Minton's Playhouse Redux

Nick Catalano By

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Rarely in art history can a major revolution be exactly pinpointed in time and place. But few will dispute that the premier revolution in jazz history occurred on the bandstands of Minton's Playhouse (210 West 118th St.) and Monroe's Uptown House (198 West 134th St. & 52nd St. from 1943) during the days of World War II. In 1938 tenor saxophonist Henry Minton opened up his legendary room and in 1940 the club's management was taken over by former bandleader Teddy Hill who focused on developing Monday night jam sessions. The resident musicians at the jams included Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker making frequent appearances and working out the patterns of the revolutionary music soon to be christened "bebop." Monroe's held competing jams often featuring Parker and Max Roach. Both clubs showcased jazz luminaries such as Billie Holiday, Roy Eldridge and Charlie Christian, but it is the veritable "creation" of bebop that stands out these days as the clubs' chief claim to fame. I won't attempt a detailed history of Minton's here but simply refer the reader to an excellent one on Wikipedia.

Several years ago a restoration of Minton's was begun and last month the effort received new energy as various activities celebrating the club's legacy were announced at a press conference. A predictably nostalgic feeling swept over me as I strolled down 118th St. in the spanking new and incredibly chic Harlem of the millennium. I looked up at an elaborate neon "Minton's Playhouse" sign above the door which together with a mural by Charles Granum (done in 1948) above the club's bandstand are the only original artifacts from the old days. When I went into the venerable room, the eerie nostalgia intensified as I tried to imagine what it might have been like in the 40's to walk in and see Bird and Diz on stage. The interior has been nicely redecorated but bares little resemblance to the original. However the excellent acoustics set me to wondering if such remarkable sound might have been present in the old days. The room has the "tunnel" architecture largely responsible for acoustic excellence in many older jazz clubs.

The performance during this interesting afternoon consisted of only one selection, appropriately, Dizzy's "Con Alma," played by pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs and bassist Buster Williams. Williams, born in 1942, recalled seeing Miles Davis at Minton's when he was a youngster. Gumbs and Williams have been dubbed artists-in-residence for this year and will preside over myriad activities associated with the Minton's restoration including internships, jazz camps, podcasts and family-oriented concerts where the music will be video-streamed.

An international partnership with South Africa's Fort Hare University and Minton's has been initiated. This partnership will seek to create jazz exchange programs and create closer relations between students from the two cultures.

Many of the aforementioned activities will involve fund raising for the restoration and these various programs. The major kickoff fundraiser will be a "world record-breaking 48 hour non-stop jazz marathon" to be held July 4-5. Featured performers include Cyrus Chestnut, Grady Tate, Melba Moore, and Geri Allen. This event might be the best opportunity for serious out-of-town jazz fans to experience the new restoration of Minton's—the "birthplace of bebop."

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