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Culture Clubs: A History of the U.S. Jazz Clubs, Part II: New York

Karl Ackermann By

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The Lounge was laid out with two distinct functions in mind. The Zebra Room—famous for its Art Deco style—was the performance space and the adjacent room was a bar. From the financially strapped 1970s until the end of the 1990s, the bar was in a state of perpetual decline. In 1988 the lounge was purchased by promoter and entrepreneur Alvin Reid. The Richmond, Virginia native grew up in Harlem and was a member of the New York City Transit Police until his retirement in 1980. Using his retirement savings he bought the lounge to revive the dwindling presence of jazz venues in Harlem. From Fall 1999 to Spring 2000, Reid spent over one half-million dollars to restore the original Art Deco interior of the club. It was the only period of time the Lenox Lounge was closed in the preceding sixty years.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the lounge was featured in scenes from a number of television programs, movies and music videos. The Zagat Survey Nightlife Guide and New York Magazine both rated it as a top destination. In 2012, the property's landlord doubled the rent and Reid, unable to manage the increase, closed the Lenox Lounge after seventy-three years. Two years later, a noted restaurateur, Richard Notar announced that he would reopen the club, and Reid, with another business partner, revealed similar plans a short time later. Notar, who owns Nobu—the most widely recognized chain of Japanese restaurants in the world—had previously attempted to revive another Harlem landmark jazz club, Minton's. Neither endeavor succeeded, though Minton's did later reopen under different ownership. Reid failed to revive the Lenox Lounge as well, facing prohibitive financial and legal challenges.

Gordon Polatnick runs Big Apple Jazz Tours, with stops in both uptown and downtown New York. On a rare quiet night during the 2015 holiday season, when Polatnick wasn't guiding a group through his maze of club connections, he accompanied us to the renowned Minton's Playhouse, listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. On its face, the Second Renaissance Revival architecture retains the class of the club's glory days. Once inside, the Minton's of the 2000s, bears little resemblance to the club opened by Henry Minton in 1938 on 118th Street. Minton was a tenor saxophonist and a savvy businessman; he provided a safe space for jam sessions that would normally result in heavy union fines against participating musicians.

In 1940, Teddy Hill was hired to manage Minton's. Hill had a well-established career as a big band leader, drummer and multi-reed player with twenty-five sides recorded. His big band—at various points in time—had employed Roy Eldridge, Bill Coleman, Frankie Newton and Dizzy Gillespie. Hill worked regularly as the NBC radio network big band leader before taking on the Minton's role. Under his management, Minton's became the pre-52nd Street incubator of the bebop movement and the birthplace of modern jazz. The Minton's jam sessions drew in some of the most prominent artists of the era, including Gillespie, Ben Webster, Don Byas, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and Charlie Christian. The jam sessions inspired Monday Celebrity Nights, an event co-sponsored by the owners of the Apollo Theater. Session spots at Minton's became so intensely competitive that the process of securing a seat on the stage became more exclusionary and less democratic. Minton's closed for renovations in the summer of 2017 with a scheduled re-opening in the fall.

Bebop made its name in the clubs that densely populated the 52nd Street area. The Royal Roost has a ten-year run beginning in 1946 and featured the new style of jazz with names like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Tadd Dameron, Dexter Gordon, Fats Navarro and Max Roach. The 1950s saw the birth of The Five Spot and revolutionaries such as Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and later, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Charlie Haden and Ornette Coleman. In 1957, in a bleak and isolated section of West Village, a gritty bar was converted to The Half Note. Primarily dedicated to swing, the club was also host to more cutting edge performers of that era. Coltrane and Mingus played here as well, and more straight-ahead acts such as Wes Montgomery, Herbie Mann and Cannonball Adderley took to a stage that was slapped together from the remains of wooden shipping pallets.

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