Tuesday, March 24, 2009

when harlem was in vogue...

It may not be the greatest Jazz club in the world anymore, but this place has history. Back in the 1940s, this is where the fabulous Charlie Parker was discovered. The likes of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Bennie Goodman, Teddie Wilson, Lester Young and others all played here. The house pianist was none other than Thelonious Monk. This is where Bebop was born. 
For over 30 years, Minton's Playhouse served as an experimental lab where these greats got together and jammed to take jazz into a whole new direction. In 1974, due to what is referred to as a "tragic foray into disco" Minton's closed its doors. The playhouse wasted away. All that was left was the 1948 mural painted behind what was the stage, which features four musicians playing together while a woman sleeps face down on the bed. Three of the four musicians are identified as Charlie Christian, Tony Scott, and Hot Lips Page, and it's said that the woman lying across the bed is none other than Billie Holiday sleeping off a drunken night.

Many attempts were made to reopen the place - there were rumors abound that Melba Wilson (who eventually opened Melba's on 114th and Frederick Douglass) was going to open a restaurant and jazz club there; even Rob DeNiro apparently wanted to bring back the playhouse, but nothing ever happened. Then finally, in May 2006, thanks to Earl Spain (who used to manage St. Nick's Pub - another Harlem Jazz stronghold) Minton's reopened its doors. 
It's not fancy or an upscale jazz place. If anything, the renovation seems to have been done on a tight budget. But the bar is full, the tables and chairs are aplenty, and the old mural shines behind the new stage. Every day, the doors open at 3pm although the music doesn't start until 9pm. Three sets later there's the after hours jazz session. Unlike The Den on 132nd and Fifth Avenue, don't come to Minton's early. The later you stay, the crazier it gets. Minton's is definitely getting back to its roots.

Sunday through Thursday there's no cover, just a two-drink minimum. But even that they're not particularly strict about. The bartenders are friendly and the vibe is happy. The crowd is an interesting mix of old school Harlem residents and people who've come from a far to get a taste of history. What's not to love about this place? There's music every night from a 16-piece orchestra to trios and tap dancers. Wednesday nights, the fabulous Patience Higgins and the Sugar Hill Quartet play. These guys are brilliant! Fridays and Saturdays there's a $10 cover and different guests play (check their website). Sunday nights, they have a free buffet along with music. 

Again, it's not the best jazz club in NYC, but it's a major part of Jazz history and definitely deserves some love. Five solid stars for that. 
Minton's is back!!!

"We all do 'do, re, mi', but you have to find the other notes yourself"

~Louis Armstrong


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