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Festival Celebrates Harlem's 'Jazz Shrines'

By Jeff Mays | May 10, 2011 12:05pm

By Jeff Mays

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

HARLEM — The way T.S. Monk sees it, Minton's Playhouse has earned the title of jazz shrine. Shifts in how jazz musicians thought about harmony and rhythm happened at the club on West 118th Street that have altered the history of music.

"If those advances didn't take place in places like Minton's, I don't think we would have Parliament Funkadelic, the Beyonces or Michael Jackson's brain expanding the way it did," said Monk, son of legendary jazz pianist Thelonious Monk who frequented Minton's. "The history of Minton's is about the history of ideas."

And Minton's isn't the only place where jazz and music history was made in Harlem. Places such as the Savoy Ballroom, where a battle of the bands would literally shake the floor, and Basie's Lounge, where heavyweights including Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughn came to perform and relax, were once common in Harlem.

Many of those places are now gone, but this week the Apollo Theater, Harlem Stage and Jazzmobile will pay tribute to those spots and Harlem's rich jazz history with the first Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival.

It is a week-long event that looks back but also looks forward, said Apollo Theater Executive Producer Mikki Shepard. The events will recreate the Savoy battle of the bands at the Alahambra Ballroom and the scene at Basie's Lounge at Nectar Wine Bar while looking forward to new and emerging artists.

To make the event as accessible as possible, all 35 events range in price from free to just $10.

"Harlem was just a breaking ground for some of the world's greatest talents," said trombonist, composer and arranger Wycliffe Gordon, who was tapped to recreate the popular jazz variety shows of yesteryear at the Apollo. "There's going to be music, dancing and singing. There's going to be yesterday, today and tomorrow."

Pianist Helen Sung kicked the festival off Monday night with a jam session at Minton's with T.S. Monk on the drums. The trio ran through an energetic rendition of Thelonious Monk's "Evidence" in an evening dedicated to the fierce, all-night jazz jam sessions that the late pianist used to host at the club.

"Jazz is a gift from the African-American community, but when I played in Harlem, unless they brought in a tour bus of people, the room would be empty," said Sung, who's a graduate of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance. "This is good for Harlem's reclamation of its jazz heritage."

Jazz critic Stanley Crouch said the festival can have an impact on the Harlem jazz scene if it is well-attended enough to make the sponsors repeat the event year after year. Crouch, who will host a conversation about jazz at Minton's on Thursday, said cultivating the audience is key.

Monk agreed.

"Right now the reality is that the African-American community is enamored with pop culture," he said. "If this kind of event is sustained it will allow younger players to participate and that will bring the younger people back."

The festival is also taking a piece of history with it, said Robin Bell-Stevens, executive Director & CEO of Jazzmobile. After the festival, Minton's will close for an extensive renovation.

"This will be the last time the original Minton's Playhouse will look the way it did back in the 1930s. If you want to see it, now is the time," said Bell-Stevens.

For artists like vocalist Queen Esther, the festival is "an event whose time has come."

She will perform "Monkey Junk" at Lenox Lounge Tuesday night which will combine newly unearthed work of Zora Neal Hurston with some of the lesser known songs of Billie Holiday. The affordability and accessibility of the festival combined with its location in Harlem, makes the event historic, she said.

"It's going to be like it was way back in the day," said Queen Esther.