mill Creek Valley looking toward the west from Union Station before urban renewal, 1959. Photo from the Community Development Agency Collection at the City Planning Commission, used in a “250 in 250” exhibit in 2015 on St. Louis history. At right, demolition of 3200 block of Lawton Street, not far from where Peacock Alley was located. Photo from the St. Louis Redevelopment Projects Collection at the Missouri History Museum, used in same exhibit.

    As for the penny keychain at auction, it was obviously handed out before the Glass Bar became Peacock Alley. It’s a 1949 penny, so it’s likely from the early 1950s.

    These types of coins are called “encased coins” or “lucky pennies.” They were used by businesses as advertisement or souvenirs that could be customized. The pennies were encased in round discs, and also in holders shaped like chamber pots, teddy bears and arrowheads.

    Lucky pennies are said to have first appeared at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY, around 1901 when Indian head pennies were the country’s penny coin. They were said to be likely sold as mementos to be carried in the pocket or put on a chain.

     

     

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