THE ALHAMBRA BALLROOM was originally built as the Alhambra Theater in 1905. It began as a vaudeville venue, eventually shwoing movies. In 1926 it opened an upstairs ballroom hosting legendary performers Bessie Smith, Jelly Roll Morton, Franking Manning and a swinging waitress named Billie Holiday. With a swinging band performing on stage, this site became one of the most historic dance halls in the country. At the height of its influence, the likes of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Count Base brought the mighty sounds of their big bands to the stage inciting swing dancers to battle it out.
THE APOLLO THEATER is one of Harlem’s. New York City’s, and America’s most iconic and enduring cultural institutions. From the historic night in 1934 when Ella Fitzgerald first won Amateur Night, to performances by Benny Carter, Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway, the list of jazz greats who played the Apollo goes on and on.
CLUB HARLEM, a long-forgotten little jazz haunt on 145th Street, was Cecil Taylor’s first experience at performing live. He speaks fondly of a time when he had to play from 9 pm to 4 am, with one 15-minute break. The upright piano had 8 working keys on a good night and the pay was $50 a week. It was in 1952. He had to play standards, not his own music, and he reports that many guys could play those standards in every key. In this proving ground, everybody wanted the gig.
HAVANA SAN JUAN was a club that opened during the heightened pulse of the 1960’s. Located on 138th Street and Broadway, it was a haven for iconic music celebrities such as Machito, Sammy Davis Jr., Celia Cruz, Frank Sinatra, and Tito Puente. The place inspired these artists to create what we know today as “Classic Salsa,” a music and dance that has united cultures through generations and carved a permanent place in American music.
LENOX LOUNGE, with its famous Zebra Room, was giving it up to jazz lovers since 1939. A hotbed for jazz legends, it was also a favorite haunt for Harlem Renaissance writers, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, among them. Lenox Lounge and the Zebra Room are often a featured location in music videos (Luther Vandross, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Keith Sweat, P. Diddy, Quincy Jones CD cover and more.
MINTON’S PLAYHOUSE was famous for its jam sessions in the early 1940’s, where Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie pushed the boundaries of the art and pioneered bebop. Equally notorious were the club’s “cutting sessions,” great battles between the likes of master trumpeters Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie or sax giants Lester Young and Ben Webster.
CLARK MONROE’S UPTOWN HOUSE Sometimes shortened to Monroe’s Uptown House or simply Monroe’s, Clark Monroe’s Uptown House was a nightclub in New York City. Along with Minton’s Playhouse, it was one of the two principal clubs in the early history of bebopjazz.
Clark Monroe opened the Uptown House in the 1930s, at 198 West 134th Street in Harlem, in a building which formerly held Barron’s Club (where Duke Ellington worked early in the 1920’s) and the Theatrical Grill. From the late 1930’s, the club presented swing jazz and Billie Holiday held a residence there for three months in 1937. In the early 1940’s the club became known for its jam sessions, where many of the players involved in the birth of bebop played together. Al Tinney led Monroe’s house band, which included Max Roach, Little Benny Harris, George Treadwell, and Victor Coulsen. Charlie Parker was a featured soloist at the club in 1943.
An important live recording of Charlie Christian features a jam “session at Monroe’s.” Monroe moved the club to 52nd Street in 1943 and opened a second club, The Spotlite, in December 1944.
PARK PALACE was the up-the-steps dancehall section of a double venue that included a downstairs space called the Park Plaza at the northwest corner of 110th and Fifth Avenue. Together, nightclub and dancehall comprised a tremendously significant New York City stop for aficionados of Latin dance music. Nightly, one could be sure that some of the greatest instrumentalists and singers from Cuba or Puerto Rico would be there, serving it up for East Harlem’s Latin dancers and music lovers.
SHOWMAN’S JAZZ CLUB was a hangout for Apollo entertainers sixty plus years ago, when it was literally right next door to the famed theater. In 1988 it moved to its present location on 125th Street, where this intimate room remains one of Harlem’s premier jazz clubs. Over a famed bar, photos of a pantheon glow: Sarah Vaughan, Lionel Hampton, Pearl Bailey, Eartha Kitt and Duke Ellington.
SMALL’S PARADISE, which personified the excitement of Harlem nightlife during the “Roaring Twenties,” was famous for its first-class musical acts, elaborate floorshows, dancing waiters and famously integrated audience. Customers vied for space on the postage-stamp-size dance floor while Charleston-dancing waiters brought Chinese food and bootleg liquor to the small tables. One waiter who went on to greater fame was Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X, who worked at Small’s in 1943.
The Sugar Cane Club was a cabaret at the edge of Harlem’s poorer neighborhoods at 135th Street and Fifth Avenue, that was part of the Harlem Renaissance cultural milieu of the 1920’s and 1930’s, where African American jazz performers mingled with white and African American patrons. While not as upscale as the segregated Cotton Club, which catered specifically to an elite all-white clientele, the Sugar Cane Club was still frequented by whites from elsewhere in New York City as well as by its mostly African American customers, functioning as a speakeasy as well as a nightclub during Prohibition.
The Sugar Cane Club was a small venue that despite its available space would attract a huge number of patrons. Many popular African American jazz performers such as Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong played there. Much like many other popular Harlem night clubs, both the end of Prohibition and the Great Depression severely affected its business.