In this series for T, the author Reggie Nadelson revisits New York institutions that have defined cool for decades, from time-honored restaurants to unsung dives.
Taking our orders at Minton’s Playhouse, the Harlem jazz club, our French waiter, improbably named Karl Smith, says that when he got to New York, he was determined “to do something very American.” For a Frenchman, nothing could be more American than jazz music and Harlem, and Karl smiles as he looks over at the bandstand where the musicians are tuning up. Then he darts away to get our drinks.
Minton’s! I might have come uptown by subway, but it feels like a kind of time travel. It’s an almost impossibly legendary name. Opened by the saxophone player Henry Minton in 1938, as part of the Cecil Hotel — now its sister restaurant — on 118th Street, this is where bebop (call it modern jazz) was born and the musical world swung off its axis.
In the early 1940s, a few young guys — Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker among them — invented the new music. Dissonant, complex, impossible to play, bebop was seductive and gorgeous in a cerebral way, and it defined cool. America had entered World War II; musicians were drafted, the big bands decimated; with the country in a somber mood, swing music and the Harlem ballrooms, famous for their wild Lindy-hoppers, were out of fashion. Bebop, this new, modern jazz, was for small clubs like Minton’s where nobody danced, and customers paid serious attention to the music, as they might to Bach. Bebop was about jam sessions and improvisation, and you never knew who would show up at Minton’s; the musicians — Charles Mingus, Coleman Hawkins, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young — were the celebrities.
Outside near the entrance, the iconic pink neon sign. Inside, the long narrow room with the bar at the front, where the bartender is shaking cocktails for a few early customers. The club’s walls are painted burnt orange, the rows of plush velvet chairs and banquettes are a yellowish gold, the tables are draped with white linen and subtle lighting gilds the whole place. There are no windows, but you don’t need a view to listen to great music.
Some couples, a few families, have trickled in. Our waiter delivers our drinks, including a “Monk’s Dream” for me. I’m wondering if I want a “Kind of Blue” appetizer, though I’m not sure I see Miles Davis — who played at Minton’s when he was very young — as a mussels-in-white-wine kind of guy; he was always more Beluga caviar.
Tonight is a regular Sunday set called “Sax Meets Singer,” led by the sax player Christopher McBride, who is chatting to his musicians on the bandstand.
“Everyone I love in jazz is dead,” says my companion, looking from the picture of Dizzy to the young McBride and bearing down on a fat burger. He changes his tune when McBride rips into a Sonny Rollins original, spilling choruses from his alto. “My God,” he says, putting the burger down, “This guy’s the real thing.”