Jazz music is commonly thought of as naturally arising from the plantations of the South as black people gained their freedom and turned their sorrowful songs into celebration. However, this isn’t exactly how jazz got its start. It is true that jazz came into being as a musical genre around the beginning of the 20th century, around the time that former slaves were beginning to find a voice of their own within the European cities of the South.
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As black musicians began incorporating the musical instruments of the Europeans into their music, they began discovering all kinds of new sounds and combinations that had a distinct means of communicating all its own. Bringing jazz to the mainstream public, though, would require more than a few groups of Southern black people getting together with some jumping music. Mainstreaming the jazz sounds would take the establishment of popular night spots that featured this type of music, such as the famous Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, New York, where jazz and its variations created a hot spot for the revival of black art and culture that would take place in this region we now refer to as the Harlem Renaissance.
As World War II swung into high gear, so did the advancement of a new type of music scene in America, known popularly as jazz. There were several reasons for this development including the drafting of many of the musicians required to man the big bands that had been popular until this time and the imposition of entertainment taxes to use the grand halls and caberets on a population that couldn’t really afford additional costs (“Jazz History”, 2005).
People seeking entertainment after long hours working in the factories had little choice but to visit the smaller clubs and byways of cities such as New York, where young musicians, working to expand upon the improvisational styles of the swing era just passed, began working out new music using fewer band members, again constrained by the size of the performance space and the availability of players. It was this environment that contributed to clubs such as Minton’s Playhouse, often cited as the birthplace of jazz, achieving their popularity and thus contributing to the distribution and popularization of its preferred musical style.
Minton’s Playhouse was started in the dining room of the Hotel Cecil by retired saxophone player Henry Minton (Goelet, 2002). In an effort to ensure his fellow musicians felt at home at the new club, Minton hired Teddy Hill to manage the place. Hill’s band included many stars of the swing era, some of which were known as nonconformists. Of this first house band, drummer Kenny Clarke, trumpeter Joe Guy and pianist Thelonious Monk stood out as innovators of the new music and contributed to the club’s popularity among other jazz musicians. Clarke is attributed with the technique known as ‘dropping bombs’, “a repertoire of accents on the snare and bass drums and tom-toms” (Goelet, 2002).
The timekeeping function of the drums had already been moved to the high-hat cymbals by Jo Jones, but Clarke moved it again to the large cymbal. Joe Guy had a “penchant for ‘battling’ with other trumpeters that made him the perfect jam-session host” (Goelet, 2002). Monk became known for having a “fine ear and a completely open mind” (Goelet, 2002). According to Amiri Baraka (2003), Monk’s contributions to the popularity of Minton’s included his bold harmonies that often stimulated his fellow musicians.
This house band with a penchant for musical exploration encouraged other musicians to stop by whenever they could to sit in to explore their musical ideas. “Even before the ‘bop’ sessions got under way, musicians who were working up the street at the Apollo would come by after their last show, or even between shows, and sit in with whoever was on the stand” (Baraka, 2003). Since Monday nights were usually the musicians’ night off, these became the most popular night for talents of all calibers to join in on these open sessions.
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“For years, at the start of every workweek, jazz musicians from around the city would converge on Minton’s in what Ralph Ellison called ‘a continuing symposium of jazz’” (Feuer, 2005). Musicians that dropped in to play as often as they could included such big-name stars as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. It was through these sessions that jazz was given birth as musicians left the strict rules of the directors and the dance floor in order to explore new musical expressions that focused on emotion, energy, harmony and rhythm.
Up to this point in time, the early 1940s, musicians had little control over their own music as most of this was controlled by the band directors rather than the individuals. In the smaller setting of the clubs, musicians found the freedom to express their creativity in a way that gave birth to the new form of music. “It’s where be-bop was born and took off. The polished acts all went downtown, but the experiments took place here” (Claire Haaga, president of Housing and Services Inc. cited in Feuer, 2005).
While Minton’s is credited with the birth of jazz because of this free and explorative atmosphere, the truth is that this creativity was as true of Minton’s as it was of other clubs. “It’s true modern jazz probably began to get popular there [Minton’s], but some of these histories and articles put what happened over the course of ten years into one year. They put people all together in one time in one place. I’ve seen practically everybody at Minton’s, but they were just playing. They weren’t giving lectures” (Thelonious Monk cited in Baraka, 2003).
Despite the interest in this new type of music among an increasingly educated and enthralled audience, it was several years before any of this type of music became mainstream, thanks to a recording ban that had been in effect (Baraka, 2003).
As time went by, though, the crowd at Minton’s failed to continue to live up to its early excitement. By the 1960s, it was reported that most of the music being played there were little more than replica groups of the old days. “These are groups that are now more ‘socially’ acceptable, and make up the mainstream of jazz, for the uptown mainstream listener” (Baraka, 2003). With the reduction in experimental music and adoption of mainstream music, Minton’s lost some of its earlier appeal. Eventually, the club switched over to disco and then went out of business in the 1970s.
Through the years, several individuals have worked to re-open the club, but it wasn’t until recently that anyone was successful. The first such attempt was made by Robert De Niro in 1996 in cooperation with Drew Neiporent and Melba Wilson, but the deal fell through and Wilson eventually opened Melba’s. The next attempt was made in 1999 by Kevin Ingram, a Wall Street mogul, but legal issues prevented the project from moving forward. “Getting caught trying to launder $2.2 million in a federal arms money sting gave him little time to devote to the project” (Chris, 2006).
However, the Harlem Renaissance has renewed interest in bringing the old town back to life, especially sites such as Minton’s, that retain such a rich history with the culture and the region. With the Jazz Museum just around the corner, Minton’s was reopened by Earl Spain. Accenting its ties to the past, the new Minton’s retains the wall mural painted in the days of the old Minton’s, which depicts some of the stars of the early days, as well as continuing the Monday night jam session tradition. “The reopening of Minton’s is a truly special event, not only for jazz enthusiasts, but for Harlem as well. Harlem’s renaissance would not be complete without the comeback of this important cultural venue” (Lawrence Oaks, Executive Director of HSI cited by Jazz News, 2005).
Although jazz music had achieved a strong popularity prior to the opening of Minton’s, it was the establishment of such a place in the heart of New York that was capable of bringing the music to the masses that helped give jazz such a strong role in the later development of the area. Accompanying the race through the trials and tribulations of attempting to gain a sympathetic ear and a means of audible expression, jazz became the heart of the black movement, the cultural revival and the new energy leading into the Civil Rights era.
Free and easy yet structured and dependable, jazz offered a little bit of everything to anyone who simply wanted to lose themselves in the joy of the music for a while and thus began paving the way for other means of expression while the club provided a safe place for blacks and whites to join together in this celebration without fear or restriction. Minton’s provided a place where the sounds of jazz could reach out to mainstream society and proclaim itself valid, giving an entire population a focal point and a source of strength. With its revival in recent years, it is hoped that Minton’s can once again serve as a source of strength and direction as the area undergoes a second renaissance of art and cultural expression.
Baraka, Amiri. “Minton’s.” The Blacklisted Journalist. (2003). Web.
Feuer, Alan. “Where Lady Day Sleeps, A Jazz Tradition Awakes.” New York Times. (2005). Web.
Goelet, Francis. “Jazz.” Recorded Anthology of American Music. (2002). New World Records. Web.
Chris. “Be-Bop, Be-Drunk: Minton’s House Set to Play Again.” Harlem Fur. (2006.) Web.
“Jazz History.” Verve Music Group. (2005). Universal Studios.
Jazz News. “The Reopening of Minton’s Playhouse.” (2005). Web.
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