The Harlem Jazz Club Where the Spirit of Billie Holiday Lives On

Minton’s Playhouse, the birthplace of bebop, still rules over 118th Street.

Billie Holiday at Minton’s Playhouse, 1953. © Herman Leonard Photography LLC

Taking our orders at Minton’s Playhouse, the Harlem jazz club, our French waiter, improbably named Karl Smith, says that when he got to New York, he was determined “to do something very American.” For a Frenchman, nothing could be more American than jazz music and Harlem, and Karl smiles as he looks over at the bandstand where the musicians are tuning up. Then he darts away to get our drinks.

Minton’s! I might have come uptown by subway, but it feels like a kind of time travel. It’s an almost impossibly legendary name. Opened by the saxophone playerHenry Minton in 1938, as part of the Cecil Hotel — now its sister restaurant — on 118th Street, this is where bebop (call it modern jazz) was born and the musical world swung off its axis.

The exterior of Minton’s Playhouse, photographed in 2018. Nina Westervelt

In the early 1940s, a few young guys — Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker among them — invented the new music. Dissonant, complex, impossible to play, bebop was seductive and gorgeous in a cerebral way, and it defined cool. America had entered World War II; musicians were drafted, the big bands decimated; with the country in a somber mood, swing music and the Harlem ballrooms, famous for their wild Lindy-hoppers, were out of fashion. Bebop, this new, modern jazz, was for small clubs like Minton’s where nobody danced, and customers paid serious attention to the music, as they might to Bach. Bebop was about jam sessions and improvisation, and you never knew who would show up at Minton’s; the musicians — Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young — were the celebrities.

(read the full article at the New York Times: T Magazine

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