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Tap dancer Omar Edwards thrust the metal toe of his shoe forward and scraped an arc on the Minton’s Playhouse stage. An audience of three heard the sound of saws cutting through logs. African drums echoed from Edwards’s feet, then the creak of chains on a ship sailing west across the Atlantic. Wiping sweat away, Edwards said, “It’s not just black history, but the history of man.”
Harlem’s jazz clubs evoke the age before rock and hip-hop dominated rebellious musical expression. Spaces where crowds sit inches from the musicians once featured Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. Edwards danced on the stage where Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie invented bebop after hours in the 1940’s.
The 1939 Art Deco Lenox Lounge glows red less than a block from a Starbucks. Customers scramble for the corner booth Billie Holiday used to sit in for dinner.
“When you walk in here, you’re taking a step back in time,” the Lounge’s owner Alvin Reid said. “This is where you can see the sweat falling off the musician. You have a one-on-one relationship.”
Jazz weaves threads of Harlem’s identity. On 125th St., near Hotel Theresa, where Louis Armstrong slept, a clothing store entices shoppers by adding “Jazz” to its name. Street vendors sell John Coltrane and Josephine Baker t-shirts to locals and foreign tourists. Murals of musicians and dancers emerge when shopkeepers pull down decorated security doors at closing time.
Max Lucas, 98, has played his saxophone in Harlem since 1925, when his first gig was a duet with a banjo player in a barber shop. He performed in the Savoy Ballroom as 2,000 dancers covered the floor. During Prohibition and the Great Depression, Lucas worked rent parties, where the hosts had three-piece bands in their homes, sold bootleg liquor and charged 25 cents admission to help pay their landlords. When he joins his son’s band at the Lenox Lounge on Wednesdays, the crowd reveres Lucas as its connection to Harlem’s cultural legacy.
Every Sunday for 15 years, Marjorie Eliot has hosted concerts in her apartment, but she’s not trying to earn her rent. She lives in the building Count Basie called home and wants to preserve Harlem’s jazz tradition with her free shows. She begins by dedicating the performance to a late musician and then invokes the memory of her son Philip, who died in 1992. Eliot said sharing music brings her son back a little bit.
Jazz endures as its popularity diminishes. Songs of freedom drift out of Harlem where intimate spots preserve notes of the past and its speakeasy nights.
My grandfather lit my imagination when he spoke of working in bands during the 1920’s and 30’s. He’d play his sax, and tell of a ship bound for the Caribbean at night, joining a hotel orchestra in Havana for awhile or heading below the Equator for a gig in Rio de Janeiro. The music finished his stories. After he died, I wanted to sense the life he led before he married my grandmother and settled down.
I saw him in the people I photographed and heard him in their music. Familiarity in strangers’ eyes made me pause. Fragments of his life appeared.