HANGIN’ AT THE LOUNGE
“My extension of jazz, and local talent adds flavor to the club’s music tradition.”
—Alvin Reed, Sr
When Alvin Reed, Sr. purchased Harlem’s historic night spot the Lenox Lounge in 1988, a total renovation of the entire establishment was suggested to, “make something new and exciting.” Reed, raised in Harlem, never considered such a notion—he wanted to preserve the club’s unique identity with its Art Deco details, long mahogany bar, colorful mosaic floors, and the noted back space the Zebra Room with its white striped walls.
“The most important thing I did for the club was to institute a jazz policy, which played a major role in bringing more patrons into the club to see live jazz,” says Reed. “The original owners only featured local talent. My extension of jazz and local talent adds flavor to the club’s music tradition.” With pumping jazz in the Zebra Room and a crowded bar, the buzz spread that the Lenox Lounge was happening again. Jazz performers to have graced the intimate stage include Branford Marsalis, Monty Alexander, Benny Powell, T.K. Blue, Irene Reid, Eddie Locke and Danny Mixon, to name a few. It has been the backdrop for such films as “American Gangster,” “Malcolm X,” and “The Return of Shaft.”
The Greco family, Italians who migrated from West Virginia, opened the Lenox Lounge in 1939, running it as a speakeasy until 1942 when they finally received a liquor license. The swanky dinner club catering to white patrons opened on November 11, 1942. The black singers and dancers the Haba Haba Girls were the main act. Celebrities like Walter Witchell, Ed Sullivan, and Dorothy Kilgallon were noted regulars. As the late 1950s rolled in the club began catering to a black audience. With the Apollo Theater down the block, the club’s local patrons were rubbing elbows with such performers as Lou Donaldson, Dr. Lonnie Smith and Sammy Davis, Jr. Billie Holiday had a permanent booth in the Zebra Room, and authors James Baldwin and Langston Hughes used it as a writing space.
When Dominick Greco was ready to sell, he placed an ad in the Amsterdam News, “Historical club for sale.” Reed noted, “I am glad I was able to grab onto the Lenox Lounge and bring it back.” During the 1980s Harlem was infested with drugs and some residents were abandoning the black Mecca, but Alvin Reed, Jr. noted, “my father had a lot of insight; he always said Harlem would rise again.”
—by Ron Scott