Perkins Palace once cast its seamy glory on Old Town during the heyday of L.A.’s punk, new wave and metal years. (That’s the ’80s to you, kids.) Long before this, however, the district had a musical venue of a different sort—and the details of its existence remain far more mysterious.
The Club Onyx, at 109 S. Fair Oaks Avenue, was a jazz and blues venue in the black-owned Hotel Carver, once part of the historic Doty Block and still standing today across from the Hotel Green. Accounts vary as to what part of the building the club occupied, but it was either on the first floor or in the basement, and existed from about 1947 until 1955.
According to the website California Japantowns, the Hotel Carver was once the Japanese-owned Hotel Mikado. Later it was purchased by Percy C. Carter, Sr., a respected member of Pasadena’s black community, and it became for a time the self-described “only hotel in Pasadena managed by negroes.”
The Club Onyx opened some time in the mid-1940s, and a short description from a May, 1947 article in the Los Angeles Sentinel gives an idea of what it was like: “For a natural hideaway where you will not be bothered by your many acquaintances, the Onyx Club in Pasadena on Fair Oaks and Dayton is the place. Clean, pleasant and cool, it is just the place for that ‘secret’ tete-a-tete.” Another Sentinel blurb from the same year reads: “Those who might venture over Pasadena way will be pleasantly surprised if they stop by the Club Onyx. It is really one of the nicest lounges in Southern California.”
The paper notes that the walls of the club were decorated with murals by Pasadena artist Kingsley Dawson Brock, a graduate of the city’s famed Stickney Art School who was later known for his portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. An old business listing for the venue boasts a kitchen run by John Bernard, a notable New Orleans chef.
Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie and Sammy Davis Jr. were all rumored to have played the Onyx, according to Kevin Brechner, who lived at the Hotel Carver after it became artists’ studios in the 1970s. Dizzie Gillespie and John Coltrane are other names associated with the club, though no confirmation exists that they actually played there. One of the more fanciful tales surrounding the club is that Charlie Parker rented an apartment in the Hotel Carver for six months near the end of his life.
Other Sentinel articles provide confirmation of those who did actually appear there. These included sax great “Big Jay” McNeely, whose “Deacon’s Hop” was a cult hit of the era, blues artist “Big Pete” Peterson, trumpeter Clora Bryant and legendary disc jockey Hunter Hancock, who emceed a benefit show at the club in 1952.
Locally, the Onyx also became notorious for two sensational murders. In 1950, Clinton E. “Smiling Jack” Jackson, a well-known gambler and man about town, was stabbed by his girlfriend, Vivienne Miles-El, during a lovers’ quarrel, and in 1952, Onyx bartender Ray Cherry shot a patron dead over a drinking debt.
Clora Bryant, who had a residency at the club in 1948 as part of the musical duo “The Two Queens,” narrowly escaped death when an audience member pulled a knife on her. A swift warning from her partner, Elyse Blye, saved her life.
According to city directories, the Club Onyx became the Club Cobra in 1955. Much about the club, such as when it closed for good, will probably never be known. Did Charlie Parker really live above it? Did John Coltrane grace the spot with his melodious sax notes? Perhaps the readers of this column can help put together the rest of the puzzle.