Hidden treasures: A plastic martini glass and the 'Harlem of the North'

For Montreal's 375th anniversary, we're showing you rarely seen gems that tell the story of the city. Here, we show you a plastic martini glass that tells the story of the Rockhead's Paradise jazz club.

Discover some rarely seen gems from the city's past for Montreal's 375th anniversary

Montreal's Harlem has two outstanding clubs, Rockhead's and Cafe St Michel. At downstairs bar of Rockhead's, famed calypso singer Lord Caresser visits jam-packed tables fitting his impromptu songs to the mood of the customers. (Library and Archives Canada)

To mark Montreal's 375th anniversary, curators from Montreal museums show us some of their favourite items hidden in their archives. This is the latest installment in an ongoing series.

Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sammy Davis Jr. 

These are just a few of the jazz greats who graced the stage at Rockhead's Paradise and lent the city its name of "Harlem of the North."

It was all thanks to one man, Rufus Rockhead.

Nobody had any idea that alcohol prohibition in the United States was on its way out, but Rockhead, who came to Canada via Jamaica, decided to take advantage of Montreal's proximity to its southern neighbour and opened the jazz bar in Little Burgundy.

"Many Americans said, 'wow, we just have to cross the border and we will be in a place where we can have fun, alcohol, girls,'" said Jean-François Leclerc, the curator at Centre d'histoire.

The club soon drew some of the biggest names in the jazz world and served as a safe place the black community could go to have fun.

A plastic martini glass may not seem like a treasured item, but it tells the story of Rockhead's Paradise and Rufus Rockhead's love of jazz. 1:50

Among the objects in the Centre d'histoire de Montréal collections is a blue plastic martini glass, with the stem shaped like a woman.

Some would call the glass gaudy or kitsch but it helps tell the story behind Rockhead's bar.

Rockhead versus Duplessis

Rockhead's Paradise did run into some trouble in the 1950s, during Maurice Duplessis' time as premier of Quebec.
The Centre d'histoire de Montréal is holding on to this plastic martini glass, an object that helps tell the story of Rockhead's Paradise. (CBC)

"The Duplessis government was not so open to diversity, you could say, so he tried to stop the activities of the club," said Leclerc.

"Mr. Rockhead lost his permit to sell alcohol. It was a real drama because for maybe eight years, he had only the tavern to survive."

The bar was able to reopen in the '60s but closed soon after Rockhead's death in 1981 and the building eventually demolished.

More in this series