Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
A recent newspaper article on the reopening of Minton’s Playhouse, the New York City birthplace of Bebop in the early 1940’s, reminded me of the excellent chapter on the subject in Mike Hennessey’s biography of drummer Kenny Clarke – Klook: The Story of Kenny Clarke [Pittsburgh: The University of Pittsburgh Press, 1990].
I thought it might be fun to combine a feature that describes what it was like at Minton’s during the formative years of the style of Jazz now known as Bebop with a description of the current plans to reopen the club almost 75 years later.
At the end of these essays, you’ll find a video homage to Bebop with an audio track that features a 1949 version of Confirmation, a Charlie Parker original, on which he is joined by Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, John Lewis on piano, Al McKibbon on bass and Joe Harris on drums.
Minton's – The Beginning
© -Mike Hennessey, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“The part played by Minton's Playhouse in shaping the course of jazz history has been abundantly documented; but it was such a vital and significant chapter in the personal story of Kenny Clarke, and so central to his role as a key innovator, that I make no apology for recapitulating here one of the revelatory, true stories in jazz - a true story which has become a veritable legend and, like all good legends, has been decorated with a good deal of fanciful and subjective embellishment.
Minton's Playhouse was a shabby, unprepossessing room -part of the Hotel Cecil building - on
Harlem's 118th Street between Seventh Avenue and St Nicholas, which, in 1940, did not offer any outward sign of becoming a research and development centre for young musicians intent on taking jazz in dramatically new directions. Yet Minton's was to become the crucible in which many of the elements of the new jazz were fused.
Henry Minton, the man who gave the venue its name, was a former saxophone player who became the first black delegate to Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians. He was, by all accounts, a diligent representative of the musicians he served, and when he opened the Playhouse, he did it to provide his musician friends with a place to play and a place to eat.
Minton loved his food and was no mean cook. Initially the Playhouse was largely patronized by the more elderly of the neighborhood’s citizens, but when, in 1940, Minton appointed Teddy Hill as manager of the club, a new era began. Hill, who had fronted his own band since 1932, had become disenchanted with band-leading because of the rapacious habits of certain impresarios and he was only too willing to assume the responsibility of booking the musicians for the Playhouse. When he took over, the band in residence was a mainstreamish dixieland outfit led by Albert 'Happy' Caldwell, a tenor saxophonist from
Teddy decided to replace
and, ironically, the man he picked to assemble a new group for the club was the man he had fired from his band a year or so earlier for being a wayward non-conformist: Kenny Clarke. The poetic justice of this was firmly emphasized by Klook when he recounted the story in the ensuing years. Kenny also said, in an interview with Francois Postif, that it was Dizzy Gillespie who was largely responsible for his being hired by Hill. 'Dizzy liked the way I played and recommended me - and Teddy had a great admiration for Diz.’ Caldwell
Kenny took over the musical direction of Minton's early in 1941:
It was a great success right from the beginning, because it was the ideal place for us. It had a bar, a back room with veiled lights, a podium for the musicians and little tables for the guests.
To begin with, I put together a quartet. I had wanted to have Dizzy on trumpet, but he was with Cab C
alloway's band. So I hired another trumpet player who'd been with us in the Hill band: Joe Guy. He was twenty years old and playing a little bit like Dizzy. In the Hill band Dizzy had played both lead and solos, but when he wanted to save his lip, Joe would take some of his solos and almost unconsciously, I guess, he copied Dizzy's style.
Kenny's first choice for the piano chair was Sonny White - a man he described at the time as his favourite
piano player and a very close friend. New York
I loved Sonny and the way he played and he was such a sweet person. We were so close he used to tell people that we were cousins. But Sonny at the time was Billie Holiday's accompanist and he loved that job so much that he didn't want to leave it. He was a tremendous piano player in the style of his idol, Teddy Wilson.
The man who got the gig on piano was twenty-four-year-old Thelonious Sphere Monk, who had previously been working with gospel groups on the church circuit. On bass, Kenny hired Nick Fenton, on the recommendation of his friend Joe Guy. Nick, a former violinist, appealed to Kenny because he had a flawless sense of time. 'I thought it was a pretty good combo/ Kenny said, 'and as we started working together it emerged that we all had much the same idea of the direction in which we wanted to take the music.’
Minton's had long been a favourite haunt of musicians and singers because of the twin attractions of its authentic soul food and its policy of welcoming sitters-in, and Kenny felt that the quartet could provide a perfect musical foundation for visiting soloists.
On Monday nights it was Teddy Hill's custom to offer an open-house welcome to members of the cast of the current show at the celebrated Apollo Theatre on nearby
125th Street, and they would come to feast on ham hocks, fried chicken, grits, black-eyed peas, barbecued ribs, hot biscuits and good bonded whiskey. They would also come to listen to the most stimulating and adventurous jazz music to be heard anywhere in at that time. New York
Though Teddy Hill, the bandleader, had been outraged at the unorthodox indiscretions of Dizzy and Klook, Teddy Hill the manager was delighted to make Minton's a nursery for the young lions who wanted to push back the frontiers of jazz.
Ralph Ellison wrote, in a 1959 article for Esquire,
It was Hill who established the Monday Celebrity Nights and who allowed the musicians free rein to play whatever they liked. Perhaps no other club, except Clark Monroe's Uptown House, was so permissive, and with the hospitality extended to musicians of all schools, the news spread swiftly. Minton's became the focal point for musicians all over the country.
At the beginning, musicians dropped in just to listen - because the Kenny Clarke Quartet was pioneering some new ideas. Former members of Teddy Hill's band were regular visitors, as were the musicians from the bands which played the Apollo.
Minton's was open from until four in the morning and Teddy Hill's open-house policy on Monday nights - an off-day for most musicians - was introduced on the basis that musicians who were allowed to come and eat for nothing would also be ready to play for nothing. And it proved to be a most successful policy. After supper, musicians would go to the bar to drink - paying this time - and listen to the music. And they would go up and jam with the quartet - if they were up to it.
When the Jay McShann band was playing at the Apollo, its twenty-year-old alto saxophonist started to be a regular customer. His name was Charlie Parker. He would come and eat fried chicken and then sit in. Recalling the arrival of Parker on the scene, Kenny Clarke said:
He was absolutely marvelous. Personally I never heard him play badly. And whenever we had any free moments, Monk and I would go to the Apollo, or to
's Uptown House at 133rd Street Monroe and Seventh Avenue, to catch him. He played alto at that time like Lester Young played tenor - and we enjoyed that very much because it was a higher sound, more penetrating. Being in , I think Charlie picked up a lot from Lester, particularly in the rhythmic sense - though he went a little further musically. Kansas City
It was the same with Dizzy and Roy Eldridge. Dizzy had started out as a disciple of
's, but he wanted to make the style more musical, to put more music in the rhythm things than Roy did. Monk was also moving in that direction - so we formed a little clique, all working towards the same goals. Roy
Charlie Parker had been jamming regularly at
's Uptown House - working for tips - since he was eighteen. When he returned to his native Monroe in 1939, he was hired by Jay McShann, with whose band he worked until July 1942. Parker was not a regular at Minton's in the early days of Klook's residency. But he came very much into the picture later - because Klook quickly recognized Bird as a musician of formidable stature with fresh and fearlessly innovative ideas totally concordant with his own. Kansas City
Talking to Ross Russell about his first impressions of Charlie Parker, Klook said:
Bird was playing stuff we'd never heard before. He was into figures I thought I'd invented for drums. He was twice as fast as Lester Young and into harmony Lester hadn't touched. Bird was running the same way as we were, but he was way out ahead of us. I don't think he was aware of the changes he had created. It was his way of playing jazz, part of his own experience . . . We laid a few dollars on him and got him to move from Monroe's down to Minton's. Teddy Hill refused to put another man on the payroll, so we decided to pool our money and give him an allowance. I invited him to the pad I shared with Doc West, another drummer and a good cook. We set him up to meals. He could really eat. He was thin and half-starved. He was trying to live off the kitty at
The revolutionary task force was now complete and it was in the hyper-stimulating atmosphere for which Minton's became famous that, night after night, Kenny Clarke further developed the techniques with which he had started to experiment some ten years earlier.
Charlie Christian had been the first sitter-in to be co-opted into the sanctified inner circle of Minton's. He became a virtual resident of the Playhouse. In a little more than a year, the genius of this self-effacing, soft-spoken guitarist from
had propelled him from relative obscurity to stardom with the Benny Goodman band. According to Kenny Clarke, Charlie was crazy about the Minton's rhythm section. The Playhouse provided an atmosphere and a freedom that was a complete contrast to working with the Goodman band and reading arrangements all the time. In that band he wasn't able to play the things he really wanted to play. At Minton's there was nothing written - everything was free and improvised, and Charlie was in his element. He was a very shy person and was not very close to the musicians in Benny's band. He didn't know Oklahoma and so he found Minton's a very welcome spot where he could relax and play what he wanted. 'Most of the time he just kept his amplifier in the Playhouse so that he could play with us every chance he got,' Kenny said. New York
It was Charlie Christian, said Kenny (quoted in Leonard Feather's From Satchmo to Miles), who first used the word 'bebop' to describe the musical style that was being fashioned night after night at Minton's. Kenny had an enormously high regard for Christian and he would probably have become a full-time member of the group had he not succumbed to chronic tuberculosis in February 1942 at the tragically young age of twenty-five.
And it was Charlie Christian who helped Kenny Clarke to create one of the first of the bebop originals. Kenny has recalled in several interviews how he and Christian were at the
on Douglas Hotel St Nicholas Avenue one day, visiting a friend who played ukulele.
I fooled around with the uke for a bit and then Charlie took it out of my hand and showed me how it was possible to make all kinds of chords 'by just stretching your fingers right'. He handed back the ukulele and I started experimenting. I got an idea that sounded good and went up to my room in the hotel and wrote it out. I called it 'Fly Right'. Later Monk helped develop the number and Joe Guy took the manuscript to Cootie Williams. Cootie had Bob McRae make an arrangement of it. Cootie used to play it at the
Ballroom. It became his theme. He recorded it on Savoy . Columbia
In From Satchmo to Miles, Leonard Feather observes,
It was typical of the prevailing resistance to change that a recording of 'Fly Right' by Williams's band was not released until almost thirty years later after a researcher discovered it. Meanwhile Clarke had recorded it with a small group of his own in 1946 (for Charles Delaunay's Swing label) under its other title, 'Epistrophy'.
Identifying the precise authorship and evolution of licks, which became lines, which became compositions, is sometimes a complex exercise, as in the case of 'Salt Peanuts'. French pianist Henri Renaud recalls a comparable tangle in connection with another Minton's opus:
In the early sixties I was playing with Kenny and Jimmy Gourley in the Blue Note. One night I started to play a tune I had heard on an Al Haig Prestige recording - 'Opus Caprice'. After the first few bars Kenny gave a big grin of recognition and said, 'Ah! "Pagin' Doctor Christian"! That was a piece Charlie wrote which we used to play at Minton's.'
Nowadays it is universally known as 'Rhythm-a-ning' and associated with Thelonious Monk. I once asked Al Haig where the tune came from and he said it was a traditional children's song. The first four bars of the song feature in Mary Lou Williams's arrangement of 'Walkin' and Swingin" for the Andy Kirk orchestra, recorded for Decca in 1936. Mary Lou was one of the first to discover Charlie Christian and it was she who recommended him to John Hammond.
It seems to me very possible that Thelonious Monk, who was the resident pianist at Minton's, used the first four bars of 'Pagin' Doctor Christian' in 'Rhythm-a-ning'. Klook's spontaneous reaction when I played the passage in the Blue Note that night showed that he recognized it as a Charlie Christian theme.
Another indispensable - and irrepressible - sitter-in with the modern-jazz minstrels of Minton's was, of course, John Birks Gillespie who, in 1941, was relieved of his duties in the Cab Galloway Orchestra after a stormy altercation with the leader - the famous spitball incident which is fully chronicled in Dizzy's autobiography, To be or not to Bop.
Dizzy became a regular at Minton's where the nightly jam sessions, as he says, 'were seedbeds for our new, modern style of music'. After acknowledging Thelonious Monk's contribution to the bebop revolution in the harmonic and spiritual areas, Dizzy says:
It was Kenny Clarke who set the stage for the rhythmic content of our music. He was the first one to make accents on the bass drum at specific points in the music. He'd play 4/4 very softly, but the breaks, and the accents on the bass drum you could hear. Like, we called them dropping bombs.
The Minton's stage was no place for pretenders or fledgling musicians of a nervous disposition, because a most harrowing fate awaited those who failed to measure up: the withering, corrosive scorn of Thelonious Monk (so, at least, the legend has it). The men from Minton's were very much an elite corps who protected themselves against unwelcome sitters-in by working out themes that were too complex and intricate for run-of-the-mill players.
Recalling the Minton's era, Kenny Clarke said,
We didn't really play bebop then. You know how people in show business always put labels on things - just to sell them more. I can understand that - but we never wanted to be called beboppers, because what we did, we invented tunes and chords so that people we didn't want to play with us just couldn't get up on the bandstand. That's why we did that. Well, we had musicians from all over
wanting to get in on the act and eighty per cent of them just couldn't play our music. And we sure didn't want to sit and sweat and back up somebody who wasn't doing anything to inspire us. It was important to our enjoyment of the music - and its development - only to have people playing with us who fitted in with what we were doing. So when we had unwelcome sitters-in we used to play different chords and things to discourage them. New York
Now, in the blues, they would maybe play four chords; Monk would play twenty chords and completely lose them. Sometimes he would say to them, 'Man, get off the stand - you're not playing right.' So the guy would say, 'But I thought we were playing the blues' - and Monk would scowl and say, 'That's not the way we play the blues here; we changed all that.' Monk could be very snide when he wanted to be - nothing fazed him. He'd say anything to anybody if he thought it right. So people were always excusing him - because he could be very outspoken. That's the way he was. If he had got his face broken every time he did something like that he would have been dead at twenty-one. Sometimes he was just plain insulting. 'Oh, man/ he'd say in disgust, 'you just can't play.' That was the way he would eliminate them. It was really a joke.
And quoted by Ross Russell in Bird Lives!, Kenny explained:
Pretty soon Minton's got to be a bad place for older cats. Dizzy began coming up regularly and that gave us the four key instruments - trumpet, alto, piano and drums. That, plus a good bass, was the band of the future. One night, after weeks of trying, Dizzy cut Roy Eldridge. It was one night out of many, but it meant a great deal. We closed ranks after that. To make things tough for outsiders, we invented difficult riffs. Some of our tunes used the 'A' part of one tune, like 'I Got Rhythm', but the channel came from something else, say 'Honeysuckle Rose'. The swing guys would be completely hung up on the channel. They'd have to stop playing.
Illinois Jacquet has recalled how Monk used to play in fiendish keys to discourage the less gifted musicians from staying too long on the stand, and it seems more than likely that such devices were employed in order to keep the music on a high and innovative level. In a 1968 interview with Crescendo contributor Les Tomkins, Kenny Clarke said:
Sometimes when we kept other players off the stand by deviating from the bar lines and so forth, it was done purposely and maliciously, I must say. But things like that must be done in order to accomplish a purpose you believe in. A great change had to be brought about. Jazz had undoubtedly reached stagnation point and it needed to move on to something more valuable and worthwhile - something comprehensive, but technically complicated - to raise standards of musicianship. That was the purpose entirely.
Reading the stories about the unceremonious treatment meted out to visiting musicians who couldn't quite cut it, it always seemed to me that this was somewhat out of character for Kenny Clarke, whose concern was always to help and encourage musicians to develop and to build their confidence. I have heard many stories about the way in which he gave young players and singers a chance to sit in with him, sometimes in the teeth of militant opposition from his fellow musicians.
And in an interview with Burt Korall, published in the
5 December 1963 issue of Down Beat, Kenny said, There's no truth to the story that we purposely played weird things to keep musicians outside the clique off the stand. All we asked was that the musician be able to handle himself. When he got up on that stand, he had to know….’
Contrast this statement with one Kenny gave to Leonard Feather: 'We'd play "Epistrophy" or "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" just to keep the other guys off the stand, because we knew they couldn't make those chord changes. We kept the riffraff out and built our clique on new chords.’
The apparent inconsistency in Kenny's recollections is, I believe, not too difficult to explain. Such conflicting statements occur from time to time in Kenny Clarke interviews and, though partly explained by memory lapses are, in my view, more properly attributable to an inherent, deep-rooted desire in Kenny's psyche to emphasize the good-natured and wholesome side of life - just as he would do when recalling his childhood. I'm certain that, had it been left only to him - rather than to the abrasively critical Thelonious - there would not have been such a high casualty rate on the Minton's bandstand. The negative interpretation of Kenny's allowing Monk to do what he himself probably shrank from doing would be that Klook was wanting in moral courage. But anyone who knew Kenny Clarke would immediately torpedo that theory. It is simply that he had genuine compassion - and when recalling the Minton's days to Korall, he was almost certainly expressing a personal, not a collective, point of view.
On the other hand, many of the musicians I have talked to about Klook have indicated that he didn't suffer musical fools, impostors or incompetents gladly - not in any show of arrogance, but simply because of his total commitment to professionalism and his lifelong conviction that the customers were entitled to expect musicians to set themselves the highest standards of performance.
At all events, whatever the hazards that faced would-be sitters-in, there was no shortage of musicians eager to prove that they could hold their own with New York's jazz elite. Sometimes on the small Minton's stage there would be as many as twenty musicians jamming together.
The members of the clique were no respecters of reputations. Sitters-in had to put up or shut up - and they included Chu Berry, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Willie 'The Lion' Smith, Lucky Thompson, Ben Webster and Lester Young; Harry James, Hot Lips Page, Charlie Shavers and Cootie Williams - and the sixteen-year-old Miles Dewey Davis Jr, who was studying at Juilliard at the time; and Clyde Hart, Jess Stacy, Art Tatum, Mary Lou Williams and Tadd Dameron.
As Kenny Clarke told Leonard Feather many years later, 'Tadd was one of the first pianists playing eighth-note sequences in the new legato manner. I heard him playing flatted fifths in 1940 and it sounded very odd to me at first.’
The Minton's stage was certainly no place for faint-hearts, but such was the wildfire excitement that the new music generated that even illustrious bandleaders put their reputations at risk by sitting in with the resident clique - among them Duke, Count Basie, Andy Kirk, Artie Shaw and even Charlie Christian's boss, Benny Goodman.
One of the most persistent sitters-in at the Playhouse was a black saxophone player known simply as 'the Demon', whose principal claim to fame was that he was quite extraordinarily awful. Trumpeter Joe Wilder remembers the Demon:
He was the worst player ever to enter Minton's. He was horrible. When I used to go there, Eddie 'Lockjaw'
was more or less in charge of the band. The group would be playing away like mad and the Demon would take out his horn and stand sort of menacingly in front of the stage until, ultimately, one of the guys would say wearily, 'OK, Demon, come on up and play.' And the Demon would take the stage. But he didn't play one chorus. He played fifteen. Finally, Jaws would go in search of Teddy Hill who would hurry to the stand, stand in front of it with his arms folded and holler, 'Get off my goddam bandstand, Demon!' It became a standing joke. Davis
Thelonious Monk's style of playing put a great deal of emphasis on accents and dynamics and this caused Kenny Clarke to modify his drumming approach:
I had to change my style to play with this clique. Monk's using accents and things made me play accents more myself, on the bass drum. And I needed to play lighter because we weren't using a straight beat. I couldn't play brushes all the time, so naturally I played the top cymbal and used the bass drum for punctuations. When people came into Minton's they'd say, 'Hey, listen to that drummer's accents on the bass drum; man, I never heard that before!'
Those formative years, it was a pattern that had to be perfected like anything else. But our unity of style came from our association; that was an unconscious thing. I have always believed that three or four musicians cannot play together if they dislike one another. But for us, we were great friends, we began to learn from each other. We developed a style and a co-ordination that had never previously existed. At Minton's we played traditional tunes like 'How High the Moon', 'Stomping at the
', and things like that - they were popular in those days. But Monk was also composing a lot of pieces, and he made us play them. He would start out the tune and we had to follow. But he always liked to explain just what he was doing - he would run through the chords and melody with us. Savoy
The musicians we most liked to play with at Minton's were guys like Don Byas, Lester, Hot Lips Page, Diz, Bird, Freddie Webster, Tadd Dameron and Miles. Most of the musicians who played there were young -I was one of the oldest and I was still under thirty. You know, we hadn't really set out with the idea of developing any particular style of jazz. It just happened like that. When you think back, you tend to say, 'Well, those guys were really doing something!' But it was really unconscious.
Occasionally Kenny would take a break from the drums and play a set on vibraphone while Jack The Bear' Parker or Kansas Fields sat in. 'But,’ he said later, 'I gave up vibraphone after I heard Milt Jackson in 1945.'
Unhappily, very little of the potent music from those epic Minton's days was captured on record. While many of the visiting musicians recorded individually, away from the Playhouse, the great spontaneous sessions themselves went largely unpreserved for posterity. However, in May 1941, as Ross Russell notes in Bird Lives!, a recording enthusiast, Jerry Newman, using a portable turntable, glass-based acetate discs and a cumbersome amplifier, began recording sessions at Minton's and Monroe's.
Writing of one of the tracks, 'Down on Teddy's Hill', Russell says, That Clarke was indeed the founder of the new percussion style is evident. One hears a forcing beat, a delicious complexity of polyrhythms, and an unusual awareness of the needs of the soloist.'
Some of the Minton's and Monroe's recordings were later issued on the Xanadu and Everest labels and feature, as well as the club regulars, Kermit Scott, Don Byas, Joe Guy, Hot Lips Page, Rudy Williams, Al Sears and Roy Eldridge. The repertoire is predominantly standard material - 'Sweet Georgia Brown', 'Stompin' at the Savoy', 'Indiana', 'The Sheik of Araby', 'Mean to Me', and so on - but there are also a couple of takes of 'Epistrophy'.
Of that whole band of rebels, renegades and kickers-over of musical traces, the most assiduously eccentric, without doubt, was Thelonious Sphere Monk. Talking about his memories of Minton's many years later, Kenny recalled:
After we finished work, Monk and I would head for the same subway station. He was living downtown on
61st Street and I was living uptown on 146th Street - so we took trains going in different directions. But it was torture for me every night because Monk would be very, very drunk. He would wait with me on my platform talking away for a few minutes, then he would cross the rails to catch his train on the opposite platform. And I was always afraid that he was going to connect with the electric rail and electrocute himself. But I guess God must look after drunken musicians, because Monk made it safely every night!
Although Minton's was, in Ross Russell's phrase, 'the bebop laboratory', its redoubtable regulars were not the only pioneers of the new music. Bud Powell and Max Roach made signal contributions, as did Fats Navarro. And when Charlie Parker was asked in 1953 to name the key founders of the new school he added Don Byas and Ben Webster. But unquestionably the most important of these was Bud Powell, even though he was not a participant in the early Minton's sessions. Dizzy Gillespie, in his autobiography, asserts categorically that Bud never played at Minton's - though Illinois Jacquet, in the same book, says he did. Kenny himself couldn't remember Bud at the Playhouse in the early days, but he recalled playing there with him in 1947. Certainly, Bud was a major contributor to the bebop revolution.
Without diminishing in any way the indispensable creative input to the new movement made by Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, I believe it is fair to say that the parts played by Kenny Clarke and Bud Powell have been consistently underestimated by jazz writers. In the case of Bud Powell, his psychological problems were undoubtedly a major factor in his failing to achieve his due measure of recognition from writers and from the jazz public at large - although he was massively revered by his peers. In an interview with Francis Paudras in
in 1984, Kenny Clarke said, 'Bud and Charlie Parker were on the same level. Bud was as strong on his instrument as Charlie was on his -and after a while there was a sort of quarrel because Bud knew more about harmony than Bird. Charlie was always a little bit jealous of Bud.’ And Arthur Taylor, who worked with Bud Powell in 1952, told me in 1966: Paris
Bud and Bird played a couple of two-week engagements at Birdland and they were always getting at each other. Bird would cut off Bud's solos and take the tune out, so Bud would hit back by only half-playing behind Bird. But Bud was the greatest ever as far as I am concerned . . . It's hard to play jazz piano without playing something Bud played; and if you don't play something he played, well you're not really playing jazz piano.
Paudras, admittedly a dedicated champion of Bud Powell, quotes musicians such as Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins, Paul Bley and Bill Evans as regarding Bud as a master - and Allen Eager as having been more impressed by Bud than Charlie Parker.
In Kenny Clarke's case, he had first of all to contend with the fact that drummers are popularly regarded as peripheral contributors to the evolution of jazz. The old line about a band consisting of 'fifteen musicians and a drummer' still has a disreputable currency. Kenny was additionally handicapped by his own modesty and humility which, though estimable human virtues, tend to militate against achieving a just level of celebrity. And both Kenny and Bud, having exiled themselves in
Europe in the late fifties, were certainly victims of the 'out of sight, out of mind' rule.
According to Dizzy Gillespie, Kenny's role 'was just as important a contribution as mine or Charlie Parker's or Monk's.’
The last word on the subject I will leave to Kansas Fields, a contemporary of Kenny Clarke's and a one-time fellow exile in
, who recalled in a March 1986 interview published in Cadence magazine: Paris
I used to tell Klook when they were bopping at Minton's, I said, 'Man, I'm waiting for you to make a mistake, 'cause it sounds like you're going to make a mistake - but you always come out.’ He said, That's bop for you, man, that's bebop!' They call him the father of bebop drums, and he was.”
Minton’s – The Reopening
© -Kia Gregory/The New York Times, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
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
. 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. Cecil Hotel
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.”