The Rhythm of Change: Harlem’s Legendary Live Music Scene, Then and Now
By Christie Grotheim
Spanning over a century, Harlem’s historic music scene has produced genres upon genres of music and dance styles that have spread across the globe, transcending race and inspiring cultural change.
Music was often the one reprieve from economic hardships for the blacks arriving in hoards from the American South and West Indies during the Great Migration, unifying the evolving neighborhood. These innovative musical forms set the stage for the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, and when whites got wind of the new sounds, the Jazz Age was born.
Throughout the decades music has been the one constant in a neighborhood wracked with adversities to overcome. Even in response to the crime-ridden, crack-addicted ’70s, rap and hip hop originated, entirely unique and powerful in expression.
Now that the area is undergoing an economic resurgence and gentrification in most neighborhoods, Harlem draws new crowds and generations to experience its live music venues—from big theaters to dinner clubs to intimate jam sessions—many still holding true to their jazzy, bluesy roots.
Currently, a resurgence of creative energy is flooding into the area, with young, international artists and performers expanding the scene to include World Beats influenced by Europe, South America and Africa.
Two classic venues, the Cotton Club and The Savoy, were responsible for the creation and rise of numerous forms of music and dance. Musicians played Dixie, the Harlem Stride, and the Blues, which developed into the improvisational style of music called Jazz, then Bebop and Big Band.
This new danceable music inspirited dances like the Lindy Hop, influenced by the Charleston, jazz, and tap steps, later evolving into many other forms, such as West Coast Swing, the Boogie Woogie, the Jitterbug, Jive, Bop and Shag—and, of course, Rock ‘n’ Roll. Beyond their contributions to the world, these two music and dance halls illustrate the tensions of the times and changing attitudes.
Opened in 1923, the Cotton Club was operated by white New York gangster Owney Madden as an outlet to sell his beer to the prohibition crowd. Although the entertainers and staff were African American, the club was strictly “whites only.”
Dancers at the Cotton Club were held to oppressive standards as well: they had to be at least 5’6” tall, light-skinned—and under twenty-one years of age. Far from politically correct, the club was decorated with the idea of creating a “stylish plantation environment” for its entirely white, upper-class clientele.
At least the music was unrestrained; many early black entertainers got their start there, including Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, and Lena Horne. The brilliant Duke Ellington led the house band from 1927 to 1930, playing alongside the most widely known blues and jazz performers of the time.
The Savoy, on the other hand, had a no-discrimination policy from the beginning. Their controversial stance was that race was irrelevant so long as “you could dance,” and thousands packed the elongated hardwood dance floor, called “the track”— which had to be replaced every few years from the amount of swinging and stomping.
The crescendo of the best big-band jazz in the world drove dancers to their feet where the lindy hop, the jitterbug and swing were invented. Chick Webb was the bandleader of the best-known Savoy house band during the mid-1930s, prompting Saturday night dance contests featuring such lindy hop dance greats as Herbert “Whitey” White, Leroy “Stretch” Jones, Frank “Musclehead” Manning, and “Shorty” George Snowden.
At its height in the years before World War II, Swing Jazz was America’s most pervasive and popular musical genre, and mixed dance venues such as the Savoy fueled a growing conviction that equality might be a real possibility.
Harlem’s Music Scene Today
While many of Harlem’s plentiful fine dining establishments provide gospel brunches and live jazz in the evenings, here we focus on venues known first and foremost for the music and then for the menu, and that would include the classic “supper club,” a Harlem tradition. One as rich in history as in flavors is Minton’s, recently reopened and revived, once again becoming a jazz centerpiece of Harlem.
The original was founded by tenor saxophonist Henry Minton in 1938, where Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis would stop by and jam, creating the music revolution known as Bebop. The current lineup includes experimental and classical jazz sessions, skittering and scatting, riffing and railing, in perfect harmony with the Southern revival menu and low-country dishes put together by chef de cuisine Joseph Johnson and executive chef Alexander Smalls.
The Cotton Club
Though the Cotton Club on 125th Street has no connection to the original except for its name, the new version is a great option for large groups and private events—now welcoming everyone regardless of skin color, including tourists from all over the world.
It’s a fantastic place to hear some of the best jazz masters in town, including the All-stars house band, a 13-piece ensemble playing swing and jazz with a wailing saxophone and low bass tones by vocalist Wolf Johnson—all served up with a buffet of soul food.
In the basement of the Red Rooster, Ginny’s Supper Club’s opulent décor will transport you back to the roaring Twenties, with its tapered columns, orb-shaped chandeliers, red banquettes, and golden light. Even the gorgeous crowd is glammed up and glitzed out. Yet while the venue conjures up The Harlem Renaissance, Ginny’s pays homage to the many diverse African-American cultural influences, from poetry to soul to hip-hop.
As for the “supper club” portion, Marcus Samuelsson delivers an innovative food and drink menu with Asian and French influences.
Noisy and Bustling Club
While the wood-paneled backdrop is acoustic, the club is noisy and bustling, often with tight, buzzing crowds. For a more mellow, downright dive-bar vibe, hit Paris Blues, an old-school lounge that’s been in operation since 1969 in the same location with the same owner, Samuel Hargress, Junior.
Usually donning a smart hat and slick shoes, 79-year-old Hargress is still a sharp dresser and shrewd businessman, as he was when he purchased the building “for almost nothing” so he wouldn’t be driven out with rising rents.
Inside, the quirky interior seems frozen in time. He still personally greets his diverse clientele—ranging from locals to luminaries—some of whom take to the stage in freestyle jam sessions. Mr. Hargress himself prepares soul food upstairs in his apartment, which is offered up for free each night along with the soulful music until the wee hours.
Some of the most up close and personal ways to experience jazz in Harlem are not actually in venues at all, but in the intimate setting of someone’s home. Bill’s Place is run by jazz great Bill Saxton in a basement apartment and former speakeasy—and the BYOB policy only adds to its prohibition-era ambiance.
Tables tucked in tight in the back of a small railroad apartment offer an excellent view of the band, and after the show linger in the garden out back to have a smoke or drink.
Only open on weekend nights, the energy-infused jazz and fancy finger work is worth the cover charge of $20, a small price to pay for a set of jazz performed by the legend and the talented musicians he discovers.
The Parlor is another rite of passage for all uptown music lovers. Every Sunday afternoon at 3:30 since 1991, people in the know have been heading to 555 Edgecombe Ave. and buzzing apartment #3F to be let into the weekly jazz recital led by Marjorie Eliot in her home at the historic Triple Nickel apartment building.
Ms. Eliot comes from a long line of instrumentalists, and now takes turns on the piano with her son, Rudel Drears, playing sets with a variety of musicians and singers. While admission is free, donations are appreciated.
Founded in 1904 as a union for black musicians who were denied admission into the white-only local union, The New Amsterdam Music Association (NAMA) was the first official representative of black musicians in the world and is currently another unique environment in which to see impactful performances.
Volunteers are working to revitalize NAMA, presenting events throughout the week, low-cost music lessons and a place for working musicians to rehearse. The $5.00 admission includes live music, refreshments and the opportunity to sit and enjoy the music—or to perform onstage.
The American Legion Post 398 is another hidden gem tucked away on a residential street.
This military veteran members-only club boasts one of Harlem’s remaining two Hammond B3 organs, played on Sunday nights by maestro Seleno Clarke who leads a top-notch R&B-style groove band.
Open Wednesdays through Sundays, besides great music they promise the most reasonably priced drinks anywhere in NYC and soul food choices like fried fish, collards, and rum cake prepared daily and scribbled on hand-written menus.
Shrine World Music Venue
When it comes to world beats and new grooves, The Shrine World Music Venue is where it’s at. Behind an old deli awning that might easily be missed, once inside you are transported to what could be Jamaica, Africa, or Detroit—depending on the music—with a friendly vibe and old albums plastering the walls and ceiling.
Jam-packed line ups feature four or five bands per night, and one need only check out their calendar any given day to see that the joint hosts the most diverse musical acts in Harlem, covering a wide spectrum including reggae, hip hop, blues, indie, folk, funk, Latin beats, flamenco, rap, psychedelic, spoken word and hardcore punk.
A testament to Shrine’s success, its sister venue, Silvana, has recently opened up further south and is already booked with a full schedule of equally diverse musical talent.
The restaurant and bar Farafina is likely to burst into a party on any given night with killer salsa music, jazz and blues, performed by international bands from Africa and the Caribbean, as well as local acts and attractions.
Wednesday is open mike night teeming with local talent supported by a well-versed backup band, Thursday is karaoke night, Fridays are Wide World Nights, and the festive Latin Saturdays start at 10 p.m.
Madiba Harlem at MIST (My Image Studios), a restaurant and art space, is a welcome addition to the neighborhood for its South African food, highbrow art and literary events, and excellent musical programming.
Based on the concept of a shebeen—the quintessential beer and social halls of townships in South Africa— Executive Chef Mark Henegan recently opened the spacious Harlem location. The venue has already attracted big-name artists including Lauren Hill, Common, and Melanie Fiona and presents intimate talks and lectures.
The Sounds of Summer
The Sounds of Summer When the weather turns warm and the nights become longer, many New Yorkers prefer to head out of doors and flock to the free concerts at Harlem’s many parks and outdoor amphitheaters. Nothing beats sitting on a big blanket spread out on a fragrant grassy field with a picnic basket and a bottle of bubbly, melodies mingling in the night sky.
Summer Stage hosts concerts throughout June, July and August at Marcus Garvey Park, The West Harlem Piers, the East River, Central Park and even Randall’s Island.
The annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in August s held at Marcus Garvey Park and offers excellent programming while on June The Metropolitan Opera Summer Recital Series in the bandshell of Jackie Robinson Park is not to be missed. These green spaces offer top-notch talent in Harlem and throughout the city that would demand a high-ticket price elsewhere, all totally free and open to anyone and everyone.
Jazzmobile is the first American not-for-profit arts and cultural organization created just for jazz, and a Harlem mainstay that has been providing jazz to neighborhood streets, parks, and community centers for half a century. Jazzmobile’s Summerfest 2015 includes street fairs and block parties that culminate with the “great jazz on the great hill” in Central Park.
From July 8th to August 28th, Summerfest is also part of Harlem Week. A misnomer, Harlem Week is in its 40th year and has grown in size and extended to include events that fill the entire month of August, offering family fun and discounts throughout Harlem.
Once again music is a tie that brings the neighborhood together, one that is continually changing with the strong real estate market, recently-opened music establishments emerging among landmarked venues and glassy condos built alongside ancient brownstones. New residents drawn from Brooklyn and downtown bring a fresh audience to the historic music scene while creating a new dynamic—and adding to Harlem’s ever-evolving playlist.
For more information on the venues and summer events visit harlemonestop.org.
Christie Grotheim s a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in Salon, The New York Observer, Mr. Bellers Neighborhood, NY Press, and West View News.
She has participated in many readings in the city, including Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood Reading Series, the Word of Mouth Non-Fiction Series, and the Second Draft Series. She writes extensively for TravelMag.com and HarlemOneStop.