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Harlem Jazz Clubs: Golden Age and Renaissance

Features & Advice | Mat Probasco | February 02, 2016

Harlem Jazz Clubs: Golden Age and Renaissance

PHOTO: Bandstand at Minton's Playhouse. (Photos by Mat Probasco)

After a chilly couple of decades, iconic Harlem is hot again. Today's Uptown jazz scene spans recent history, with nightclubs and theaters representing the Harlem Renaissance, the downtrodden ‘80s and vibrant new Harlem, reshaping this storied corner of the Big Apple.

Today, Uptown streets are far safer than 20 years ago, with camera-toting tourists on walking tours replacing yesteryear's drug dealers and bad guys. These tours usually focus on gospel performances in the many churches — missing Harlem jazz history almost entirely.

Duke Ellington may have been from Washington DC, but he made his name in Harlem. And he is there today in spirit, cast in bronze, 25 feet above the gateway to the neighborhood at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue.

Ellington's Cotton Club on 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue is long gone, but a version of it on the extreme west end of 125th Street carries on the tradition with its iconic logo and features acts like the venerable Dick Gregory. Gospel brunches and jazz dinners are popular with tourists here, but otherwise — despite its place in history — the venue goes largely unnoticed in the city's current jazz scene.

READ MORE: 24 Hours in New York City: What to See and Do

In stark contrast, the Apollo Theater estimates more than one million people walk through its doors each year. Initially a “white-only” venue when opening in 1914, all races became welcome when new owners bought the theater in the early 1930s. And it has been a cultural lightning rod ever since.

The syndicated “Showtime at the Apollo” TV show capitalized on the theater's famed amateur nights – which launched the careers of such diverse acts as Ella Fitzgerald and Jimi Hendrix. The list of world-famous performers who go their start at the Apollo is endless, but it includes Billie Holiday, Pearl Bailey, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Funkadelic, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5 and Mariah Carey. That’s some major star power.

The Apollo has kept relevant by changing with the times, embracing popular music and the jazz that brought it to fame in the first place. Metallica headlined the 125th Street mecca a few years ago, as have countless rock, hip-hop and other non-jazz acts.

Tiny Showmans Jazz Club opened up next door to the mighty Apollo in 1942 then later moved just down the street. Legends like Lionel Hampton, Eartha Kitt, Lonnie Youngblood, and, naturally, Mr. Ellington have played Showmans, which is now a hit with locals and visitors alike. A typical crowd usually includes a table or two of Japanese jazz tourists.

Death and Rebirth

Not all the clubs from Harlem's golden age of jazz have survived. Countless little venues died off over the years, for one reason or another. And famed venues suffered the same fate. The venerable Lenox Lounge on 124th Street and Lenox Avenue fell in an ugly landlord-tenant dispute in late 2012. Opened in 1939, the Lenox Lounge held on through Harlem's ups and downs, its trademark burgundy art deco facade and fixtures degrading slowly over the years. The trappings were so iconic that when finally evicted, the Lenox Lounge management literally ripped the side off the building on the way out. What's left now is a sad shell. The property owner has vowed to open another club in the space, but it’s three-plus years later and no visible progress has been made.

PHOTO: An abandoned Lenox Lounge.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the once defunct Minton's Playhouse lives again. Generally regarded as a birthplace – if not THE birthplace — of bebop, Minton's was home to some jazz's greatest jam sessions: Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and more made Minton's Playhouse the gold standard. Then tarnish set in. By the mid-1970s Minton's was closed, only to reopen forty years later as Harlem entered a new age of prosperity. In 2013, the Uptown Lounge at Minton's Playhouse opened, keeping the original signage and much of the classic feel. The house band dresses in white jackets and plays to the rapt attention of an upscale audience.

Just as Minton's was losing ground, a new club in-line with Harlem's more downtrodden vibe. Paris Blues opened in 1969, dubbing itself Harlem's only “live jazz dive.” Make no mistake, Paris Blues is most certainly a dive bar, but one very popular with both tourists and locals because of its friendly, anything-goes atmosphere, and the quality of the music in rustic surroundings.

READ MORE: 5 Tips on Stepping Into Historic Harlem

The hole-in-the-wall Bill's Place on 133rd Street is a throwback to the Prohibition Era, a jazz club claiming to be Harlem's only “speakeasy.”

The new star in Harlem jazz is in the basement of the celebrated Red Rooster restaurant. Ginny's Supper Club is probably Uptown's hottest spot. In just a few short years the restaurant and club have grown into a place were patrons are happy to stand in long lines to get in on a Friday night.

PHOTO: Showmans Jazz Club.

There is, of course, plenty of jazz elsewhere in NYC — the Blue Note, Jazz Standard, and Village Vanguard downtown, the House of Blues, Birdland, Dizzy's, and Jazz at Lincoln Center in midtown, and countless other clubs throughout the five boroughs.

Uptown, however, is special. 

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