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Gap Mangione: 'A lot of logs' on the fire that led to 1964 riots

Gap Mangione 3.jpg
Max Schulte
Gap Mangione at the corner of Troup Street and Clarissa Street, where the Pythodd Club once stood in Corn Hill.

Note to readers: The annual Clarissa Street Reunion, a celebration of Rochester’s Black history, would have been happening now, but has been canceled until next year. In its place, we take a look at an unusual aspect of that history: The story of Gap and Chuck Mangione.

The two young white musicians frequently played Clarissa Street’s legendary Pythodd Club and hung out with Black jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie, who would visit and eat dinner at the Mangione house when he was in town. So the Mangiones grew up in the midst of that powerful jazz scene. And they were caught up in the 1964 race riots as well.       

* * *

We knew there was trouble. How much, we weren’t sure. This was the overheated, early morning hours of July 25, 1964, and the police had the roads blocked off. They’d let you through only if you lived in the neighborhood. And the neighborhood was about to explode.

Our house was just a block and a half beyond the perimeter set up by the cops. The problem could have been a traffic accident, one so far away I couldn’t see it. I doubt the cops recognized us, even though we’d already released three albums as The Jazz Brothers. The Jazz Brothers weren’t Dizzy Gillespie. And cops, in my experience, they’re generally not that into jazz anyway.

I’m the older brother, Gap, the pianist. As in Gaspare Mangione, named after my grandfather in the Sicilian way. My younger brother, Chuck, played the flugelhorn. It wasn’t unusual for us to be out in the early-morning hours, five or six nights a week. On this evening, we’d had a gig at a club called the El Echo, then we put in an hour or two playing a coffee shop that stayed open until 4 in the morning.

To these cops, we were just two Italian-American guys in their early 20s, home from college. “Why are you here? Where do you live?” OK, we checked out. They waved us through, down Martin Street, to where we lived with our parents in a house behind Mangione’s Grocery, the small store my parents had run for years.

Scene at 1964 Rochester, N.Y., riot historic photo fire
Photo provided
Courtesy of the City of Rochester
Firefighters walk in the middle of Clarissa Street as a building is engulfed in billowing smoke during the 1964 riots in Rochester.

We couldn’t see the fires that had been burning for hours just blocks away.

But the next morning, we began to hear what was happening over on Joseph Avenue. Not just a car accident. It was a race riot. Joseph Avenue was where we would go, it had some very interesting stores, stylish clothing stores and a fairly large record store. All of those places were open on Sunday because they were often Jewish-owned.

Otherwise, Joseph Avenue was good to avoid as the tension grew that summer. We suspected Mangione’s Grocery would be a target.

But you know how you are at a certain age. I had, pardon the expression, “all balls.” My parents had opened the store as usual, and I decided I’m gonna gather some of my friends, we’re gonna play cards here at the kitchen table, and we had a dog in the store. Yeah, we’ll just play cards all night. Some of us owned guns, and some of them were really tough guys. That’s a good way to put it.

But my mother said, “Not on your life.” Smoke, and trouble, were still in the air. We gathered what we probably couldn’t replace if it were burned — photographs and music — put it into two station wagons and drove to my grandfather’s house on Lake Ontario for the night.

We returned to the store each morning of the riots. Saturday, Sunday, on into Monday. The neighborhood needed milk, bread, cigarettes, beer. My father would cut steaks with a band saw from full sides of beef. He was famous for the Italian sausage he made from scratch. These people didn’t go away just because the neighborhood was burning. But while our father generally kept the store open until 10 at night, now he was closing earlier. An 8 p.m. curfew had been set. And the felony activities came after dark.

And as we found out from friends who had remained in the neighborhood, on Saturday night, rioting gangs roamed the street. They came to Mangione’s Grocery. Our neighbors were peeking out between the blinds of their houses. And when they saw what was about to happen, they went out into the street and confronted the rioters. The neighbors maybe had a baseball bat, but they didn’t use it. They simply said: “Not here.”

Mangione Clarissa.jpg
Max Schulte
A plaque at the corner of Troup Street and Clarissa Street marks where the Pythodd Club once stood in Corn Hill. The area was known for many jazz venues in the African American community.

And the rioters moved on to the next targets. By the third night, those were in the Corn Hill neighborhood. Clarissa Street, and the Pythodd Club. My brother and I played there; I knew all of those people. It was an all-Black club where our band was three or four of the only white people. In the 1950s and ’60s, the jazz bands were all Black or Italian. And later that night, we’d walk next door to the Black Elks club and play more jazz. But now this social center, and the clubs in particular, was under attack. Air conditioning was non-existent, the neighbors would sit on their front porches and watch the city fire trucks and jeeps and heavy trucks filled with National Guardsmen rolling down their street, ordering people indoors. The relationship between the two sides was less than ideal.

We didn’t realize the extent of what had happened until after it was all over, and we read about it in the newspaper. Three nights of one of the first big race riots of the era, just weeks after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Three nights of a city on fire, ignited at a dance party hosted by the “Mothers Improvement Association of the Eighth Ward.” It was a Friday evening block party over at Nassau Street, off Joseph Avenue. One of the women called the Rochester Police Department, complaining about a 21-year-old Black man who was intoxicated and disrupting the dance.

When the cops showed up, Randy Manigault resisted arrest. A crowd began forming around the cops, shouting that they were being too rough with Manigault and confronted the police, then started throwing bottles and bricks. More cops arrived. And K-9 units. The dogs, turned loose on humans, seemed to exacerbate the conflict. Windows were shattered, shops looted. Police Chief William Lombard, who had some credibility in the Black neighborhoods, waded into a crowd, asking for calm. He was ignored, his police car flipped over and burned.

historic photo police marching riot 1964
Photo provided
Courtesy of the City of Rochester
A group of law enforcement officers march down an unidentified Rochester street in this historic photo, taken during the riots in 1964.

By Saturday, the anger continued to spill into the streets. Gov. Nelson Rockefeller called in 1,500 members of the New York State National Guard to add 450 state troopers. Before the flames flickered out on Sunday night, four people had died, including three when a press helicopter monitoring the rioters’ moves crashed into a house. About 350 people were injured and 1,000 people arrested. Someone threw a bottle at a cop and he lost an eye. A bullet grazed the head of an ABC news reporter. Dozens of blocks of Rochester were burned and 204 businesses destroyed or looted, mostly in two of the city’s Black neighborhoods.

It was a brand-new era of an old American tradition, civil unrest. Later that summer, it was Philadelphia’s turn to riot. The next year it was Watts, a Black neighborhood in Los Angeles. The summer after that, Newark and Detroit. In the seven years that followed Rochester’s riots, there were an estimated 750 race riots in America. Two hundred dead, 13,000 injured. Neighborhoods incinerated. A war on the other side of the world was more fuel. People took to the streets as Johnson, and then Richard Nixon, poured troops into a lost cause in Vietnam. And again, the state would turn the National Guard against its own citizens: Four students shot dead at Kent State University.

The Rochester riots were initially ignited by a guy who got drunk at a dance party. But there were a lot of logs on that fire. The city’s Black population was expanding dramatically as people fled the poverty of the South, but Rochester seemed to offer little comfort. Black unemployment was figured at anywhere between 10% to 16%. Their largely segregated neighborhoods were overcrowded, the houses in disrepair. Middle-class white people were already fleeing the city; the riots merely accelerated the pace.

I’m trying to think of an evil word. If you break in, loot, rob and then leave, that’s one thing. It’s bad enough. But the burning. That’s of a whole different order. And what the rioters were doing was destroying their own neighborhood. Now, whether or not it was yours to run and to operate and to make money off of, the neighborhood still was there. A neighborhood of homes, drugstores, clothing stores, furniture stores. Mangione’s Grocery. I mean, it was a thriving area.

Frank Mangione.jpg
Gap Mangione
The news of Frank Mangione's decision to close his grocery story is seen in this newspaper clipping.

Even after my father closed for the night, being in residence immediately behind the store, someone would inevitably knock on the side door and say, “Hate to bother you, but …” And my father would always work that out.

When I say my father, I should be saying my father and my mother. Both were the heart of that business. Everyone knew them. Frank and Nancy Mangione. Papa and Mama, to those in the neighborhood. Once the original families we grew up around had moved away, other families came in. Not quite as Italian, not quite as Central-European in culture or in background, but they came to know him like everybody else had known them. An ethnic cross-section of Poles, Ukrainians, Germans and Jews. And down at the end of the street, a Baptist Church where we used to hang outside when the windows were open in the summer to hear them groovin’ away.

My father kept a credit book, in case one of the neighbors didn’t have the money at the moment but needed something. And there wasn’t a kid who came in with his mother to do some grocery shopping who didn’t get a piece of candy or something like that. Everyone was a new acquaintance perhaps, but also a new friend as well.

He had that way about him, and it was crucial to our early introductions to people who my brother and I would never have dared to talk to. He would walk up to Dizzy Gillespie at a club and introduce us: “These are my sons, they’re musicians.” But he did that. And it wasn’t an act he put on, that was him. He was that way with cousins he hadn’t seen in a long time. He was that way with musicians he met for the first time.

So Mangione’s Grocery survived the riots.

Three days before the riots broke out, Chuck and I were at home, hanging out in the kitchen. That’s where we were most of the time. The door connecting the kitchen to the store was always open, and we could hear a commotion. We had the only pay phone in the area. That made Mangione’s Grocery the center of the neighborhood if anything out of the ordinary was coming down. Chuck and I ran into the store. A woman was holding her little daughter, frantic, screaming, screaming that her baby had died, drowned, that her baby had drowned.

She had put her 1-year-old son in the tub with his toddler sister and left them alone while she tended to some cooking. When she turned around, she saw that the little girl had somehow climbed out of the tub, and the boy was face-down in the water. She picked up her daughter and bolted down the street.

“Where’s the baby?” we asked.

“He’s still in the bathtub!”

Chuck immediately ran to her house, three doors down and across the street; he was already wearing shoes, I had to find mine and hurriedly put them on. You couldn’t go outside without shoes; you’d destroy your feet on all of the broken grass and sharp objects hidden in the weeds. There wasn’t any kind of a “Keep America Beautiful” campaign back then.

The house was two or three levels. I asked two people standing inside the front door what was going on, but they didn’t know. The mother had run out the door without telling anyone what had happened. I yelled at the top of my lungs and Chuck called down. I ran up the stairs.

Mangione lifesavers.jpg
Gap Mangione
A newspaper clipping of the story about how Gap and Chuck Mangione saved a young boy.

I remember so vividly, it was very dark in the house, with heavy curtains on the windows. Chuck had taken the baby out of the tub. Nonresponsive was the only way to describe the kid. I pinched him, no reaction. I took the kid, who we both assumed was dead, and I turned him over so that his chest was on my right palm, and put my left palm on his back and pressed as hard as I could. I didn’t know anything about CPR, I was just improvising.

Thinking about it now, I could have killed the kid with that kind of pressure. But after the third time, I got a reaction. Spitting, coughing, blowing out. So I kept pushing on the baby’s back. By the time the fire rescue team got there, the kid was starting to breathe on his own. I was still pushing on his back, but I didn’t have to press as hard now to get the reaction.

The fire rescue unit arrived, and the first guy walks in the house carrying an oxygen tank, which I’m hoping for. A big guy. I knew he knew what to do, and he says, “Oh, it’s too dark in here, how can you see?” I put the kid on the bed and tore the window covers and all their connections off the window.

“IS THAT ANY BETTER, YOU JACKASS? TAKE CARE OF THE KID!” And I left. So I don’t know what happened when the kid’s mother came back. She was very young, too. Very, very young. And I don’t remember how, but Chuck and I ended up going back to the store separately. I remember walking across the street and then down the street, and I was totally in tears. And this woman who lived next door to us was standing out by the sidewalk in front of her house and she says, “Oh, gee, the baby died?” And I, in my total uncontrollable tears, as I am now, I said, “No, it lived.” And I walked on.

It was a personal experience that still touched me emotionally, 50 years later. There is something in my brain that still connects to it. Whenever I reach back to that memory, even to talk about it at dinner parties, I end up sobbing. It’s an emotion that touches a very deep, deep part of you. And that’s a good thing.

Chuck and I got a story in the local paper. Pictures of Chuck and me, two skinny guys at the counter of my father’s grocery store. And of course, the whole neighborhood knew the story. Which I think, was one reason for Mangione’s Grocery being off-limits to gangs during the riots three days later. That, and the years of common grocery-store transactions, and personal interactions, up and down the street.

Maybe 15 years later, I was playing with a trio at Midtown Plaza, the mall in downtown Rochester. There would be little fashion shows and concerts. And between songs, this young guy walks up to me from behind and says, “Hey, Gap! I’m the kid you pulled out of the bathtub.”