The block of West 133rd Street in Harlem between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Malcolm X boulevards is sacred to jazz lovers and devotees of New York’s Black cultural history.
In the 1920s and ’30s, it was a mecca for jazz in New York City—and also a hotbed of illicit alcohol consumption during the Prohibition era. Harlem was dotted with nightclubs and speakeasies like Edith’s Clam House and Mexico’s, and this stretch of West 133rd was home to one of the densest concentrations.
This particular block was also a safe haven for Black performers seeking a place to eat and relax after a show. Black musicians who played at the Lenox Lounge and the Cotton Club, for instance, were not permitted to hang with the Harlem venues’ exclusively white patrons. And so players and singers made their way to West 133rd to enjoy some jazz and break bread with peers.
West 133rd is also hallowed ground because of the history behind one particular four-story brownstone. It’s the narrow building at number 148, on the south side of the street. In the 1920s it housed Tillie’s Chicken Shack, a restaurant and nightclub. In the ’30s it was Monette’s Supper Club, where a 17-year-old Billie Holiday was heard by producer John Hammond, who arranged her first recording session.
In 2004, after the townhouse was bought by the accomplished bebop saxophonist Bill Saxton, he and his wife turned the parlor into a jazz club, describing it as “Harlem’s only authentic speakeasy.” They named it Bill’s Place.
For sixteen years, Bill’s Place served as a beloved outpost. Tiny and cramped, it had been set up to look more like a jazz aficionado’s living room than an actual club. Visitors were welcomed by a picture of Holiday on the building exterior, hanging above a sign reading “Billie Holiday was discovered here in 1933” and another plaque reading, “Bill’s Place Speakeasy, Dr. Theda Palmer & Bill Saxton 2004.”
Most nights, club manager Joseph Landon was the person collecting a $20 cover charge, ushering guests in past black-and-white photos of Saxton holding his saxophone and a color photograph of Miles Davis. On Friday and Saturday nights, tourists and Harlemites would crowd into the tiny space to hear Saxton and his Harlem All Stars band.
Then the music stopped. In mid-March of 2020, Bill’s Place—like all other live music venues—was forced to shut down when COVID-19 hit.
Now jazz clubs and other New York performance spaces have been given a bit of a lifeline, with the state permitting limited-capacity shows to resume April 2. But with audiences limited to 33 percent of the house, clubs may not find the easing of restrictions will be enough to allow them to reopen. “It doesn’t make financial sense for the Blue Note to open with only 66 seats for shows,” Steven Bensusan, president of the Blue Note Entertainment Group, whose New York club is on West Third Street in Greenwich Village, told the New York Times.
Some club owners also wonder whether reopening in any form makes sense at this stage of the pandemic. “It seems to me to be premature, it’s jumping the gun,” Deborah Gordon of the Village Vanguard told the NYCity News Service. “Why not wait two, three months until more people are vaccinated?”
The jazz scene’s agony only kept escalating throughout the past year. Countless giants were lost to the virus, in New York and all over the world: critic Stanley Crouch, musicians including pianist Ellis Marsalis Jr., trumpeter Wallace Roney, French pianist Claude Bolling and Cameroon icon Manu Dibango to name just a few.
The casualties also included many struggling New York venues. In early December, Jazz Standard on East 27th Street in Manhattan announced on Twitter that the beloved club would close its doors permanently. The iconic Birdland was on the brink of suffering the same fate. In January, owner Gianni Valentini told WABC-TV that the Theater District club would shut down if it didn’t raise at least $250,000. As of March, Birdland’s gofundme raised more than $400,000, far surpassing that goal.
This is the story of how small clubs have coped with the shutdown in New York—where the jazz scene was birthed a century ago by an earlier pandemic—and how they might find their way back.
When silence ruledAs the pandemic first emerged as a threat, suddenly there was no music coming from the parlor at Bill’s Place, no line of customers outside waiting to get in on weekends. The club, whose intimacy was part of its great charm, became seen as the kind of place to be feared: A tightly packed venue that would seem to be a perfect breeding ground for the novel coronavirus.
“It’s just been awful,” Theda Palmer Saxton told the News Service in October, as many more weeks of uncertainty loomed. “We don’t think that in the next six months or nine months things are going to be anything like normal.”
They weren’t. Jazz clubs stood out as among the most potentially unsafe of all performance spaces. Small clubs, especially, are generally crowded spaces. They can have poor ventilation. Tables are jammed right next to one another. They are much more intimate than Broadway theaters and larger concert spaces. There’s no intervening orchestra pit or long distance to the stage as artists sing and blow hard into instruments. Most clubs could seat fewer than 100 customers.
In addition, jazz fans tend to be older, and more vulnerable to COVID-19. Given the music’s cornerstone position in the city’s Black arts culture, the disproportionate toll the virus has taken on Black New Yorkers merely compounded a sense of terminal crisis.
Every independent jazz venue in the city faced meltdown—from the Village Vanguard, the small prestigious club in Greenwich Village, to Smalls, a gritty basement underground club in the Village, and The Jazz Gallery, a distinguished nonprofit in Chelsea.
More than just audience access to jazz performances was at stake when the clubs went silent. An entire jazz culture was placed at risk.
The essential role of clubs
Jazz clubs are especially crucial to the form because they are spaces where artists are trained and tutored.
“That’s where musicians learn their craft,” said author David Hajdu, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism who has written extensively on jazz, popular music and culture. “It’s where they learn their art. So it’s like an educational institution as well as an institution of presentation.”
Clubs are where jazz musicians start out and find their voices, Hadju notes, where they learn how to play cooperatively with other players and how to read an audience.
For Linda Briceño, a Grammy-winning Latin-music producer who came to New York as an aspiring trumpeter eight years ago, clubs are simply irreplaceable as places to learn.
“The first thing that the bigger musicians always recommended to me when I moved to New York was, you gotta hang,” she said. “You gotta get out there, get your ass kicked by musicians in jam sessions, and try to get better, learn more repertoire. Mostly those things happen in the clubs. It’s also kind of essential for musicians to go and see live music in order to get some inspiration, and create work that is relevant to the present.”
Birth of the New York scene
Early in the 20th century, there was no such thing as a jazz scene in New York City. Jazz clubs were found mainly in New Orleans, the southern port where the genre was born. Another out-of-control virus—manifesting as the influenza pandemic of 1918—nearly wiped out the new musical form before it got fully established.
In the early 1900s, New Orleans was the epicenter of this uniquely American and Black creation. The city was home to legendary cats like Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. Then the flu pandemic hit the U.S.
This is a portion of Louis Armstrong’s typed manuscript for his autobiography “Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans” in which he writes about the impact of the Spanish flu pandemic on New Orleans in 1918-1919, which claimed 3,362 lives in that city. Louis was 17. Stay safe, friends. pic.twitter.com/KcKKfpyuPt
— Louis Armstrong (@ArmstrongHouse) April 11, 2020
Between Sept. 8, 1918, and March 15, 1919, nearly one percent of the New Orleans population died of influenza-related complications—about twice the national rate. Clubs and music halls were shut down. As it turned out, that helped jazz catch on in northern cities, as struggling musicians began to make their way to cities such as Chicago and New York. They weren’t just fleeing the pandemic: They were also looking to escape the vitriolic racism of the American South.
Jazz began to flourish outside New Orleans for the first time. The music found exceptionally quick growth in the Roaring ’20s abandon of Harlem. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship between a freewheeling musical culture and an anything-goes, ambition-driven city.
During the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural flowering that started in that era, jazz musicians found their footing at clubs like the world-famous Cotton Club on West 125th Street. Swing Street—the nickname for the West 133rd block that would become home to Bill’s Place—was swarming with artists and writers, including the composer Duke Ellington and widely influential Langston Hughes. It was also a sweet escape for black musicians during segregation. The Cotton Club, where Black musicians would play for white audiences, featured bands led by the likes of the legendary showman Cab Calloway and the great Ellington.
By the 1980s and ’90s, Harlem was no longer the only focal point for jazz in Manhattan. Important clubs like Blue Note and Smalls began popping up in Greenwich Village as well, where unknown artists searching for a break could perform. In the mid-to-late ’90s, venues like Jazz Standard and The Jazz Gallery started opening in Chelsea. The nonprofit Gallery—described by The New York Times as “the most imaginatively booked jazz club in New York”—typically hosted around 400 shows a year, able to push through financially through a combination of admissions fees and government funding.
Jazz maintained a respected niche well into the new century’s first two decades, even as rap and hip-hop had long since eclipsed it in popularity. Then its proud 100-year history of survival and adaptation came to a screeching halt early in 2020.
Club managers found themselves stumped for a way to keep the music alive.
Survival takes center stage
Arta Jēkabsone performing for The Jazz Gallery’s “Lockdown Sessions” in July.
Large swaths of the worlds of business, education and the arts have made it through the pandemic on the strength of online video conferencing. Jazz—an art dependent upon musicians’ side-by-side improvisation and the intimacy craved by fans—has struggled to reap the benefits of live streaming.
Quite a few music clubs simply went dark. In December, Jazz Standard announced that it would be closing its doors permanently. The Bitter End also shut down and the Greenwich Village club posted two GoFundMe campaigns. The first $12,000 was earmarked for payments to laid-off staff, owner Paul Rizzo told Bloomberg News. The second campaign brought in more than $100,000. According to Rizzo, even this money may not be enough to keep the club in business. It will go towards eventual reopening costs such as insurance, maintaining a sprinkler system and restocking liquor. Club owners also worry that even as things do start opening up again, patrons won’t be ready to come back in big numbers.
Streaming was a success elsewhere in the jazz world. “Live Streaming at the Vanguard” takes place at the renowned venue on Seventh Avenue South, premiering on its website every Friday and Saturday with an occasional special solo concert on Tuesdays. For the series, the Vanguard brought back some of the musicians who frequented the club for years, such as Sullivan Fortner, Jason Moran and the Bandwagon, the Ravi Coltrane Quartet and Tom Harrell. To watch a virtual performance, you have to pay $10.
Deborah Gordon, whose father, Max, opened the club in 1935, began working as co-owner with her mother, Lorraine, after his death in 1989. She has invested in camera equipment and contracted with streaming companies to try to weather the pandemic with online performances.
“We’re not doing it because it’s a great financial model,” Gordon said in an October interview. “Really, it’s just to say, we’re here, we still exist, we’re not gone.”
Now, even after the announcement that limited live performances can take place starting next month, Gordon doesn’t think opening the Vanguard to the public is a good idea.
“I don’t care what the state says. We’ll stay our course as it deems fit,” she said after the March 3 announcement from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
In June, Smalls released pay-to-view performances online every evening. Musicians included Jeremy Pelt and George Cables, along with Smalls regulars such as the Jon Beshay Quartet and the Corey Wallace DUBtet. Owner Spike Wilner told the Times that only an engineer and a manager have been in the club with the performers. Wilmer said streaming was made possible mainly because of a $25,000 donation from Billy Joel to the SmallsLIVE Foundation, supplemented by many smaller donations (there’s a minimum of $10.)
The Jazz Gallery was fortunate enough to have the resources to quickly transition last April, starting with a “Lockdown Sessions” live stream. It also has hosted virtual happy hours for musicians and guests to converse and connect. While members have paid a suggested donation of $5, others pay $20 to see a performance. The Gallery has broadened its audience beyond New York, adding 15,000 new viewers since March 2020.
“The sense of isolation is so strong, Lockdown Sessions bring people together in a way that is substantial and intimate,” Rio Sakairi, its artistic director, said in October.
Latvian jazz artist Arta Jēkabsone has performed frequently at the Gallery, both in person and now virtually. Prior to the shutdown, she was about to graduate from the School of Jazz and Contemporary Music at The New School and was preparing a multidisciplinary performance at the Gallery as her capstone project.
“I remember, like, two days after I played at the Jamaica Center, [Rio] just texted me,” Jēkabsone recalled. “She was like, ‘I think we might have to postpone until September.’ People were thinking, ‘Oh, probably it’s gonna work out and it’s gonna be like a short pandemic situation. Turns out it wasn’t.”
For a few months last fall, the Gallery hosted live performances. With the blessing of health authorities, it opened its doors to eight audience members at a time, with a total of only 16 people allowed at a time, including performers and staff. (In pre-COVD days, the Gallery could hold 75 people.)
Sakairi has worried that streaming does not fully measure up to in-person performances.
In a live performance, she said, “when everything lines up great, you feel that the room is levitating. We are never able to capture that feeling on live stream. You never get to experience the artist in the way you’re supposed to experience them. There is a little bit of a gap between what happens and the perception of what happens.”
The weekly live stream and “In Conversation” with Miguel Zenon will continue. But Sakairi told the News Service she still does not think the Gallery will have an in-person audience until May, weeks after restrictions ease on April 2.
The next notes
For clubs hanging by a thread, the everyday reality has been one of struggle.
The Saxtons have been fighting to keep jazz alive. They have have been collaborating with Yardbird Entertainment to host virtual concerts live streamed from the speakeasy. Bill and his band played a virtual concert that was available for streaming during all of Black History Month in February.
“Nobody’s ever experienced nothing like this before,” he said during a rehearsal day in October. “We’re still trying to adjust even as we speak. We were thinking of opening up the club [again] and then the numbers went up in Brooklyn.”
Theda Palmer-Saxton said they had expected to have been back open by February. Now, she said, she doesn’t know what to believe about the state’s loosening of live-performance restrictions slated for next month.
“They keep pulling back dates on a regular basis,” Palmer Saxton said. “No one knows anything anymore.”
The Saxtons will continue the live streams from Bill’s Place and don’t plan on opening to guests anytime soon. “The jazz world is pretty much virtual at this point,” she said. “That’s just what is.”
Immersed in a scene overcome with a half-time feel, club owners and artists will have to keep doing what jazz musicians have always been most gifted at: persevering, taking challenges in stride—and improvising.