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  Harlem Jazz Clubs  
  by Dustin Garlitz  

November 2004:

I lived in the epicenter of Harlem for 2 and ½  years, three blocks away from 125th Street and Lenox Avenue.  At this intersection is the Lenox Lounge, where trumpeter Roy Campbell hosts weekly Monday night jam sessions.  I used to go out there and play Coltrane music with his band.  On other nights of the week you can hear many other talented musicians play there; including the club's curator-- a pianist who looks and sounds like Bud Powell.  Plus the Lenox Lounge has an awesome bar atmosphere and its back room serves the best soul food around (just as good as Sylvia’s).  There is another jazz club on 125th Street (on the corner past St. Nicholas Avenue, next to another 24 hour soul food restaurant) where George Benson has been found jamming.  Also check out St. Nicks Pub in the Sugar Hill district on 145th Street.  The vibe there is more serious for musicians, since no-nonsense jazz players like James Carter jam there (they expect more out of ‘cats’, including that you can play ‘changes’ really well).  After a jam session in midtown with drummer William Hooker one day, I was talking to trumpeter Lewis ‘Flip’ Barnes about Harlem and the vibe at St. Nick’s Pub, and he agreed that it is a place for only really serious musicians to jam.  There is a place in Hamilton Heights (near Striver’s Row) on Fredrick Douglass Boulevard called the Sugar Shack where people like my colleague (fellow New School Jazz student) Robert Glasper jams (he is an up-and-coming pianist who is signed to Europe’s ‘Fresh Sound New Talent’ record label).  There is another place where some other music students jam on Lenox Avenue and 147th Street-- it is actually a really good Ethiopian Restaurant that has a bandstand in the back.  When David Murray is in from Paris, you can find him jamming at this venue.  The new Cotton Club is on 125th street and the West Side Highway, yet it only hosts big band playing.  

            Previously Harlem was one great jazz neighborhood.  People like James P. Johnson and Mary Lou Williams used to live there.  The Cotton Club (on 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue) presented Duke Ellington back in 1923 (he was living on 162nd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue at the time).  There were battles of the bands that included out-of-towner Benny Goodman at the Savoy Ballroom on 145th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard.  Years later you could find beboppers at Smalls Paradise at 135th Street (on the same boulevard) jamming late at night.  The most famous of all the clubs was Minton’s Playhouse on 118th Street between St. Nicholas Avenue and Fredrick Douglas Boulevard.  When Thelonious Monk became the pianist in the house band (complemented by Kenny Clarke on drums) at this establishment in 1942, Bird and Diz were found there jamming all night long (experimenting with a new harmonic sound never heard before).  Diz, when finished jamming early in morning, would go up to Mary Lou’s apartment on Convent Avenue to show her (on the piano) what he had been working on.  Bird, on the other hand, would go to Dewey Square (at 116th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard) to watch the sunrise.

            When you’re in New York City, take a walking tour of Harlem and keep an eye out for all the landmarks written about in this piece.  You may see tenor saxophonist James Carter at the seafood restaurant on 125th Street between Lenox Avenue and 5th Avenue or run into pianist Cooper-Moore on the East-Side of the neighborhood.  Lately the Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. State Building has been hosting jazz concerts outside its doors.  The Museum of Jazz History is going to be built later this decade on top of 125th Street’s Con Edison building…so Harlem may attract jazz fans once again.