Jazz and Harlem go hand in hand. But for most folks, the legacy of jazz in Harlem is a mystery. Indeed, we may often be completely un-hip to the fact that Harlem was once the stomping ground of some of the greatest American performers of the last century.
How many of us can tell where the great Duke Ellington walked on a Sunday afternoon? Or where Louis Armstrong had his Harlem debut? And which of us can point to the still active jazz club where Billie Holiday hung out in the 1940’s? How many know that Ornette Coleman has been uptown for twenty years, and recently opened a new recording studio on 125th Street?
There is a vibrant scene in Harlem today, and the living history of the music is there for the asking. A backwards glance can also open our eyes to delights of the here and now:
CONNIE’S AND THE COTTON CLUB
In the 1920’s, audiences from downtown flocked to hot spots like Connie’s Inn and the world-famous Cotton Club. Connie’s was run by the notorious Immerman brothers, and was a basement cabaret on the corner of 131st Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. When the ultimate gangster Dutch Schultz, a silent partner in Connie’s, showed up for a late lunch, he lent the place an ominous atmosphere; however, it was his enthusiasm for a young Louis Armstrong that helped Satchmo land his first job in Harlem, in 1929. It was at Connie’s that “Pops” first performed the Fats Waller hit “Ain’t Misbehavin.'”
The Cotton Club, undeniably the most popular of all the Harlem nightspots, was also backed by gangsters. In the early ’20s, mob boss Owney Madden bought the Club Deluxe and gave it its celebrated (and ignominious) moniker. In 1927, when Duke Ellington opened there, the band’s individualized sound gave the place a note of distinction. One of Duke’s first Harlem apartments was at 2067 Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard (then Seventh Avenue), between 123rd and 124th Streets.
SMALL’S AND THE BIG APPLE
In late 1925, Edwin Smalls opened a nightclub at Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and 135th Street. Small’s Paradise was famous for its after-hours Sunday night jam sessions. The subterranean space played host to some of the biggest names in the business including the great reedmen Sidney Bechet and Benny Carter, trumpeter Roy Eldridge, and the great Stride master pianist James P. Johnson.
Across the street from Small’s was a nightspot called “The Big Apple.” Musicians coined the phrase, “The Apple” in the 1920’s, meaning, of course, New York City. Some historians think they may have been originally referring to this long forgotten club. The sign, with its upside down apple, is still there.
BILLIE HOLIDAY AND THE LENOX LOUNGE
In 1928, Billie Holiday came to Harlem. Her mother had rented an apartment at 108 West 139th Street. Billie worked at the Hot Cha Bar and Grill at 134th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard.
Another place where she was sometimes spotted was the Lenox Lounge, this year celebrating its 66th year in business.
Roy Campbell, Jr., a fine trumpeter, performs at the Lenox Lounge every Monday night with the inimitable Patience Higgins on sax. The Zebra Room, at the rear of the club, has recently been restored to its former Art Deco glory. The Lenox Lounge is at 288 Lenox Avenue between 124th and 125th Streets.
JAZZ LIVES TODAY
These days, Harlem boasts more than thirty places that feature live jazz on a regular basis. They range from the fine dining establishment Londel’s (at 2620 Frederick Douglas Boulevard between 139th and 140th streets), to the down-home feel of the Robin’s Nest Restaurant and Bar (at 457 West 125th Street), to the community-based vibe of American Legion Post #398 at 248 West 132nd Street. The party continues.
On St. Nicholas Avenue, at the corner of 149th Street, stood Lucky’s Rendezvous, where the greats of Harlem Stride Piano could be heard in hot competition night after night. “Lucky” was Charles “Luckeyeth” Roberts, one of the progenitors of the rocking piano style of the ’20s that was as hot then as hip hop is today. These days, Lucky’s is known as St. Nick’s Pub. These days, Mondays are the night for jam sessions at St Nick’s.
Ornette Coleman burst onto the New York jazz scene in 1959. One of the most exciting recent developments was the 2003 opening of Coleman’s Harmolodic Studios, located at 125th Street and Park Avenue.
Harlem, like many inner-city neighborhoods, has had it ups and downs. Today, one feels a new spirit on the streets. Jazz is a part of our past, and a part of who we are as New Yorkers. The music and nightlife await us!
Todd Bryant Weeks is a jazz educator and historian. He lives in Brooklyn.