[JPL] Jazz in Harlem: "A labor of love' seeks a helping hand
drjazz at drjazz.com
Sun Feb 20 20:53:01 EST 2011
*Jazz in Harlem: "A labor of love' seeks a helping hand
St. Nick's Pub sits high above Harlem, the neighborhood that cradled
jazz and now nurtures its legacy. Down the valley lies the art deco
masterpiece Lenox Lounge. In between is Bill's Place on West 133rd
Street, the first jazz club in decades to surface on the original Swing
Street, one of jazz's most sacred but forgotten sites.
These and other spots are the face of jazz's Harlem revival. Its
rejuvenation, powered by local talent and enthusiasm and international
tourism, comes as Harlem enjoys a second renaissance.
To be sure, the jazz scene today has one foot firmly in its storied
past, the other in the exciting present. No one, however, will tell you
it's easy to keep the legacy alive.
Just ask Alvin M. Reed Sr., who shares the same birth year as his Lenox
Lounge: 1939. He'll tell you jazz in Harlem is "a labor of love."
He sees gifted musicians and proprietors struggling with an inhospitable
real estate market and other economic forces, competition from clubs
downtown and what he argues is a lack of a broader plan to support clubs
Up at St. Nick's, Vincent Lampkin, 50, underscores the challenges shared
by keepers of the jazz tradition. "You might make some profit," he said,
but really, you're "going to pay to stay around."
Still, it's not about a big payday. "There is a lot of love," Lampkin said.
Reed is feeling more love --- or certainly interest --- from the city's
tourism arm, which is seeking to promote Harlem's jazz scene. There's no
doubt as to why.
"People want to see the original, that's why we're popular around the
world," Reed said. "They want to come up to Harlem."
That's what keeps fans such as Nathan George, 65, of Harlem, coming
back. "Here, there's no commercialism. ... It's extremely refreshing to
be in this environment, because it's not about anybody's bottom line. "
Back in the swing
Even during Harlem's most difficult years, long after the glory days of
jazz forms like stride, swing and bebop and the presence of jazz greats
in the neighborhood, local musicians and some clubs never gave up. Thus,
they were ready for the revival that began in the 1990s.
"There started to be younger musicians playing, and they found a certain
kind of support in the Harlem community," said Loren Schoenberg,
executive director of the National Jazz Museum of Harlem.
The revival manifested itself in spots like St. Nick's Pub.
One of those key performers was Harlem native Bill Saxton, a saxophonist
whose story reflects the arc of jazz and Harlem.
In his youth, Saxton was inspired by sidewalk glimpses of the great jazz
clubs in their twilight years. Decades later, he found himself shaping
the dawn of its new age, for years at St. Nick's, then striking out on
his own --- and reviving a lost part of Harlem's past.
He and his wife, Theda Palmer-Saxton, opened Bill's Place in 2005. What
they didn't know until a year later was that fate had guided them to the
home of the lost speakeasy, Tillie's Chicken Shack, where the likes of
Billie Holiday had performed.
Bill's, at 148 W. 133rd St., became the first jazz club in decades to
stake a claim on the original and largely forgotten Swing Street. A
neighbor gave them a newspaper article with the news.
"We saw our address there, and we said, 'My goodness!'" Palmer-Saxton
Why was it lost?
The return of jazz to the original Swing Street is a poignant step in
Harlem's continuing embrace of its jazz heritage.
"For decades, many New Yorkers ignored Harlem," said David Freeland,
author of "Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville." "Today, they are no
longer afraid of Harlem, but they tend to value it more for its real
estate than its culture."
The jazz community values something else.
"If this were New Orleans, everyone would be streaming up to get Harlem
to enjoy the music and to rejoice in the history. I would turn 135th
Street into Bourbon Street," said Gordon Polatnick of Big Apple Jazz
Tours. "I seriously don't understand how you could let all this
important world history go to waste."
The next notes
Jazz is set to become more front and center. The National Jazz Museum of
Harlem is slated to move in 2014 to the old Mart 125, across from the
Powering the revival as much as historical awareness is a younger
"I'm happy to see a lot of the younger kids, teenagers and up, immersing
themselves into what we've been doing for quite some time," said Dave
Dawson, who performed the other night at Londel's, with Keith "the
Sharron Cannon, the general manager at Lenox Lounge, sees a need to
support this revival. She points to cities overseas where indigenous
musical forms get financial backing.
Her question is simple: "Jazz is America's music. Is America going to
support its music?"
Dr. Jazz Operations
Oak Park, MI 48237
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