andrew sullivan – harlem jazz

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Andrew Sullivan

Harlem Jazz

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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.


Photographer’s note:

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.


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Andrew Sullivan


116 Responses to “andrew sullivan – harlem jazz”


    I couldn’t stop smiling throughout the entire parade of beauties. It wasn’t just the women; it was your captions and the dear Panos energy they radiated. You go, guy!!! You are DOIN’ IT!!!

    Now I’ve got to go to bed. It’s 1:20 a.m. here in the Big D ;=)


  • Panos..


    i went out was 10:30pm..full moon or something like it and i did vueltas around the block, around and around and around, not a creature was stirring, not even the savage guard dogs…came back, laid right down in the grass of the park next door, laid down and stared up through the branches into the sky..the wind howled, the branches snapped and trembled, shivered and spasm’d, the pink flower bunches dressing up the roble sabanas whipped off like tops and spun downward through the dark, landing softly all around me. Next to me a dead snake. i held it, silky, shiny, supple, so slim, like a bracelet on my arm, but dead, so dead. i tucked it into the base of a tree thinking it might magically come back to life in the madrugada and be grateful that i had given it a hiding place to sleep off its coma..and then came in, thought about just going to bed..nah, made tea, fired up the Mac and to what do my wondering eyes does appear (or whatever) this, this, well, this, blast of giddy, funny, happy, groovy panos production. Tom Waits on my Ipod, i stare at this evolving celebration and am aware of my mouth just hanging open, lax, my eyes glassy eyed staring in disbelief and then laughter, bellyaching laughter erupting through my silent house, startled cats skittering under the nearest piece of furniture..Tom Waits singing about a veal cutlet coming down and assaulting his cup of coffee but the coffee wasn’t strong enough to defend itself and neither am i strong enough to fight off this assault on my soul. Panos, you are a freaking genius..your photos, the captions, the overdose of skin, smiles, flash, dazzle, cootchie-coo and tyler (county, Texas) too..ohhhhhh, manohman, those close-ups, i could smell their perfume, hear their giggles, how da hell did you get to do this thing? Studio lights? Was this sorta planned? Trust was everything.You are a man of the people, for the people, with the people. And i’ll tell ya something, it’s people like you who are the most alone. How do you figure that anyway?

    Wow..what a treat..and dedicated to the hell did i earn this honor? Make me just float down the hall to bed why doncha?!

    my very very best congratulations..

    your friend

  • Patricia,
    thank you…
    ACCESS, self sarcasm, love AND RESPECT IS MY SECRET….
    oh please…
    ( i emptied myself today… i dont know what would i do with you.. all of you…)
    not driving

  • oh, ok, one more time through your slide show and then to bed..i can’t help myself, your Hood is like Mardi Gras! i’m still just gobsmacked..


  • kAT…
    i ,… ( tom waits )…
    you know what ? there is nothing really for me to say……

    … the way you write, oh , the way you write…
    the way you can write…
    your ability to write…

  • i don’t know what to say either, Panos..i am just kinda speechless. You and the Irazu Volcano made my life complete today..actually, Jim also made me giggle and that was like Christmas in March all by itself. But this last hour of the day, you, well..i think i better shut up or i might make an admission of something i would not know how to take back. And i still recall your Mars Volta lyrics. That’s when i knew…

    your bud’


    I almost miss your slideshow!
    Man… You see people… your really see all of them… mostly women but anyway.
    Many photographers try to show a story in few pictures but in your work it is impossible! I love that you publish so many pictures and there are sometimes “weak” pictures!
    This is REAL photography. You are like Larry Clark only close to real life. Close to everyday life.
    pure photography.
    keep going.

    you belong to this rare breed of artists that are not defined one dimensionally…
    Are you a sculptor, a photographer, a writer, a poet , a humorist….????
    i know “who” you are… but you know what?
    i dont know “what” the fuck you are..
    you are a whole “school”, a whole “lane” by yourself…
    i dont know, i have no idea.. but one thing i know for sure…: ” you are way more than one thing “..
    you see life as a WHOLE… as a buddhist… you dont break it down to pieces…
    you sense, you feel,
    you are not a coroner, you are not a scientist, YOU ARE A POET…
    it is so easy for you to understand the circle… no beginning no end,
    a circle… it is so easy for you to “SEE” even with eyes closed…
    senses mean nothing to you… you can listen with the tips of your fingers,
    you can taste with your ears, you can smell with your eyes….
    you are a poet!

  • Panos,

    Once I almost f..k with poet (she :). This is all I have common with poet or poetry.

  • Ho Panos, can’t sleep here (jet lag), now that’s what I call stimulus package, that 52nd st slideshow. Wonderful piece of life and ‘hood girls want to have fun and they can still let the men, at least one, man in to it. I am jealous. They are all gorgeous beautiful, with infectious feminity. Your slideshow, it’s my welcome back to America gift, life is great, anywhere… Photography too!

  • Herve,
    welcome back…
    “stimulus package”………….????
    yep, there is no way to expect from Obama to do everything for us…
    If you want your stimulus check eariler, please,
    take a ride down the 52nd street….
    you wont be disappointed….

  • Warm, rich, inviting, fulfilling.

  • Hey Andrew, I’m late to the discussion here but I’m really stoked to see this project coming along. It’s fascinating that all that old soul is still there in Harlem, still as real as it ever was, still unpretentious and not a tourist circus-show. Your photos are brilliant, both artful and full of story. Look forward to seeing you soon, and seeing this piece in print somewhere…


  • Andrew,

    I am very late to the party… As I have also written on Chris’s essay, I have been away with a no ability to comment for the past weeks… Great top see it come together Andrew and to see that you kept working the topic. I tell you, I was familiar with your work as David used part of the story last year at Look3 and also posted some of your work on Road Trips. The good news is that your work back then was already very strong but the great news is that you have many new shots here that in my view are even stronger than the ones you had back then. Says a lot about the need to keep working and working and working a topic…I particularly like some of the new shots inside the club, closer shots to the artists, the have captured in my view better the life and soul of these Jazzmen… Where does your project stand now? Still energy to keep working it or is this getting to a natural end?? Should continue to push this one until you all get us that book of yours :):):):).

    Hope to see you sometimes. Take care.


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