Take a step back in time when, in the “Roaring ‘20s,” all things seemed possible. Jazz was America’s popular music and its epicenter was a suburb of Manhattan, north of Central Park, known as Harlem. This 3-hour walk, in the company of a jazz historian, includes earphones that enable you to hear key performances and pieces at select moments as you take in the topography of Harlem.
We begin on 142nd Street and Lenox Ave – the original site of the famed Cotton Club, which was owned by the mob and had a whites-only entrance policy. It’s also where the Duke Ellington Orchestra was the house band from 1927 to 1931. A stroll down Lenox Avenue brings us to where Chick Webb’s Orchestra out-swung the “King of Swing,” Benny Goodman, in a musical cutting contest. This club, The Savoy, was what poet Langston Hughes called “the heart beat of Harlem” and was home to the creation of the Lindy Hop and other dances that swept America and the world.
The Savoy, which was a block long and resided between 140th Street and 141st Street, was open to all races; this was virtually unheard of prior to the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. Walking south on Lenox Avenue, Harlem’s main thoroughfare, brings us to the original site of Connie’s Inn, where in 1929 Fats Waller’s musical revue, Hot Chocolates, featured a young Louis Armstrong. It was during Hot Chocolates that Armstrong performed “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” an anthem for the burgeoning Harlem Renaissance and a harbinger to the music of the civil rights movement.
We visit the famed Apollo Theater, a staple in Harlem history, where Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan won amateur night contests. At the Lenox Lounge we stop to reminisce about Billie Holiday’s performances of “Strange Fruit,” an anti-lynching song written by Jewish school teacher Abel Meeropol. We travel to the East Side of Harlem to spend some time at the National Jazz Museum the only one of its kind in the northeast. We meander down East 126th Street to visit the iconic “Great Day in Harlem” stoop where photographer Art Kane captured jazz giants such as Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Count Basie after a long night of gigging. Finally, we’ll travel back to the West Side to the original location of Minton’s Playhouse on 118th Street, where modern jazz (or Bebop) was born.