A Former Fair Oaks Jazz Club – Shrouded in Mystery

Feb 23, 2011

Business card for the Club Onyx, circa 1950s. Courtesy of the Pasadena Museum of History.

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.

Percy C. Carter, Sr. – 1944. Courtesy of the Pasadena Museum of History.

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.Business card for the Hotel Carver. Littleton Carter presumably became manager after Percy Carter died in 1954. Courtesy of the Pasadena Museum of History.

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.

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.

Doty Block/Hotel Carver building in 1983. Courtesy of the Pasadena Museum of History.

5 Responses for “A Former Fair Oaks Jazz Club – Shrouded in Mystery”

  1. I hope your readers can solve this bit of Pasadena’s past. Great piece.

  2. Kevin Cloud Brechner says:

    Please note that Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie and Sammy Davis Jr. were all only rumored to have played the Onyx, and Charlie Parker was only rumored to have stayed at The Hotel Carver. I heard those stories probably 25-30 years ago from several elder residents of Pasadena and have never been able to find any documents with confirmation. I just found this reference to Charlie Parker living in Pasadena that is very interesting:

    Parker recorded an album at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium in the 1940s and references can be found on the internet to Parker dropping in at Zorthian’s ranch in Altadena.

    Also, in the picture at the bottom of this article you can see the letters OLPERR. They are what is left from POLPERRO, which was a rubber stamp store operated by Jeff and Rhoberta Baril. I rescued those letters from the dumpster and still have them in my archives. I may have taken that photo too. I gave several Carver photos to the Pasadena Historical Society many years ago. I took scores of photos inside and outside of the Carver back then in the 70s and 80s.

  3. Ann Erdman says:

    I love a good local mystery! Hopefully it will be solved one day.

  4. Ramonda Doakes says:

    Contact Chuck Haddon at U.M.K.C. Kansas City, Mo. Miller Nichols Library MarSon archives he may be the person tthat can help you with the Parker piece.

  5. Ramonda Doakes says:

    Chuck Haddix



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