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James Reese Europe and the
Clef Club Orchestra, 1915.
The Schomburg Collection.



“Harlem was the incubator that nurtured black expressionism and allowed musicians innovative freedom to express themselves.”

Harlem served as a major entertainment center in New York from 1900 into the latter part of the twentieth century. It was the incubator that nurtured black expressionism and allowed musicians innovative freedom to express themselves. Despite the stained fabric of racism black musicians discovered this swinging sound called jazz.


From early ragtime to the swing era, it was a multi-cultural mix of improvisations encompassing African polyrhythms, the blues, sanctified gospel, and interpreted European elements of harmony. 

James Reese Europe, one of the great bandleaders of his generation, formed a group of Harlem musicians called the Clef Club; they often played the Manhattan Casino, and were the first black orchestra to perform at Carnegie Hall, in 1912. During WWI, Europe formed the first overseas band for the 369th Regiment of the U.S. Army, nicknamed the “Harlem Hellfighters,” and introduced jazz to France.  


Louis Armstrong debuted at Harlem’s Lafayette Theater in 1923 as a member of Fletcher Henderson’s Big Band. “The band learned a lot from Louis and he learned a lot from us,” Fletcher later stated. Armstrong’s New Orleans technique with its flowing 4/4 style became the pulsating heartbeat of big band swing.


When whites grew bored with cabaret revues they went to the brownstone corridor of 133rd Street. Gin flowed freely during those prohibition days, at clubs like the Nest and Mexico’s. This was the real “swing street,” not 52nd Street. One musician noted, “I couldn’t wait to finish my gig and get to Harlem.” Billie Holiday performed regularly at Pod’s Log Cabin, with house pianist Willie “the Lion” Smith. 


he Apollo Theater opened in 1914 as Hurtig & Seamon’s Burlesque Theatre (for white patrons).  After changing hands many times it reopened in 1934 as the Apollo Theatre with the show “Jazz a la Carte,” featuring saxophonist/arranger Benny Carter and his Orchestra. 


Dancing was a must during the 1930s and 40s “Swing Era.” The line of imaginative bandleaders included Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Chick Webb, with vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, and Billy Eckstine with vocalist/pianist Sarah Vaughan. They were jumping at the Cotton Club (originally the Club Deluxe owned by heavy weight champion Jack Johnson in 1918), Savoy Ballroom, the Elk’s Rendezvous and Small’s Paradise.   


In the 1940s St. Nick’s Pub was called Luckey’s Rendezvous. The original owner Charles Luckeyeth Roberts, pianist/composer, influenced the styles of Willie “the Lion” Smith, James P. Johnson and Duke Ellington. Nightly jams included Art Tatum (house pianist), Sonny Rollins and Charlie Parker.


As America began fighting WWII in 1941, stateside musicians led their charge from bandstands and all-girl bands like The Harlem Playgirls showed off their swinging abilities.


Saxophonist Henry Minton opened Minton’s Playhouse in 1938, at 210 West 118th Street. “You couldn’t get into Minton’s for musicians and instruments,” remembered Mary Lou Williams. Bebop sprouted with its architects Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, along with drummer Kenny Clarke and guitarist Charlie Christian.


The bebop revolution launched Cubop, or Afro-Cuban jazz, a combination of jazz rooted in the Cuban tradition. Dizzy Gillespie, Cuban trumpeter Mario Bauza, and Chano Pozo created this profound movement. The Cuban influence dates back to Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, who incorporated Latin rhythms in his music.    


The late 40s and early 1950s, introduced “cool school,” emphasizing arrangements and “hard bop” with an improvisational perspective. Harlem’s jazz element played a significant role in American culture; it was projected in styles of dancing, speaking, and dressing.



Trumpets a’ tootin’
Drum beatin’
Lindy-hoppin’ grove

—Sammy Murrell, Harlem Educational Activities Fund

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