MINTON’S PLAYHOUSE STILL BOPPING

"At 17 years old and a member of Lionel Hampton’s big band I was always intimidated when I sat in with those great musicians.”

—Benny Powell, trombonist

Jazz in Harlem was more than just a hip sound; it was a religion, a way of life with its own language and style of dress. Improvisational worship took place at the jazz Mecca, Minton’s Playhouse. It was the holy ground, where musicians shook the heavens until dawn, and jazz heads prayed they would never stop.

 

Tenor saxophonist Henry Minton opened Minton’s Playhouse in 1938, at 210 West 118th Street, on the first floor of the Cecil Hotel. The club, a musicians’ haven, came into fruition when segregation ruled the land and black folks persevered for freedom. At Minton’s the ills of black folks were discussed on the bandstand where young black musicians ruled. Through their spirited conversations, rhythmic ballads, and rebelliousness in their fiery bodacious improvisations, patrons felt their pain.

 

Minton’s jam sessions included the era’s great jazzmen Roy Eldridge, “Hot Lips” Page, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Chu Berry and Don Byas. In 1940, Minton gave managerial duties to former bandleader Teddy Hill. He organized the dynamic house band of pianist Thelonious Monk, trumpeter Joe Guy, bassist Nick Fenton, drummer Kenny Clarke, and frequent guests Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Christian.

 

“At 17 years old and a member of Lionel Hampton’s big band I was always intimidated when I sat in with those great musicians,” said Benny Powell, trombonist. “Sitting in with those guys was no joke—they were serious.”

 

The club was an exploratory workshop where patrons had an opportunity to see these talented musicians practice during the day and jam at night. Through these sessions a new music called Bebop evolved, its main architects being Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, drummer Kenny Clarke and guitarist Charlie Christian.

 

Delores Martin, a former barmaid stated, “Performers appearing at the Apollo Theater stayed upstairs in the Cecil Hotel, and many of them stopped by, including the 1950s group the Olympics and Sam Cooke.”

 

Minton’s thrived for over three decades before its closing in 1974. After a long silence it was reopened on May 19, 2006. Earl Spain, the proprietor, renamed the totally renovated club Uptown Jazz Lounge at Minton’s Playhouse. “It’s a great feeling owning such a famous club,” said Spain. Minton’s has opened to a new generation of musicians hoping to forge traditional and uncharted paths like their innovative predecessors demonstrated within these hallowed walls.

—by Ron Scott