Joseph Christopher Morris Columbo, born June 17, 1902, was better known by his stage name: Chris Columbo. Chris Columbo was raised in Atlantic City and attended the Indiana Avenue School and Atlantic City High School. While enrolled in Atlantic City High, Chris began his journey as a famous jazz drummer. It was here that he learned to play drums under the tutelage of Tommy Gill and an Atlantic City High School teacher named Mr. McKnight.
Columbo was a quick study and began to play in gigs around Atlantic City’s Northside, particularly at Truckson’s Hollywood Grill. In 1921, he had his first professional break when he played with Fletcher Henderson on Steel Pier. Columbo was asked to play at the Paradise Club in Atlantic City and sometime thereafter moved to New York City to further pursue his career. In New York City, Columbo played at the Cotton Club, the Apollo Theater, and the Savoy. At a time when segregation was the norm, Chris Columbo was part of the only African American band – Louis Jordan and the Tympani Five – to headline at the Paramount Theater.
In the 1930s, Leroy “Pop” Williams, the owner of Club Harlem, brought Columbo back to Atlantic City. At Club Harlem, Columbo lead the house band, Christopher Columbo and his Swing Crew. Columbo worked 34 straight summers at Club Harlem, playing until the club shut its doors. Over the course of his career he worked with jazz legends such as: Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Louie Armstrong, Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Parker amongst others.
In the later years of his career, Columbo had his own radio show on WFPG. He was the station’s first African American DJ. Columbo also served as the vice president of Local 661-708, the musician’s union. He performed at the Showboat Casino with the Showboat Dixieland Band until he suffered a stroke in 1993.
Columbo died at the age of 100 in July of 2002
Resources in the Atlantic City Free Public Library Atlantic City Heritage Collections:
Nelson Johnson. The Northside: African Americans and the Creation of Atlantic City. Medford, NJ: Plexus, 2010.
Local History Biography File: Chris Columbo
Local History Subject File: Club Harlem
H039 Club Harlem Photograph Collection
H040 ACFPL Living History Project - Chris Columbo Oral History