Me, I'm just another face at Zanzibar
But the waitress always serves a secret smile
She's waiting out in Shantytown
52nd street corner of 6th adn 7th avenue... WC Handy's corner
Billy Joel's song “Zanzibar” is frequently and inaccurately attributed to the now closed club in Washington, D.C. known as Zanzibar on the Waterfront. This club only opened in 1992, while Joel's song was released on the 1978 album 52nd Street
, a nod to the 1.9 mile strip through Midtown Manhattan, home to jazz in the middle of the 20th Century. Although there have been other Zanzibar clubs dotted around New York City, none seem to be the one referred to in Joel's song, leading many to believe that the titular bar is fictional.
52nd Street runs west to east through Manhattan. In the mid-20th Century, the street, particularly the block between Fifth and Seventh Avenue, was renowned for its numerous jazz clubs and vibrant street culture hosting music legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk and Charlie Parker. Monk wrote a tune called the “52nd Street Theme” which became a bebop anthem, assimilated as a jazz standard. Musicians playing on Broadway frequented the nightclubs here, playing for themselves instead of for others. 52nd Street was also home to the CBS studios. Things began to change from as early as the 1940s and the jazz scene migrated elsewhere. By the 1960s most of the clubs on 52nd Street had fallen into decrepitude. Today the street is home to banks, shops and department stores with little evidence of its illustrious jazz history.
In 1978, ten years after the last jazz club closed its doors, Joel released his sixth studio album 52nd Street
in loving memory of the jazz era. The album, ranked 352 by Rolling Stone Magazine
on their list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, was recorded on 52nd Street in a studio just a block away from the original CBS studios. This album went on to win the 1979 Grammy for Album of the Year. 52nd Street
was also the first commercial album to be released by Sony Music on compact disc in 1982.
The pretty Zanzibar, light years away from the real one
“Zanzibar” is a jaunty, jazzy tune featuring marimbas and vibraphone, lending the song a slightly more ethnic feel that hints at a connection to the African island from which it takes its name. But that's where the connection seems to end. The song is principally about boxing legend Ali and since-shamed baseball star Pete Rose, while also adding lines about Joel's attempts to seduce the waitress at the so-called Zanzibar. The lyrics of the song have also undergone certain changes. The original line about Rose (“Rose, he knows he's such a credit to the game”) was later changed to reflect Rose's involvement in a baseball gambling scandal (“Rose, he knows he'll never reach the Hall of Fame”). The sexual trajectory of the song is also somewhat veiled in the original version, “She's gonna pull the curtains down for me,” however, Joel has been known to sing “she's gonna pull her panties down for me,” making the innuendo less than subtle.
Whichever bar this song may be referring to, “Zanzibar” represents the best of Billy Joel: arty vocals above a brassy chorus including flugelhorn, ethnic nuances provided by marimbas, a song made complete by his signature piano playing conjuring the jazz heyday on 52nd Street, Manhattan. ~ Suzanne van Rooyen
Suzanne is a tattooed storyteller from South Africa. She currently lives in Finland and finds the cold, dark forests nothing if not inspiring. Although she has a Master’s degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. Her published novels include
Dragon's Teeth, Obscura Burning, and
The Other Me. When not writing, she teaches dance and music to middle schoolers and eats far too much peanut-butter.