Harlem's musical legacy alive in the nabe
David Freeland discusses Harlem's jazz legacy, which he explores in his book "Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville."
What more could be done to save the legacy of Harlem's jazz past?
I think the key lies in advocating for a greater distinction between cultural and architectural landmarks. The point is that a building does not always need to have significant architectural value for it to be worthy of preservation. Harlem's nightclubs and theaters are the places where what we now understand as a global musical force — jazz — developed and thrived. From a cultural standpoint alone, how can we not preserve them?
Can you amplify on 133rd's history -- the original Swing Street -- as compared to 52nd Street, and how one is so missed and the other is forgotten?
The irony is that much of the "original" on 133rd Street has survived, while virtually all of 52nd Street has been replaced with office towers -- even though it's 52nd Street that has been memorialized in the popular imagination, through programs such as Ken Burns' jazz film series. I think the reason has to do with the continued devaluation of Harlem as a cultural landmark.
What would you say was the apex of the jazz scene in Harlem?
It depends upon who you ask. Many would say that the apex of jazz in Harlem came during the 1920s and '30s, with 133rd Street and theaters such as the Lafayette and Lincoln. Others will say that a peak in Harlem jazz came during the be-bop era of the 1940s, with the popularity of clubs such as Minton's. In any case, jazz had been a salient part of the Harlem experience from the beginning.
How would you classify the state of jazz in Harlem today?
I would describe jazz music in Harlem as being essentially a local scene populated by neighborhood residents, a handful of downtown New Yorkers, and European and Japanese tourists who want to have an "authentic" musical experience. On the one hand, the small scale of the Harlem jazz world lends its clubs an appealing sense of intimacy and looseness; on the other, it means that many clubs have a hard time staying afloat financially.
What are your thoughts on original places that are still going, such as St. Nick's Jazz Pub?
During the past decade, Harlem has lost many important musical sites. One of the saddest losses, for example, was the interior of the Renaissance Ballroom. Surviving places like St. Nick's Pub, Showman's and the Lenox Lounge should be valued for their longstanding contributions to the Harlem jazz scene.