Frank Lacy clicked the valves of his trumpet and paced the stage at Minton’s Playhouse, a historic incubator for jazz in the heart of Harlem. His feet stamped and his body swayed in time with the beat to lead his band, all while belting out a brassy melody.
Lacy is one of the modern-day “big hitters” of the scene, according to Paul Griffin, co-founder of Harlem Late Night Jazz, a nonprofit with a mission of keeping jazz alive in Harlem.
Since the early 1900s, Harlem was a jazz oasis overflowing with speakeasies and clubs like Small’s Paradise, Clark Monroe’s Uptown House and Jimmy’s Chicken Shack. But a long, slow decline of Harlem’s jazz culture has led many live music venues, such as the Lenox Lounge and La Famille, to shutter their doors.
Video shot and produced by Kalen Goodluck and Tamsen Maloy.
In recent years, their struggle has intensified. Harlem Late Night Jazz once partnered with St. Nick’s Jazz Pub and Farafina Cafe and Lounge, both of which closed down in the last decade.
St. Nick’s Pub was a central location in the Harlem jazz scene that closed March 2011. “When it closed there was a void. I mean, a deep void,” Griffin said. “The whole community was like a ghost town. Nothing was going on, because Monday through Sunday they had live jazz at St. Nick’s pub and now all of a sudden that was gone.”
The nonprofit has since moved on to two new Harlem venues: Minton’s Playhouse and MIST Harlem.
St. Nick’s Pub and Minton’s Playhouse are legacy clubs, once home to jazz legends such as Miles Davis and Charlie Parker. Griffin said musicians used to play shows all over New York, then head uptown to Harlem to jam – where the true innovation was born.
Ryan Maloney, education director at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, said an influx of African-American migration brought new ingenuity to Harlem, which became the “petri dish that allowed the music to develop in the way that it did.”
“A lot of very special things came together in Harlem that allowed for jazz to develop in a very unique way in this neighborhood,” Maloney said.
Minton’s Playhouse, Griffin said, was the birthplace of bebop, a fast-moving subgenre of jazz that helped to lay the foundations for modern jazz. Minton’s closed and reopened multiple times over the decades since it was first opened in 1938 by saxophonist Henry Minton. It now partners with Harlem Late Night Jazz to welcome musicians like Frank Lacy.
A partnership with Harlem Late Night Jazz, according to Griffin, helps musicians receive better pay, a meal and drink from the restaurant, and more work to perform live.
“They gave me a wide latitude to bring what band I want to bring,” Lacy said of Harlem Late Night Jazz.
Lacy said he’s been a part of around 20 different bands, including Charles Mingus’s legendary Mingus Big Band. “They try their best, but the pay can always be better.”
Most jazz musicians, he said, earn the bulk of their income from international fans instead of from Americans, despite the U.S. being the home and birthplace of the genre.
Loren Schoenberg, founding director and senior scholar at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, said jazz tends to be more popular internationally because “it’s a musical language that probably intersects with more cultures and more different kinds of music than any other one.”
Lacy, now on trombone and leading the band, ended with an uptempo tune before taking a deep bow. The audience in Minton’s erupted in raucous applause, and many sped off to the bar to grab another drink in time for Lacy’s next set.
“I think the way that it’s really going to survive in the future is the way it survived in the past,” Schoenberg said. “That was that you went to a place to have fun and to hear good music, and the music happened to be jazz.”