A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from July 12, 2004
Harlem’s jazz musicians (1930s)
Harlem's jazz musicans did undeniably help spread the "Big Apple" phrase, but did not originate it.

The Big Apple night club, at Seventh Avenue and West 135th Street, was started by sportsmen in 1935. The owners were almostt certainly familiar with "the Big Apple" in the Morning Telegraph. In fact, it was a "Harlemania" entertainment column in the Morning Telegraph that helped to popularize Harlem.

In 1930, James Weldon Johnson's classic Black Manhattan was published. "Big Apple" is not in the book.

In 1990, Geraldine Daniels, a politician from a Harlem district, had this letter published in the August 26th New York Times:

According to Harlem griots (oral historians), the clue to the mystery is Harlem. It is my understanding that Alain Locke, professor of philosophy at Howard University, originated the term during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's.

Dr. Locke, a graduate of Harvard Univeristy and the first black Rhodes Scholar to attend Oxford University, used the term to depict Harlem as the precious fruit in the Garden of Eden, an oasis for the literary, musical and painting talents of oppressed black American intellectuals.

A colleague of Dr. Locke's in the 20's was Fletcher Henderson, a graduate of Atlanta University and native of Cuthbert, Ga. He was the arranger for Benny Goodman in the 1930's and 80's, a composer of jazz and other mujsic, and conductor of his own orchestra, which is believed to have been the first black musical ensemble to play on Broadway.

It was Fletcher Henderson, Harlem griots tell us, who popularized the term "Big Apple."

I wrote to Daniels' office and said that "oral historians" wouldn't do for twentieth century New York City. Did she have any written evidence? She had none.

I have spent many hours reading the Amsterdam News and New York Age, and looking at all of Locke's and Henderson's works. "Big Apple" is not there before the 1930s.


Posted by Barry Popik
1970s-present: False Etymologies • (0) Comments • Monday, July 12, 2004 • Permalink