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 in Harlem.
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 exclaimed.
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 Apollo Theater.
Powering the revival as much as historical awareness is a younger generation.
“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 Captain” Gamble.
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?”
(With Tim Herrera)
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