I spent a good part of a decade-long sojourn through New York City in Harlem—at the neighborhood’s threshold at the top of Central Park, just a short walk from its historic main attractions: jazz haunts, famed restaurants, theaters, architectural splendor and wide, vibrant avenues. After a while, I thought I knew Harlem well enough. Then I moved to Sugar Hill, at the very edge of the island, across the water from Yankee Stadium. Usually overlooked, leafy street after street of stately brownstones and pre-World War I apartment buildings, sometimes worse for wear but always regal. A few avenue blocks from my building: St. Nick’s Pub, which I became convinced, for good reason, was the city’s true remaining heart of jazz.
Shuttered, to the neighborhood’s dismay, in 2012, the humble bar—where, on any given night, Afro-jazz, hard bop, free jazz, and classic swing ensembles of the very finest musicians performed from dusk till dawn, passing the hat to an always appreciative crowd—was, as a New York Times obituary for the deceased nightspot wrote, “simply magical… one of the few remaining jazz clubs in Harlem.” But then, I didn’t visit Marjorie Eliot’s apartment. I remember seeing her play at St. Nick’s a time or two, but never made it over to 555 Edgecombe Avenue, Apartment 3-F. This was to my great loss.
It’s not too late. Since 1994, Ms. Eliot, a jazz pianist, has carried on a grand tradition of Harlem’s from its golden ages, with weekly house concerts in her parlor, “Harlem’s secret jazz queen of Sugar Hill,” writes Angelika Pokovba, “single-handedly upholding the musical legacy of a neighborhood that nurtured legends like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday.”
Except she isn’t single-handed, as you can see in the videos here, but always joined by a talented crew of players whom she handpicks and pays out of pocket. The hat is passed, but no one’s obligated to pay, there are no tickets, door charges, or drink minimums; all you’ve got to do is show up at 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon.
Marjorie greets each guest at the door. A full house is a crowd of up to 50 people. The atmosphere is reserved and family friendly, a far cry from the riotous rent parties of legend. But this is the place to be, say both the regulars and the musicians, like saxophonist Cedric Show Croon, who told NPR, “When you play here you have to be honest. You can only play in an honest way, you know.” You can get a small taste of the intimacy here, but to truly experience Parlor Jazz at Marjorie Eliot’s—as a Harlem culture guide notes—you’ve got to travel uptown yourself.
“Rain or shine, with no vacations,” the free concerts have gone on for 25 years now, beginning, as you’ll see in the video above, with a tragedy, the death of Eliot’s son Philip in 1992. The following year, on the anniversary of his death, she arranged an outdoor concert on the lawn of Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights. Then, the next year, the memorial moved to her apartment and became a weekly gig that carried her through more terrible loss—the death of another son and the disappearance of a third.
Eliot refused to give up on the music that kept her going, creating community in an easygoing, open-hearted way. “This idea of sharing and celebrating the music came real early,” she told NPR. “So I don’t do anything different now than when Aunt Margaret is coming over and come show what you did in your lessons.” As you’ll see in the videos here—and experience in full, no doubt, if you can make the trip: Parlor Jazz at Marjorie Eliot’s is anything but an ordinary Sunday afternoon with Aunt Margaret.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness
I was expecting Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor type stylings.