Marjorie Eliot Has Held Free Jazz Concerts in Her Harlem Apartment Every Sunday for the Past 25 Years

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.

Via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Women of Jazz: Stream a Playlist of 91 Record­ings by Great Female Jazz Musi­cians

Dis­cov­er Langston Hugh­es’ Rent Par­ty Ads & The Harlem Renais­sance Tra­di­tion of Play­ing Gigs to Keep Roofs Over Heads

1,000 Hours of Ear­ly Jazz Record­ings Now Online: Archive Fea­tures Louis Arm­strong, Duke Elling­ton & Much More

Hear 2,000 Record­ings of the Most Essen­tial Jazz Songs: A Huge Playlist for Your Jazz Edu­ca­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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