This old dive in Harlem has been shuttered for about as long as it had been open. Yet Minton’s Playhouse will always be known as the cradle of bebop, where the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker jammed into the night.
Efforts to reopen Minton’s Playhouse on West 118th Street, which first closed in the 1970s, have sputtered.
Minton’s Playhouse had a brief resurgence several years ago. The new owner hopes to add Southern cooking on fine china to the listener’s experience.
Money woes long ago left the doors locked and the electric blue marquee on West 118th Street dark.
But on a recent frigid morning, there were signs of life, a steady beat with far-reaching reverberations: hammering inside by construction workers, and a public hearing notice for a liquor license taped to the window.
The applicant is Harlem Jazz Enterprises L.L.C., led by the businessman Richard D. Parsons, who played trumpet growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn; headed two Fortune 500 companies, Citicorp and Time Warner; and has always wanted to open a jazz spot in Harlem. “I love jazz,” Mr. Parsons said in an interview. He recalled the snappy supper clubs of the 1950s and ’60s, when good music and good food made uptown “something special.”
“And you must know the whole story,” he continued. “I took my senior prom date to a place called the Hickory House, and we heard Billy Taylor. And I still remember it. It was my first adventure in being a grown up, to listen to some good jazz.”
Mr. Parsons said such clubs had disappeared. “They have some jazz venues,” he said. “But most of them you wouldn’t go to eat. And the elegance has kind of left the building.” His aim, he said, “is to try to create that feel.”
Recently, there has been a turnover of jazz clubs in Harlem. The popular St. Nick’s Pub, which opened in the ’60s, shut down in 2011 after the police raided it for not having a liquor license. The site of the well-known Lenox Lounge began the new year with a new owner, Richard Notar, a former managing partner in the Nobu restaurant chain. The previous owner of the Lenox Lounge, who has trademark rights to the name, plans to open a new venue on Lenox Avenue.
Efforts to revive Minton’s Playhouse have sputtered.
Henry Minton, a tenor saxophonist, opened the club in the late 1930s on the first floor of the Cecil Hotel. About 40 years later, it closed and the city seized the property from the landlord, Cecil Hotel Corporation, for back taxes. In 1987, the city handed it to the Harlem Community Development Corporation, which made Housing and Services Inc., a nonprofit, low-income housing developer, the landlord. The building became an apartment complex for formerly homeless adults.
In the mid-1990s, a group of investors that included Robert De Niro and the restaurateur Drew Nieporent was interested in the Minton’s Playhouse space, as was Quincy Jones. In 2006, the jazz club impresario Earl Spain, after leaving St. Nick’s Pub, reopened Minton’s, only to see it close in 2010.
The difference this time, Mr. Parsons said, was capital. “That’s the bottom line,” he added. “People have not put capital in upgrading these venues, and making them competitive with other venues in town. There’s no question that people can’t wait for Minton’s to open. But no one is going to sit in a place that essentially is in its down-on-the-heels, 1950s version of itself.”
If all goes according to plan, in June, Mr. Parsons — in concert with the celebrity restaurateur Alexander Smalls, a longtime friend, as executive chef — will unveil two “brother-and-sister restaurants,” sharing one kitchen, along this dull stretch of West 118th Street. Minton’s Playhouse will reopen in its original location, in the hotel’s old dining room; a new dinner club will open on the building’s St. Nicholas Avenue storefront. Mr. Parsons said that for now he was using his own money to make the clubs happen.
Curtis Archer, president of the Harlem Community Development Corporation, said, “After some false starts, we’re really pumped for this to happen.” He added, “There is really nothing there,” referring to that side of St. Nicholas Avenue.
Minton’s will be a jazz house, with echoes of a bygone era.
The menu will feature Mr. Smalls’s brand of Southern revival cooking, served on fine china. And the music will run from smooth, classic jazz to hard-charging bebop after dark. The Cecil will be a lighter, noisier Afro-Asian-American brasserie, Mr. Smalls said, celebrating foods from the African diaspora.
“You have the most important elements in many ways of the African-American experience, — the jazz, the food, our social sensibilities, our creativity, our liveliness,” Mr. Smalls said. “It’s all in this fantastic corner on 118th Street and St. Nick’s.”
The plan is also, with the help of local organizations and nonprofit groups like their landlord, to use the restaurants to develop a hospitality training program, a job-readiness program for young African-American chefs and a community food program. “The important thing to do,” Mr. Smalls said, “is make this business, and make it sustainable, so we can be an instrument in supporting the community.”
For now, Mr. Parsons is already imagining the house band. Now retired, Mr. Parsons, the former chairman of Citicorp and the former chairman and chief executive of Time Warner, is also chairman of the board of the Jazz Foundation of America, which helps support older jazz musicians. “There’s all these old jazz musicians that still live uptown that the Jazz Foundation looks after,” he said. “And these guys, if they could get a gig, they would.
“And, if Alexander gets his groove on with his cooking,” he added, “we can’t miss.”
- NYC Mayor’s Cup Wrestling Championships in Harlem (harlemworldmag.com)
- Lenox Lounge To Close December 31st, 2012 (harlemworldmag.com)
- New Name, New Owner For The Old Lenox Lounge (harlemworldmag.com)