The legacy of Harlem can be defined by the bastion of artists that collectively showcased their brilliance within the famed New York enclave. However, we would be remiss if we ignored the significant institutions that made this possible. To speak of the “jazz shrines of Harlem” is, in many ways, to speak of sacred ground. Throughout Harlem’s history, there have been several institutions that have provided the platform for artistic greatness and achievement. As we celebrate those figures that magically graced the borough with their talents, we too want to celebrate the spaces that took on a life of their own as iconic venues shaping the careers of musicians and the history of performance art as a whole. Today we celebrate the stage. These are the jazz shrines of Harlem.
The Apollo Theater
For an artist, there may be no greater barometer of excellence than the Apollo Theater. Since its formal inception in 1913, seemingly every great artist has had the opportunity to perform on the venue’s iconic stage. One of the Apollo Theater’s earliest showcased artists was a 17-year old Ella Fitzgerald, who gained notoriety through the famed amateur nights. The historic Amateur Night at the Apollo provided the dichotomous reality of a career in music. In one instance an up-and-coming artist could see their dreams quite literally dragged into the abyss by the noted Howard “Sandman” Sims, more commonly known as “the Executioner.” And in the very next moment, we are introduced to Sarah Vaughan or Billie Holiday. As cruel as the Apollo Theater could be, if you could make it there, you could make it anywhere. Like many Harlem establishments, it began to see a decline 1960s and 70s. In the present, however, the Apollo has seen a major revival, hosting many premier events. There is no doubting the influence of the Apollo Theater on the world’s greatest artists from the nostalgia of yesterday to the phenomenal programming offered there today. Check out The Apollo on the web.
When situating the Lenox Lounge amongst the myriad institutions that make up Harlem, we should almost immediately recognize the eclectic blend of personalities that made up the venue’s vibrant atmosphere. From Miles Davis to Malcolm X, the Lenox Lounge brought together some of Harlem’s most influential figures to create a space that can be easily defined as “cool.” Only adding to this appealing aesthetic was the notorious “Zebra Room,” named after the extravagant print that found home throughout the establishment. Displayed in such projects as the feature film American Gangster and the critically-acclaimed series, Mad Men, the Zebra Room was considered to be one of the trendiest atmospheres in the city. With Billie Holiday gracing the stage and James Baldwin comfortably penning a classic in the corner, it’s no wonder why this site became one of Harlem’s most intriguing spots. Thankfully, the building has been restored with a classic touch, featuring the art deco styling that made the Lenox Lounge so popular.
To understand the functionality of the Alhambra Ballroom and Theatre, you need only to look at its earliest proprietors. The space was established in the early 1900s as a venue for the popular vaudevillian acts of the day, as well as other theater performances. With this beginning, the Alhambra Ballroom’s history would be forever intertwined with performance and energy. While its stage held the likes of Jelly Roll Morton, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday, it was the dancing that ultimately defined the Alhambra Ballroom’s legacy. With a swinging big band performing on stage, this site became one of the most historic dance halls in the country. At the forefront artistic advancement, the legacy of dance crazes in this nation could easily be aligned by what was happening at the Alhambra Ballroom. When swing dancing was at the peak of its influence, battles would take place as couples could be seen flipping and diving across the spacious floor attempting to match the next. This is what the Alhambra Ballroom brought to Harlem. While it may not completely hold the old jazz atmosphere of the past, presently it still remains a venue for festive activity. Currently, the Alhambra Ballroom serves as a premier space for celebratory events in the Harlem.
Located alongside the famed Apollo Theater, Showman’s Café, opening in 1942 was another prominent spot for Harlem’s biggest names to relax and grab a drink. Its leisurely setting was often the home of noted artists such as Eartha Kitt, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington as well as many others of Harlem’s elite. While many locales in Harlem carry the appeal of a club-like atmosphere, Showman’s is a jazz bar in every way. This signature piece at Showman’s is a Hammond B-3 organ, introduced in 1978 when the venue opened itself up to the live performance circuit. Not short on nostalgia, Showman’s has maintained its laid-back atmosphere in the present, despite its several relocations (The original location next to the Apollo was demolished during a fire, and has remained a parking lot for a few decades now). Presently, it remains one of the best spots in the city to catch an intimate jazz performance by some of the remaining pioneers of jazz as well as many of the local jazz ensembles. If a relaxed night of jazz is wanted, Showman’s still remains at the top of the list for places to go.
Named after the venue’s founder tenor saxophonist Henry Minton, the space is readily identified as one of bebop’s earliest homes. Highly influential, Minton’s desegregation of the American Federation of Musicians provided innumerable resources for the vitality of one of Harlem’s premiere spots. Founded in 1938, Minton’s was reflective of the nature of jazz during this period. At the epicenter of each night’s festivities were extravagant improvisations and devastating instrumental battles. On a given night you may walk in to see the legends Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie match each other note for note, collectively changing the nature of trumpet improvisation. It was this sort of attraction that made Minton’s one of the most respected sites in Harlem. Over time, this push for spontaneity and impromptu musicianship was exchanged for standard concert experiences with the many of the famous acts of the day. Minton’s first shut its doors in 1974, only to be reopened in 2006 and subsequently close again four years later. Word is that it is planning to reopen again, hopefully for good. Despite all of this, Minton’s remains a memorable institution in Harlem’s history.
Words by Paul Pennington