By Jessica Ramakrishnan
Saxophonist Bill Saxton jams with fellow musicians at his jazz salon, Bill's Place, which is located in the same Harlem brownstone where a young Billie Holiday played her first New York gigs.
At the Sunday brunch jam session at EZ’s Woodshed, a cafe in Harlem, a young female singer dressed in a bronze lacy dress and a black mantilla-style scarf belts out a jazzed-up version of “My Favorite Things” accompanied by a pianist.
She veers slightly off-key at times, but the attention of the diverse audience of young, old, black and white doesn’t waver. They are sitting on metal tractor seat chairs, and most are munching fried chicken and salad from a makeshift buffet.
“This is what ‘woodshedding’ is about,” said Carl McCarden, the so-called “cultural ambassador” of EZ’s, referring to the way jazz musicians hone their craft through intense practice. “It’s not polished, but it’s real.”
Many jazz greats have played in clubs and speakeasies in New York City’s historic uptown neighborhood of Harlem. In Harlem’s heyday, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson played at the likes of the Lafayette Theatre, Connie’s Inn and the Hoofers Club on “Swing Street,” as 133rd Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues was billed.
Those clubs, of course, are long gone, but a tradition of improvisational jazz performance is building for those in the know. While tour buses are big on historic sites like the Lenox Lounge and Cotton Club, a hidden Harlem exists beyond the nostalgia trail. At EZ’s Woodshed and other lesser-known venues—publicized largely through word-of-mouth between jazz aficionados and local residents—a new scene with links to Harlem’s creative past is growing.
Harlem is best known for the Harlem Renaissance, a period of creative flowering that lasted until the 1940s. Although many artists continued to work in the neighborhood, its reputation as a jazz hot bed diminished in the subsequent decades, as new musical genres gained favor and Harlem fell into a steady decline.
But Harlem has seen an economic revival and along with it, gentrification. Among the new additions to the neighborhood include upscale restaurants, retail stores and even a caviar bar. Alongside these establishments, entrepreneurs are trying to showcase a more personal, authentic side to Harlem in its musical traditions.
What began with gospel tours and pilgrimages to the famed Apollo Theater is now big business as tour buses make the neighborhood a key stop on their routes. While it is difficult to know how many tourist dollars are spent in Harlem, the neighborhood attracted 2.5 million visitors to the summer Harlem Week festival, according to the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce. This year it expects 3.5 million visitors at the festival, which runs from June to October.
EZ’s Woodshed was opened last January by Gordon Polatnick, a jazz tour guide in Harlem since 1997. The club is on Seventh Avenue between 131st and 132nd Streets, a stone’s throw from the site of the legendary “Tree of Hope,” which musicians rubbed for good luck.
At the Sunday jazz brunch, the crowd is eclectic. Among the patrons are young children, elderly churchgoers stopping in after service, hip younger residents and European tourists who happened to chance upon the storefront location.
The club consists of two rooms with custom-made wood interiors. In the back room, jam sessions take place every evening until 8 p.m. Among the musicians who have played EZ’s are pianist Eric Reed and pianist and vocalist Rudel Drears.
Nearby on the Swing Street stretch is the American Legion Post. Energetic impromptu jazz jam sessions have been taking place for decades at this underground club frequented by veterans.
Farther north on Edgecombe Avenue in a building once occupied by many Harlem Renaissance luminaries, including Count Basie, is Marjorie Eliot’s Parlor Entertainment.
For more than a decade, Eliot, herself a singer, has held Sunday sessions in the living room of her apartment. Sitting on folded chairs and crammed in hallways, visitors take in highly spirited performances and leave money in the tip jar before they leave.
Also on Swing Street is Bill’s Place, another new salon-style venue. Opened in January by Bill Saxton, the locally born and bred saxophonist, the brownstone has history that stretches back to the Harlem Renaissance.
Every Friday Saxton and his quartet play two sets starting at 10 p.m. in the ground floor's 1920s parlor, which can hold up to 45 people.
Malcolm Punter, a 36-year-old asset manager who was born in Harlem Hospital and grew up in the neighborhood, believes that the new venues could represent the start of a new jazz revival.
“I grew up hearing my parents talk about Minton’s Playhouse, Connie’s and other legendary clubs,” said Punter, a regular at EZ’s. “But my generation missed out on all that.”