Jake Adams remembers when a 15-year-old Jill Scott tried to sing in his North Philly jazz bar, ballroom, and restaurant, New Barber’s Hall. It was 1987, and the venue was riding high with intimate performances by such jazz and R&B stars as Dottie Smith, Robert “Bootsie” Barnes, Billy Paul, and Grover Washington Jr.
Scott walked through the hall’s glass doors with a cadre of musicians. Noticing that she appeared to be younger than 21, Adams inquired about her age. It was revealed that she was a minor, and Adams told the band that Scott couldn’t sing in his establishment until she was of age.
Turning away a singer was pretty unusual, but having owned Barber’s Hall since 1978, Adams was more in the business of presenting the likes of Isaac Hayes, Patti LaBelle, and the Temptations, while Joe Frazier was a regular patron. To Adams, the bar is his life’s work. This is why the 77-year-old has resisted tempting bids from developers of up to $3.2 million for his building near Temple University’s campus.
The golden age of Philly’s jazz scene has faded. The neighborhood of Barber’s Hall has changed, with much of the area now dominated by businesses that cater to Temple students. But Adams soldiers on. Most of his business’ revenue is generated from catering and renting out the space for social gatherings, like graduations and wedding receptions. There’s an open mic event every Sunday at 9 p.m.
At first glance, Barber’s Hall appears to be well-worn and unassuming. Industrial lamps hang in a long line over the bar, and the inviting fragrance of soul food lingers. But a deeper dive into the business’ history proves that 1402 W. Oxford St. is one of Philly’s beguiling secrets.
During the first half of the 20th century, the three-story building was a bicycle factory. Just before Adams purchased the site with his older brother, it was owned by the National Barber’s Sunshine Club, a social organization for black barbers. By Adams’ account, the barbers bought the building in 1952 and created the group so that they could have a place for fellowship as a remedy to racial segregation. In 1983, Adams’ brother sold his partnership, making Adams the sole owner.
For many Philly musicians, Barber’s Hall has been a stop on their climb to establishing themselves. “Boyz II Men used to rehearse on the third floor,” one staffer recalled. Odean Pope remembers performing there many times as a fledgling tenor saxophonist during the late 1950s and 1960s. Pope mentioned that Barber’s Hall was the only available soiree on Sundays because of the blue laws, legislation that prevented certain activities on the Sabbath. Private clubs were an exception.
“People would come dressed with nice fur coats and nice suits. And there was no talking" during performances, Pope recalled. Barber’s Hall clientele was “dedicated and committed to the music.” Pope said the energy in the Banquet Hall, where shows were held, could be spiritual or mystical when performers took the stage.
He pointed to community and spontaneity as characteristics that made Philly’s jazz scene special. For as long as he can remember, musicians have congregated in bars, on street corners, and in their mothers’ basements “just to be able to play.”
The gumbo of cultures in Philly has contributed to its rich musical history, said veteran radio personality and music historian Dyana Williams. Jazz, she said, created a common language for musicians. Jimmy Heath, McCoy Tyner, Lee Morgan, Billie Holiday, and John Coltrane all had ties to Philadelphia.
The Grammy-winning songwriter and producer Kenny Gamble, revered for such soulful hits as “Love Train” and “Back Stabbers,” said jazz and blues remain fundamental touchstones for American music.
“Sometimes when I listen to an old Louis Armstrong album, I can hear the fidelity of the musicians,” Gamble said. “There was just one microphone and eight or nine musicians. Plus, you got Louis Armstrong singing. How did they do it?”
Those who visit Barber’s Hall might have a clue.
Chereyl Finney, 60 of North Philly, has been a patron of Barber’s Hall for more than 20 years. The live music and cocktails by the bar’s resident mixologist, Ms. Charlotte — who is Adams’ niece and has worked at the bar for 30 years — keeps her coming back.
“Once you get that drink in you and they get the music going, baby, it’s a good time,” Finney said. “This is all we got. This is one of the only places [in the neighborhood] where the older folks can come and enjoy themselves.”
Last spring, the city ordered Barber’s Hall to discontinue food operations for two days due to health violations. During the brief shutdown, Adams said, he and his staff cleaned the entire building “top to bottom."
“I’m now in good standing with the health department,” Adams said.
So why won’t he agree to a deal that would allow him and his family to comfortably retire?
It’s his patrons.
“I think the community in itself is proud of me, because every time they come in here, they say, ‘Ah, I’m glad you didn’t sell out. I’m glad we have a place to come,’” Adams said, tears welling in his brown eyes. “I’m doing something that we should be doing: Owning our own businesses and supporting each other.”
About 10 years after Scott attempted to showcase her soulful voice on Barber’s Hall stage, she returned to the bar with a message for Adams.
“[Scott] came by here on a Sunday to let me know she made it,” Adams said. “She had a limousine and was with a guy, … He said, ‘This is Jill Scott, she wanted to say hello to you.’”