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Portrait of Thelonious Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge, and Teddy Hill,
Minton’s Playhouse, 1947
Photo by William P. Gottlieb



“Harlem was beautiful then—it was like going to Paris or Heaven.”

—Roy Haynes

The canvas of Harlem is an intense collage depicting the culture and politics of a people that maneuvered its way from the fierce grasp of slavery and segregation into the world of integration. Through this continuous turmoil black jazz musicians are the interpretive chronologists of ragtime, swing, bebop and beyond.


By the end of the 1940s young musicians formerly aligned with Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman and Billy Eckstine were exploring new sounds. Miles Davis came to New York to attend Julliard School of Music but noted, “I learned more in Harlem than I did at Julliard.” His late night lessons took place at Minton’s Playhouse and Clarke Monroe’s Uptown House.


Young musicians progressed from bebop to straight-ahead jazz, implementing swing and bebop. The marriage of dancing and jazz was over. The Savoy Ballroom was demolished in 1958 to make way for city housing projects.


The Audubon and Renaissance Ballrooms and Smalls Paradise featured jazz and Latin bands. Before “Alligator Boogaloo” became his calling card in 1967, alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson played funky jazz ten years prior, with Dr. Lonnie Smith’s Hammond B-3 organ and percussions. 


The 1960s was an explosive period changing the face of America. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. chanted “Black Power” in Harlem and struck the consciousness of every black person in America.


Jazz clubs sprouted like flowers:Club Baron, Count Basie’s, Well’s, the Hide Out, Sugar Ray Robinson’s and the Shalimar (both feature organ trios), Showman’s, Billy’s, Baby Grand, and Mark IV. Wesley Diggs owned Diggs Den, on 141st Street, and Yardbird Suite on 150th Street.


Jack McDuff was house organist at Dude’s (St. Nick’s Pub), while Billie Holiday, James Baldwin and Malcolm X held court in the Lenox Lounge. The Hotel Theresa, integrated in 1940, presented jazz trios. “Harlem was beautiful then—it was like going to Paris or Heaven,” stated drummer Roy Haynes.


Tito Puente “the Latin King” made his mark in the early 1940s. On Harlem’s eastside young Latino musicians offered their interpretation to the music of el barrio. Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, Tito Rodriguez, Joe Cuba, and Ray Barretto popularized Salsa music, an offshoot of the rumba and mambo made famous by Machito. Ray Barretto, a leading percussionist, added Lou Donaldson’s funk with his Latin/jazz rhythms for his hit “El Watusi” inspired by the Boogaloo.  


Harlem became the black cultural capital of the world bringing together writers, poets, artists and musicians. Gloria Lynne, Carmen McRae, Irene Reid, Arthur Prysock, Cannonball Adderley, Gene Ammons, and Max Roach dominated the club scene. Lonnie Youngblood, King Curtis, Stanley Turrentine and Horace Silver played jazz funk.


Miles Davis embraced Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix’s music, infusing rock and electronics with R&B funk melodies. The critics called it “fusion”; it was 1967. 


New York City’s financial crisis during the 1970s and into the late 1980s devastated Harlem leaving very few clubs and a struggling Apollo Theater.


The city resurged in the 1990s. Alvin Reed, Sr. purchased the historical Lenox Lounge in 1988. “Harlem was not the place to be in the late 80s,” stated Reed, Jr. “My father always said Harlem would rise again.”


The legacy of jazz continues to be an improvisational force throughout Harlem in such institutions as The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The City University of New York, and in clubs such as St. Nick’s Pub, Showman’s, Smoke, Bill’s Place, Parlor Entertainment, Londel’s, and many others.


Jazz is alive
Through all these years,
it still thrives

—Nile Graham, Harlem Educational Activities Fund

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