The National Jazz Museum in Harlem

At the beginning of March I went on a trip to New York, to visit America for the first time and find out more about a city which I have seen so much of in films and other media. The images everyone has were all there: yellow cabs, the statue of liberty, huge skyscrapers, steam coming out of the pavement. But it was in other parts of Manhattan, especially Harlem, where I gained some fascinating insights.

The street names pay tribute to giants of human endeavour and social progress: Dr Martin Luther King JR, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Harlem itself is also clearly undergoing transformation; the 110th Street that I heard Bobby Womack sing about was actually a very quiet street with parts overlooking the top end of Central Park. The famous red brown Dutch style buildings are all being renovated and sold/rented for handsome sums.

I dropped by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem on East 126th Street after an internet search of music related things to do. This small museum packs a wealth of resources for the visitor, with a regular programme of talks from leading jazz musicians, all aimed at increasing awareness and participation in Jazz music. On my visit there was an exhibition on the great Cuban pianist Bebo Valdes, whose life and music inspired the Oscar nominated film Chico and Rita.

 

There was also the Savory collection, an extensive archive of previously unknown recordings by every jazz great you can think of up to Bebop. Digitized from the original metal records (as opposed to vinyl), I had the pleasure of listening to a couple of my favourites, Django Reinhardt and pianist extraordinaire Art Tatum. I was immediately taken by the quality of these recordings; William Savory had a technical understanding of sound recording that was ahead of its time. To read more about this fascinating archive, follow this link.

In a corner was a rather nice Steinway grand piano, donated to the museum by the late jazz pianist Dick Katz. It is a well used instrument and thankfully, anything but a museum piece. On playing, the core sound was still very good and the high level of craftsmanship of Steinway rang true as ever. I was pleased to find out that the piano is free for visitors to play, a lesson to institutions the world over who try to keep musical instruments as a spectacle rather than the purpose they were built for.

Me and the Steinway

Me and the Steinway at the Jazz Museum in Harlem

Harlem itself was host to numerous small jazz clubs back in the 1920’s and into the 1940’s, making it the place to go in town if you wanted to hear the latest in jazz talent. Wealthy clientele from downtown Manhattan would go uptown to the best clubs, one of dubious reputation being the ‘Cotton Club’. Although all the entertainers were black, black customers were generally barred, resulting in a white only audience. On the flipside, the deliberate targeting of rich white clientele allowed for higher entry and cover charges, which translated in to better pay for the musicians. And one of the greatest regulars to perform here was Duke Ellington and his band. To see his statue on 110th Street today is to understand his contribution to the history of Jazz.

As the decades rolled on, the jazz venues moved downtown into Greenwich village way, leaving only echoes and memories of the scene that used to exist in Harlem. But in a world where Jazz is clearly not mainstream in terms of listening audiences, it is a challenge in itself to keep alive the legacy and art form. Thankfully, right now New York is still alive with Jazz. There are jazz venues all over, from grand places such as the Vanguard and Birdland, to smaller and frequently sold out spots like Smalls (I couldn’t get in when I visited!). New York City easily outstrips London for the sheer number of venues that hosts jazz musicians every night, and it’s easy to see why musicians and listeners still think that this is one of the best places in the world to experience Jazz.

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