HARLEM JAZZ SHRINES FESTIVAL 2015
The Harlem Jazz Shrines Festival is an annual event celebrating the classic clubs and venues that made Harlem the Jazz Mecca.
While paying tribute to the greats of the past, this Festival is firmly rooted in the present, highlighting today’s top and emerging talent and
showing that Harlem really is where it’s at!
FESTIVAL TICKETS $10 & up | SOME EVENTS ADMISSION — FREE
An excerpt from “HARLEM SHRINES”
By Robert G. O’Meally
Harlem is a dream-place where so much important cultural history has been enacted that as we explore the power of Harlem’s past we also feel its presence. Take the M60-bus along 125th, or emerge from the A-train at 125th or 145th or from the 2 or 3 train at 125th or 135th—you enter a city-within-a-city that is pulsing with vivid, lived experience. Behind these Harlem doors, some of the best music on the planet is being played.
Guidebooks to Harlem’s musical scene could list literally dozens of places where music that claimed the attention of the nation and then of the world was shaped and set in motion. Places with names like the Bamboo Inn, Basement Brownie’s, Fatman’s Café, Hot-Cha Bar and Grill, the Hoofer’s Club, the Lafayette Theater, The Nest, Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, the Savoy Ballroom, and the Yeah Man–every one of them now gone.
But praise the cultural bridges that still are standing! The Alhambra Ballroom, the Apollo Theater, Minton’s Playhouse, and Showman’s Café: These are the Harlem dream-places that are alive and growing and that this festival celebrates as Harlem Jazz Shrines.
Shrines are holy places to which the faithful trek to see and perhaps to touch relics of golden ages, time past. To hear again in passionate recital—if only as memories–evocations of the music that made all these places famous in their day, and which proclaim them now not just as local monuments but as national and international treasures.
One of the mysteries in the music made famous in these Harlem Jazz Shrines is that it has never been enough for musicians who would capture the spirit of Harlem music merely to recreate—however lovingly–the styles of yesteryear’s great ones. For what makes the term “shrine” so appropriate here is that this music at its best is fluently improvised—and thus truer to its particular moment than to any other time; it is music created devotedly “in the moment,” as the musicians say. Further, artists in this tradition are ever in search of their own ways of playing, their own voices in music. In other words, those who have survived the threshing-floor of the Apollo or Minton’s evoke the spirit of the past at the same time that they project their own hard-won identities as artists. Thus has the word “shrine,” with its religious implications, special appropriateness: for Harlem’s top musicians—who, Ralph Ellison says, wore their instruments as preachers wore their crosses—discovered that as they found their musical voices they also found their souls. And touched ours.
Such religious language may sound wrong for places which, in their heyday, were famously hazy with smoke, loud with sounds onstage and offstage, and—some of them—sounding-off with good smells wafting from the kitchen. (In Minton’s the proprietor loved to serve music but also “loved to put a pot on the range.”) And yet the words definitely apply: These secular places serve a kind of sacred function as Harlem Jazz Shrines.
Robert G. O’Meally is the Zora Neale Hurston Professor, Columbia University. He is the author of Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday and editor of The Jazz Cadence of American Culture.